Splatoon is deceptive. On the surface, it looks like a typically cute Nintendo game. All bright colors, kawaii "Inkling" and "Octarian" characters (stylized transforming human-hybrid cephalopods in this case), and seemingly simple gameplay that involves running around shooting paint at stuff with jolly little splat guns. However, once you start playing, you quickly realize this game is serious business.
Set for release in May, it's an online multiplayer shooter (and a single-player game, but more about that later) where two quartets of players face off against one another in a battle for area supremacy. Wielding one of a variety of paint-spitting weapons - we saw eight being used at the demo event held by Nintendo at its headquarters recently - the objective is simple: spray the floor of the playfield with colored paint and have the most area covered when the game timer expires.
It's a simple premise. Players can quickly traverse friendly painted areas without being seen by turning into a squid-like creature, perhaps to ambush an opponent by rising out of a pool of paint and nailing them with their splat gun, or to simply reach an area controlled by the opposition so it can be repainted. Walls can be spattered with paint and climbed up. However, if you run into an area painted by your opponent, your movement is slowed – and you become visible, of course.
In terms of the objective, it doesn't matter whether you don’t kill (or should that be splat?) anyone, or you waste a whole bunch of people. When the whistle blows at the end of the round, the only thing that matters is who controls the most territory. However, shooting somebody is of course tactically useful – it sends them back to their starting zone and hands you an advantage, since you're then able to splatter the area with your colors – assuming there isn't anyone else around preventing you from doing so.
Splatoon is a multiplayer shooter in the classic sense in that it's all about teamwork. Teams moving together will roll over individuals with ease – but that also means large areas of the map will be left undefended, letting a team working separately cover the environment more quickly. These push-pull mechanics contain the right ingredients for some interesting, open play, and the end result is a dynamic-feeling game that's very fast and thoroughly enjoyable.
The weapons help add depth to the gameplay and essentially offer playstyle choices. There's a Splat Roller – a giant paint roller – that can cover a large amount of territory, but it only doubles as a close-range melee weapon, meaning you're more vulnerable to getting shot by other players. At the other end of the spectrum is a Tentatek Splattershot, a railgun-like sniper weapon that has excellent range, but can only shoot thin jets of paint, making if not particularly effective for ground coverage, but great for covering fire so the rest of your crew can move forward.
Other weapons include a variety of Splattershot guns that deliver good paint coverage at the cost of range, and medium-range weapons that aren't quite as useful for covering territory, but are good for defending against attacks. All weapons have a primary function, but also feature a secondary device (such as a sticky grenade, timed explosive or regular bomb) and a "special" – a single-use item that can be used in the heat of battle to swing the advantage in your favor, such as an "Inkstrike" (an air strike of paint) or a one-way shield that you can shoot through, but enemies cannot. It's a very well balanced mix of weapons, and makes for some interesting tactical choices.
So far, the game has three multiplayer environments: a warehouse, an oil platform, and a skate park. All feature key choke points, walled areas, boxes and objects to climb over, and narrow walkways that let you lay down paint to slow your opponent's advance. The arenas are quite small, and that helps keep things moving along at a fast clip. Even better, you can use the touch screen to jump your way around the map using your teammates as mobile warp spots, and that ensures that there's very little downtime at any point. If you get nailed, you can get back into the action very quickly.
Splatoon also includes a Ranked multiplayer mode which is a little more focused in that both teams are essentially fighting over an area in the center of the map. This helps concentrate the action and makes rounds even more frenetic. All players start out at Rank C- and winning advances your rank, while losing results in a rank reduction. I like this idea a lot – it helps ensure matchmaking is generally fair by separating the experts from the newbies, thus making the game very player-friendly.
The game has a hub in the form of a futuristic shopping plaza where you can buy power-up items for your character and kit them out strategically to augment your playstyle. For example, you can buy items that give you a stronger defense, or perhaps increase the size of your paint canister. There are also cosmetic items you can buy to customize the look of your character. While you're in the plaza, you can see other characters, including those who you might have just fought with. This is your chance to take a look at their gear, just in case you're curious as to what they were wearing during the fight – perhaps because they hit you like a freight train and you want to know what boosts they have.
We also played eight levels of the single-player game, and that's good fun too. The levels demoed played like a classic third person shooter, with the player running around a series of platform-like environments taking out enemies and shooting at targets. It was a plenty entertaining, although I did initially have some issues with the motion controls. As in the other modes, you're required to tilt and move the Wii U pad to aim and shoot, which felt rather vague and occasionally clumsy. I did end up getting used to it, but in future, I think I'll probably opt for stick controls, which will be an option in the release version of the game.
What's clear after playing Splatoon for a good few hours is that it’s simple and fun to play, yet is surprisingly deep. The game is brilliantly designed to be accessible to everyone – but for experts it offers huge headroom for rich, tactical play. Indeed, it really wouldn't surprise me if Splatoon ends up becoming a cult e-Sports game.
Disclosure: Nintendo paid for hospitality, and transportation to and from the event.