REVIEW: In SPLATOON 3, it’s still a blast to splat

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The recent launch of Splatoon 3 cemented the series’ status as Nintendo‘s biggest new IP in decades. When the series debuted on the Wii U in 2015, Splatoon instantly gained attention for its spin on the shooter genre. In the game, players wield diverse weapons, from guns to brushes to buckets of paint, and battle against another team to cover territory with ink. By making itself about more than outshooting your opponents, Splatoon turned multiplayer into a more cooperative experience that lets players of any skill level meaningful contribute.

The games’ approachability is one likely explanation for why the audience for Splatoon continues to grow, with Splatoon 3 the series’ biggest launch yet. In its opening weekend, it sold 3.45 million units in Japan alone, and that only accounts for physical copies. When you add in the rest of the world, it’s on track to be one of the best-selling games on the Nintendo Switch period. Splatoon 3 is a more incremental update than the previous two entries, but clearly more than enough excuse for the series’ massive fanbase to reengage with the series.

Review code provided by Nintendo.

The first thing I did in Splatoon 3 was start the single-player Hero Mode, Return of the Mammalians, which took about 5-6 hours to complete. You play as Agent 13, a member of Squidbeak Splatoon on a mission to recover the Great Zapfish from the Octarians. But since that narrative almost entirely plays out through cinematics the storyline feels frustratingly detached from the actual gameplay. You spend most of the campaign playing through bite-sized stages that appear at least in part designed to introduce players to the many weapons and specials available in the multiplayer. If you’re already familiar with the Splatoon arsenal, playing through those levels can feel a bit stale, lacking the creativity of the story modes in the original Splatoon, Splatoon 2, and the Octo Expansion.

Things take a welcome turn once you reach the the the final area of the game. The Space Center ditches the bite-sized level structure, instead made up of a series of interconnected levels that feel more experimental and present more of a challenge. It’s consistently entertaining, and the final battle is one of my favorite experiences in any Splatoon campaign. If the campaign had followed that design style from the start, I’d have a much higher view of it overall. The developers no doubt had to balance treating the campaign as an introduction to the Splatoon mechanics and making it into something entertaining in its own right. At least for experienced Splatoon players, they missed the mark.

While my feelings about the story mode were mixed, jumping into the multiplayer quickly reminded me what makes Splatoon so much fun. Turf Battles, the standard multiplayer mode, is delightfully chaotic, delivering a truly unique experience every match. Splatoon still feels incredibly innovative 7 years and 3 games later, and the gameplay is as satisfying as ever, especially playing on a Pro Controller using gyro controls. It’s certainly playable in handheld mode, but the gameplay really shines on the big screen.

In Anarchy Battles, the competitive mode of Splatoon 3, you play one of four different types of matches as you seek to improve your ranking. The four match types, Clam Blitz, Rainmaker, Splat Zones, and Tower Control, all have a higher skill floor than Turf Battles, so the Anarchy mode isn’t for everyone, but it plays a big role in keeping the most devoted players coming back. Only one of the four match types is available at any one time, and I found myself a lot more eager to jump in during times of day when Splat Zones or Tower Control were available, because I felt they were the best iteration of the Splatoon formula.

Salmon Run, the PvE mode where teams of four fight off hordes of enemies, is as entertaining as ever. The version of Salmon Run in Splatoon 3 is virtually identical to the one introduced in Splatoon 2, but that’s not a criticism, since there wasn’t any obvious room for improvement. One mode Splatoon 3 does significant alter is the Splatfests. Halfway through each event, players go from playing against one opposing team to two. I didn’t have a chance to join the last event, but am curious about how it changes the strategy,  when the next Splatfest rolls around later this month.

Many of the improvements to Splatoon 3 are on the subtler side. As expected, the game contains some new weapons, specials, and maps, but more notable is how it takes inspiration from games as a service like Fortnite, Fall Guys, and Rocket League. Splatoon 3 introduces customization options like banners, badges, and titles that give players more of an opportunity to express themselves as they queue up for online matches. Unlike normal games as a service, though, they’re not sold as microtransactions, so players (and parents) don’t have to worry about potentially predatory monetization schemes.

Something entirely new to Splatoon 3 is Tableturf Battles, a 1v1 card game that’s sort of like a competitive, turn-based Tetris. Players lay tiles on a grid in an effort cover more space with their tiles than their opponent, akin to how players fight to cover the map with the most ink in Turf War. While nothing like an actual Splatoon match, Tableturf Battles entertaining, and something I plan to spend more time with. It’s a strange addition to a shooter, but a fun excursion nonetheless.

Apart from Tableturf Battles, Splatoon 3 doesn’t introduce any major new modes. But there’s no shortage of content, so that’s not a problem. Instead of adding even more to an already jam-packed game, the developers focused on what players already love about Splatoon and improving the overall gameplay experience. While the campaign was a bit of a misfire, it’s one relatively small piece of the game. The multiplayer is what has the potential to bring players back for tens or hundreds or thousands of hours, and that’s where the game is most successful. Sure, Splatoon 3 is largely just more Splatoon in a better package, but that’s exactly what most fans wanted.

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