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July 6, 2015

Let’s discuss Splatoon (Part 1).

Really?  Are you actually reading this?  Like, you’re seriously ready to read a post on Splatoon?

You know I could pretty much say #GoodGuyNintendo and end things right here, right?  Is there anything more that needs to be said?  Is there?

*sigh* All right, let’s do this.

This is usually where I’d talk about the premise of the story, but this time I think it’d be best if I focused on the premise of the gameplay.  As plenty of you probably know by now, Splatoon is a 4-on-4 shooter where the object of the game is to cover the map with as much as your team’s ink color as possible -- in a limited time, of course.  Simple enough, but there are plenty of wrinkles; the end goal (at least in the default “Regular Battles”) is always the same, but how you, your team, and your opponents get there can vary both in the short-term and the long-term.

I’ll explain what I mean in a moment, but it’s worth addressing the brontosaurus in the room: why the hell am I talking about one o’ them shootgaems again?  I spent almost two months last year going over the latest entries in the genre, and more or less ended it by saying that they could piss off.  Why would I ever want to subject myself to that again?  Am I that much of a Nintendo fanboy?  Am I so easily sated by a bunch of pretty colors?  To answer the second question, yes; to answer the first, probably more than I care to admit, at least on a conscious level.

But here’s the thing about Splatoon: it’s a shooter for people who are terrible at shooters.  And that’s part of what makes it awesome.

One of the genre’s cornerstones is scoring headshots -- that is, if you can land a good shot there, it’s almost a guarantee that you can get an instant kill.  As I understand it, that’s in stark contrast to reality; I’m not saying that getting shot in the head isn’t lethal, but it’s as if aiming for the center of mass is supposed to be less ideal…even though it’s a focal point in real-world gunplay, it’s a larger and simpler target to hit, and it contains plenty of vital organs. 

Whatever the case, the goal of most shooters is to kill as efficiently as possible; there’s some variation depending on the game mode -- Capture the Flag and King of the Hill are popular ones -- but for default modes and what I’d assume are the popular choices?  It’s all about gunning down your enemies.

In Splatoon, things are different.  That’s not to say that gunning down your enemies isn’t important, because any scenario where you can force enemies to back off for a while is ideal.  But as far as I know, all that matters is that you land the hits.  Saturate an enemy with enough ink, and they’ll explode in a burst of color -- no matter which weapon you use.  So those people out there who aren’t the best at aiming for specific body parts?  They’re in luck. 

And they’re in double-luck because, again, the object of the game isn’t to score the most kills.  They don’t even factor into how much EXP you gain at the end of a match.  What matters above all else is spreading your ink and dominating territories…and that means that if you can hold down a trigger and/or shoot the broad side of a barn, you’re plenty eligible for Splatoon.

I’d imagine that playing the game can give you skills that carry over into other games, though.  Playing Mass Effect temporarily made me better at Call of Duty, so maybe the same thing will happen again.

The thing that gets to me about Splatoon is that, yes, you can count on the Big N to deliver wholesome family fun (well, usually).  So the assumption -- which in all fairness holds water -- is that Nintendo opted to defang the genre with its new entry.  A de-emphasis on killing, a cartoony style, lots of colors, goofy music, and so on.  Here’s the thing, though: by making their game less mature, it ends up being more mature -- or to put it a different way, it keeps the game as a game instead of something more.  Basically, Splatoon is a 100% honest shooter.  What do I mean?  Well, let’s think about the competition for a minute.

Call of Duty and Battlefield?  You play as soldiers fighting for…something, I guess.  Halo?  Super-soldiers fighting against other super-soldiers for some reason.  Destiny?  You play as a Guardian brought in to defend the earth from encroaching darkness -- but when you’re off the clock, I guess you have free reign to shoot other Guardians in the face.  Counter-Strike?  You can play as a terrorist, or a counter-terrorist.  Yes, I know that those are skins you use in multiplayer matches in games with a strong emphasis on multiplayer action.  But even in those instances, it pays to be mindful of context.

Being a soldier in real life is a serious matter.  Being a soldier in a video game is not -- especially because I have my doubts that a real soldier’s life is represented one-to-one in even the most lavish games full of them.  Contextually, you the soldier is no different from you the player; there’s a disparity between the two breeds of soldiers that hurts the value of both.  A game of Battlefield doesn’t feel like a well-trained group of military men on a mission.  It’s pretty much just a game of paintball without the colors.

And sure, those other shooters (and more) are all a bunch of make-believe.  It’s a harmless fantasy on the surface; the modern-day context and the audience for these games A) wouldn’t dwell on it as obsessively as I do, and B) probably want what looks like a mature experience.  Those that played Cops and Robbers as little boys can do that quite literally with Battlefield: Hardline without the risk of grass stains or scraped elbows.  But Cops and Robbers was a context-free game then, and Hardline is a context-free game now…at least it should be, but by design it weaves itself into heavy subjects while also paring down those subjects to basic enjoyment.  To nothing but “shoot those guys”.  Those games defang the genre more than Splatoon ever could.

