In two days, you'll have a chance to play Splatoon 2 for yourself. Caty has already reviewed the game for USgamer and found it amazingly fun and charming, even if it's a bit familiar. Of course, part of the inking fun is being able to play with your friends.
Splatoon 2's release also doubles as the first test of Nintendo Switch Online, a new service that forms the backbone for online gaming on the Switch. When the service fully launches in 2018, the app's features will cost $20 annually. Until then, it's completely free, giving Nintendo a chance to work out the kinks.
And the kinks, they are many.
Let's start with Splatoon 2 itself. There is seemingly no way to group up with friends and then head into online matchmaking in Regular or Ranked Battles. If one of your Switch friends is online and playing Splatoon 2, selecting their card in the game's Friend section merely gives you the message "You can't join that friend."
Instead, you have to wait until one of your friends enters online matchmaking, at which point their card gets the "Joinable" label, and then you can join their game. The issue here is you need some other chat or voice system to sync up. Even then, if they're pushed into a game before you can fully join them, you have to wait and stare at a screen while their current match ends. And if no one leaves that match and opens up a player slot, then you just have to wait in purgatory apparently.
Splatoon 2 is missing basic grouping. If I'm playing Overwatch, I can join a group of friends and then we can queue for Quick Play, Arcade, or Competitive together. The same is true of my experience playing in the Destiny 2 Beta last night. In Splatoon 2, it's a wish and a prayer. The only way to ensure a group is through Private Battle, which is limited to those you invite and has no alternative matchmaking.
What about voice chat through the Nintendo Switch Online application? First, there's no way to group up solely through the app itself. If you want to get Switch friends together to talk shop, you have to start a room within a game. In Splatoon 2's case, you would go to "Lobby", select "Online Lounge", and then "Create Room." If you're signed in on the same Nintendo Account on your Switch and the Nintendo Switch Online app, you'll soon get a ping on your app.
On the app, you can invite friends to your new private room. Options include either your current Nintendo Switch friends, users you've played with recently, or via social media (Twitter, Facebook, Line, etc). Using the last option creates a URL link to your private room that can be shared online anywhere, as far as I can tell. You can password protect any room with a four-digit code.
If anyone joins your room, they can voice chat freely, with icons getting larger the louder you are. It's limited to the Splatoon 2 Private Room; if you close it, the voice chat space goes away eventually. In Private Match, you can play in Turf War, Rainmaker, Splat Zones, or Tower Control across a variety of maps. (You don't seem to be limited to current map rotations?) Once a match starts, the system switches to team chat, meaning you only hear the folks on your team. When the match is over, you're kicked back to the free-for-all room.
First, this is very limiting. Again, during my playtime in the Destiny 2 Beta last night, I had two options for voice chat: either with Destiny 2's internal group and voice system, or through the PlayStation 4's Party Chat. If the Nintendo Switch Online app worked like the latter, untethered to a specific game, that'd be one thing. But it's not. There's no way to invite friends into a voice chat room without starting a room in Splatoon 2 first.
Worse, the Nintendo Switch Online app doesn't work in the background. When I switched to Gmail, Twitter, or Facebook, the app temporarily kicked me from the voice chat room. The same was true of shutting off my phone screen, something that we noticed in testing because Caty's phone went to sleep briefly. (Some said it would disconnect when you pull down your Notification Bar on Android, but I didn't have that issue.) Switching back to the app would reconnect to the room in a second or two, but why doesn't the app work like Skype, Google Hangouts, or Discord and allow audio to continue on in the background? Instead, you have to keep your phone on. Active phone use draws way more power than passive background stuff, so you essentially want to keep your phone plugged in. (My Galaxy S7 topped a TechRadar test with 5 hours and 21 minutes of active use, as an example.)
This is just a bad idea all around. Splatoon 2 itself needs more matchmaking options. For voice chat, the app is severely limited and a battery hog in the worst way. The app doesn't even share game audio, so if you play with headphones, you need something like this audio splitter to hear voice chat and in-game audio.
For the life of me, I can't fathom what Nintendo is thinking here. Splatoon 2 will be a game that lives and dies on online play. I'm not talking voice chat and matchmaking with random folks. You'd think you'd want to make it as easy as possible to group up with your friends, chat, and play a bit of Splatoon 2. Instead, it's a headache. And it's a headache because Nintendo is trying to reinvent the wheel.
I like some of the additional app features. SplatNet 2 shows you your current level and rank, the total turf you've inked, the results of your last 50 battles, current stages, and more. That's cool. The thing is, some of that information isn't in the game. It feels like Nintendo has moved options and features that should be in the game or built into the Switch itself to justify the smartphone app. None of this feels like the company is doing what's right for the user. If any other company had this setup, we'd rightly call it a cash grab. That the online is cheaper than Nintendo's competitors doesn't change that.
For now though, it's free. There's time to give Nintendo feedback on Splatoon 2 and the app. There's a lot of room for improvement and Nintendo's going to need that time, because what I've seen here is several steps backwards.