2015’s Splatoon was a whale of a good time. I personally reviewed it favorably, citing innovative mechanics as a more-than-sufficient counter to the content-lightness the game had at launch. After that, I kept playing the thing through the rest of the summer and a little into the fall. I kept track of content updates and expansions as I went. It was cool to watch the game grow from what it had been when I reviewed it, and while I didn’t feel the need to revise my own critique, it was really cool to see the conversation surrounding it grow.
Two years later, in comes Splatoon 2. I had been worried for a long time that it wouldn’t feel enough like a fully differentiated sequel. We weren’t seeing too many new weapons at first, and early trailers looked almost identical to the Wii U version. Now that the game’s out though, I can say that yes, Splatoon 2 does feel like its own beast. The ways in which it does so surprise me. Unfortunately, there are some ways in which it’s the same game as always that really probably shouldn’t feel that way. To be totally honest, this is a tricky game to evaluate, because there’s something important about not fixing what’s broken, in online multiplayer spaces more than anywhere else. There’s some slippery, ink-sodden ground to cover here, so let’s dive right in.
Ink your arsenal
Splatoon was great at weapon variety. When it first came out, the roller was overpowered, so they figured out ways to rebalance it. Other weapon types came in, and a lot of balancing happened as people learned how to use them over time. In Splatoon 2, it’s the same thing all over again. A lot of basic Splattershots, Rollers and Charger-type weapons are more or less the same as they were at the 6-month mark into the first game. This is fine. 1: plenty of players didn’t stick with Splatoon that long. 2: all the specials that come along with these main weapons are new.
New weapon types and old alike, all of them have completely different chargeable special attacks than anything in the first game. I wasn’t super sold on the voice at first. A few too many weapon options in the first couple hours of playtime were pretty much the same as ones from the first game. But after some time, I think it’s a brilliant move. The balance of familiarity and newness is so gradual that you really don’t notice it. Then you’re seven matches in, and realize how many of those have ended so close that you can’t even tell who the victor is at first.
New ultimates are great. Ink rain, homing misses, that bizarre hose jet thing; all good. Most of the weapons from the first game are the same, which is mostly a good thing. The one exception is the Splat Charger, which has needed better optimization since the first game, but really more for accessibility’s sake than anything. If you know what you’re doing with it, you can still be MVP just like anyone. The Splat Dualies are the big star as far as new weapons go. They add a dodge roll mechanic that I slightly wish had been added to more weapons.
Splatoon 2‘s biggest success lies in this armory of paint. Nintendo managed to rebalance the game without having to make any changes to main weapons that would trip up veteran players of the first game. Stages are similarly tweaked, often a bit more close-quarters before. In service of one of my biggest letdowns from the first game, Splatoon 2‘s single-player mechanics even show up in some multiplayer maps. There’s never been a better time to have a turf war.
Also, motion controls are still the objectively better way to play. Better-optimized and easier than ever.
New modes, new creatures from the deep
Of course, better turf wars alone aren’t enough to sell Splatoon 2. In comes Salmon Run, the only 4-player co-op horde mode where the disembodied voice of a grizzly bear hires you to steal salmon eggs for him. No, really. That’s what happens.
Salmon Run is a ton of fun. Squads of four players, predetermined weapons shuffled amongst them between rounds, take to the docks and throw down. Hordes of smaller Salmonids are fun to dispatch, sure. But they’re really just filler for the emergence of boss Salmonids that come in eight different types. These fights are fast-paced and often unpredictable, especially early on. A tutorial teaches you how to take down each of the eight, but it can be tense as hell to try and remember in the heat of the moment.
It all comes down to stealing as many dropped salmon eggs from defeated Salmonids as possible, before any others emerge and try to take them back. Nintendo’s voice chat apparatus is bad, but never fear. As with Turf War, Salmon Run can be played and coordinated just fine without any sort of voice chat. The map is small enough, and everyone’s goals unified enough, that I never even stopped to wish for any sort of vocal communication.
The one huge drawback here is that, for some reason, Salmon Run isn’t quite open for business all the time. It’s already better than at launch. Nintendo realized within days that nobody liked only being able to play the mode a few days a week, and so now there’s almost always a map in rotation. But “almost always” still means cheated players. I’ve only come online at the wrong time once, so I can’t knock it too much, but it’s still a very disappointing misstep.
That new-cephalopod sheen
It helps that Splatoon 2 is prettier and more stylish than every before. As many have pointed out, Splatoon‘s style was distinctly ’80s. Splatoon 2 has a bit more ’90s flair, especially in its clothing design. From hair to hats to shoes and shirts, the new assembly of duds is looking sharper than ever.
The story mode is back and better than ever, too. Single-player was fun but ultimately sort of forgettable in Splatoon, especially with the omission of its cool mechanics from multiplayer. Here, I’ve been impressed again and again with how surprising, inventive, and downright challenging the story mode levels are. They feel like levels from Portal in the way that they teach the player the rules surrounding a particular object, and set you to work.
Subtle evolutions, superior splatting
For a while, I honestly thought I would be ending this review by giving Splatoon 2 a slightly lower score than I bestowed on its neon and dripping predecessor. But as I thought about its mechanical changes, and the way the gameplay flow feels in relation to the Wii U adventure we all began two years ago, I realized just how much the game had changed after all. Since Splatoon, games like Overwatch and Titanfall 2 gave a jet fuel boost to the pace and tightness we expect from our online shooters. Splatoon 2 did a great, stealthy job in upping the ante in order to splat with the best of them.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: Nintendo Switch; Publisher: Nintendo; Developer: Nintendo; Players: 1-8; Released: July 21, 2017; MSRP: $59.99
Editor’s note: This review is based on a retail copy of Splatoon 2 purchased at launch.