There are almost no pretensions in Splatoon.  You’re a squid-person out to play games.  You’re quite literally playing paintball.  The goal is to get turf so you can get money, buy stuff, and prove how cool you are to a host of judgmental shopkeepers.  Your team is called the “good guys” and the enemy team is called the “bad guys”.  The online matches are even justified in-universe; the “Ink Battles” are the hottest new craze that everyone wants to be a part of -- and again, gives them the chance to prove how cool they are, or just feel the thrill of a good win. 

Even if you never even touch the story mode, that’s all the information you really need.  That’s literally all it takes to make a shooter at once more meaningful and less meaningful -- the proper context needed if you’re going to play a game all about making your opponents’ lives miserable.  No need for any of that fancy-schmancy cognitive dissonance.

Chalk it up as one of those intangibles, but it really does matter in the long run.  In Splatoon, you’re playing as an Inkling who wants fame and fortune, and gains that by taking part in competitive matches.  Simple.  In any number of other shooters, you’re playing as a soldier who’s out to accomplish a mission…which can range from “disarm a bomb” to “kill everyone enough times” to “cart a sheet of fabric back home”. 

Taken out of context, it sounds silly -- yet it doesn’t sound much better either in context or with the understanding of what those roles mean, in-universe or out of it.  Is it really okay to pretend you’re fighting in a war when the very concept is both weighty and reviled?  Frankly, I don’t think it’s a lost cause -- but it might as well be when it’s so cheapened and simplified.  Those games take serious concepts and make them out as fun.  Splatoon takes a fun concept and makes it out as fun.  Can you see the difference?

But enough pretending like I’m on the moral high ground.  How about that gameplay?

I mentioned earlier that enemies will explode in a burst of color, no matter what weapon you choose (and if you don’t believe me, you can call upon the power of Ctrl+F).  One of the game’s core conceits is that, as expected, there are a slew of different weapon types -- and those almost conclusively decide what sort of character you play as.  You pick a weapon, and you have to commit to it for as long as you stay in online mode; essentially, it’s the equivalent of being locked in as Dee Jay as soon as you start playing matches in Street Fighter 4.  This can create some interesting scenarios, as in one match where my three teammates all had the same paint roller.

Paint rollers are more than a little common online, for obvious reasons; in a game about covering the land with ink, it’s only natural that people would gravitate towards the one weapon that could spread ink while letting them run like madmen.  (Going by the Street Fighter analogy, I like to imagine paint roller specialists as the Ken players scattered across the four corners of the internet.) 

Let them get close to you, and they can pretty much score an instant kill without a single course correction, all while they can focus on spreading their team’s sphere of influence.  The tradeoff is that for the most part, they’re incapable of fighting at any range besides “right on top of you”.  That’s kind of a big weakness in a shooter -- but that hasn’t stopped plenty of roller fans from losing to my brilliant strategy of “back out of their attack range and shoot them during their charge”. 

My pragmatism in games has long since been noted.

Conversely, my weapon type of choice is the charger.  You can think of it as a sort of sniper rifle -- though many of the weapons, the chargers included, don’t have the godlike range that you’d expect from a shooter.  But it’s a useful weapon type regardless; you can cover a long (if linear) range of terrain with ink, take down enemies from afar, and accomplish either one with a single decisive shot…once you’ve built up the titular charge.  The tradeoff is that it has the exact opposite weakness of the paint roller; an opponent that gets the jump on me or rushes in with guns blazing has a pretty good shot at an easy kill.  Well, unless I get lucky and fire off enough uncharged shots to get the kill first.  The chances of that are…slim, to say the least.

There are other weapon types, of course; you’ve got your default machine gun, for one, and there are a couple of guns reminiscent of a grenade launcher -- or maybe “shotgun” would be the better comparison, since my guess is that it’s a close-range weapon that deals huge damage.  But the important thing is that there are more than just main weapons to consider; each one has a sub-weapon and special weapon locked into the respective slots.  In other words?  If there’s one charger you like, but think its sub and special weapons are weak, you can’t mix and match.  You have to switch to a different charger entirely.  It’s a reasonable sticking point for some, but I’m not too upset about it.

The entire point of Splatoon -- down to its mere existence -- is to add variety.  There are constraints throughout that some may find irksome, but here’s the thing: those constraints are there for a reason.  Specific loadouts are built the way they are for a reason, balance well among them.  If there’s a strong roller out there, then you would want to balance that out with weaker sub-weapons.  Give full control to the player, and not only is there the potential for broken combinations, but there’s the potential for that to become the dominant strategy.  Why use sub-weapon X when sub-weapon Y is so much better, especially when coupled with special weapon Z?

There was one point where I wished I could switch out my current charger set at my leisure.  It’s stronger at close-range and charges faster, but it has distinctly-shorter range and its sub-weapon can only detect enemies, not spread more ink like virtually all the rest.  It has some notable weaknesses, for sure.  That said, there’s a very distinct advantage that it has: it lets me play as a strong support role.  I’m the type to play defensively, and would rather spread ink or dispatch enemies from afar than go for a brazen rush.  But there are others who will charge.  That’s where I come in; I build special energy with my long-range charger, pick up on enemy locations with my sub-weapon, and then hit the right stick to activate my special weapon: the Bubbler.

The Bubbler puts me in a defensive barrier for a short time -- effectively, it’s a spurt of invincibility.  It’s saved me a number of times in the past, and helped me mount a counterattack.  But one of the game’s handy tips reveals a secret bonus of the Bubbler: any teammate you touch while it’s active also gets temporary invincibility -- meaning that in the perfect scenario, I can create an entire team of invincible gunmen to rush an enemy team and turn an entire match around.  Even if that doesn’t happen, there are so many tactical applications for the Bubbler that I’m surprised it’s actually the default super weapon.  Plus, there’s a part of me that feels sorry for anyone who abandons it just ‘cause.

The point I’m trying to make here is that I found a setup that works for me -- and I wouldn’t have done that if I could just pick and choose whatever I wanted.  Much like the game itself, it’s a welcome surprise; there are variations and variety that make each match significantly different from one another, even if the map selection is comparatively limited (for now).  Varied weapon loadouts + varied players + varied strategies + varied appearances = no two games that are exactly alike.  So basically, Splatoon is what happens when you mix a shooter with Smash Bros

I pray that I don’t need to tell you how awesome that is.

By all accounts, the game should have gotten boring by now.  The string of events may be different, but the end goal is always the same: ink every flat surface you can reach.  And when you think about it, that’s kind of boring in itself; you’re more or less playing as a reverse janitor, and the early moments of a match are less about enemy suppression/territorial battles as they are about industriously painting the ground.  (Seriously, people, ink your bases.  You never know when that 0.1% will win the match.)  But the core gameplay is so enticing -- and before long, so exciting -- that it’s hard not to want “one more match” after your last eight chants of “one more match”.

Part of that has to do with your movement options, and how they work so seamlessly into shooter conventions.  Hold the left trigger, and you’ll go from kid to squid; do so while on ink of your color, and you’ll be able to swim through it several times faster than you would move on two feet -- with the added benefit of hiding from enemies.  (They can still spot you via the ripples you leave, though.)  You won’t be able to attack in squid form, BUT being in squid form is the only way to reload your weapons -- which you’ll do much faster if you’re in or moving through ink.  Essentially, you have to know when to play offense and when to play defense.  You need cover?  No need for chest-high walls; just ink the ground below you and dive in.

In stark contrast to a lot of shooters I could name, Splatoon is a more intimate experience.  The pace allows players to clear huge amounts of space in a few seconds via squid-swimming and jumping, and downed Inklings can literally jump right back into the fight by dive-bombing an ally’s location.  A lot of the action takes place in close quarters, even with chargers helping out from “afar”.  You’re not just fighting against bullets from across what might as well be a football field; you’re going against players with their own stylin’ threads, weapon sets, and personal strategies.  You feel the combat, the conflict, and the very concepts behind the game.  You don’t have to over-analyze it over the course of weeks, either; you just play it and understand.  Seeing is believing, as they say.

And then there are the ranked battles. 

I was hesitant to go into them, because you have to be Level 10 just to qualify, and I was concerned I had neither the skills nor the leveled-up gear to stand a chance.  But I gave it a shot eventually, and it was just steps shy of a revelation.  In normal battles, you fight to command an entire map; in ranked battles, you fight to control one specific area of the map, King of the Hill style.  You cannot imagine how chaotic those fights can get, whether you’re scrambling to take back control, or mounting a desperate defense against an onslaught of souls.

So to summarize?  There’s a damn good reason why this game has broken the million-seller mark.

This game has no right to be as good as it is.  It’s true that there are some issues (if even one of your teammates drops out of a match, you pretty much lose), but all things considered, this is an incredibly good shot at an online multiplayer game from a company that often pretends like the internet doesn’t exist.  Matches feel smooth and -- barring a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment here and there -- lag is rarely a factor.  In terms of both design and execution, the gameplay is 100% airtight.  And there are colors, man.  Freaking colors are back.  How the hell did Nintendo manage to do in one shot what dozens of companies have failed to do over the past half-decade, at least?

Oh, right.  Because based Nintendo.

And that’s about all I can say about the gameplay for now, besides just repeat “it’s good” for a few paragraphs.  So I suppose it’s best to start talking about the story…is what I would like to say, but this post is already long enough, so I’d better cut it off here.  I figure it’d be best to avoid a scenario where the word count essentially doubles in one fell swoop.  On the other hand, this is pretty much just a multiplayer game with an excuse of a plot, right?  There’s context, but not much else.  No narrative to follow, no ideas to explore.  Is there really anything that needs to be explained?  Is there really?

Well.  Let’s just see how it goes.

1 comment:

  1. Off-topic, I realize... but given what you have to say about shooters in this post, I'm wondering if you ever got around to playing Spec Ops: The Line like you said you wanted to. From what I've read and seen, it certainly does not "pare heavy subjects down to basic enjoyment," and focuses on its story and context arguably at the expense of enjoyable gameplay.