Splatoon 3 review – an inkling of trouble

Nintendo’s acclaimed online shooter returns for a third outing, with new maps and new weapons, but how is it for new ideas?

The problem of how to review yearly sequels is one that’s largely disappeared this generation, with the increased time it takes to make AAA games meaning that, apart from Call Of Duty and sports titles, it’s no longer practical to release a new entry every year – not when seasonal content can keep a franchise in the public eye just as easily. You might be wondering why we’d bring this up, since Splatoon 3 is not a yearly sequel, but it certainly feels like it is.

Splatoon 2 was released in 2017 and at the time there was a lot of talk, in some quarters, of how it was little more than a Wii U port. This was unfair though, and seemingly based more on assumption than personal experience, as while the game was no radical departure it did feature a number of new ideas and helped cement Splatoon as the best new shooter franchise in over a decade.

However, the suggestion that in the five years since, all Nintendo has been able to come up with is what you find in Splatoon 3, implies that maybe the series doesn’t have quite the longevity and elasticity as it once seemed. Either that or Nintendo has suddenly got really bad at making sequels.

For those not familiar with the original two games, Splatoon is a third person online shooter. There is a single-player story mode, which we’ll get into later, but the main appeal comes from the competitive and co-operative multiplayer, which sees you playing as humanoid squid and octopuses who shoot paint (technically ink) guns. While you can shoot and ‘kill’ opponents with the ink the main goal of the primary game mode is to cover more of the map with your colour than the opposing team.

You can revert to cephalopod form at any time and swim through the ink on the floor, refilling your ammo supply but also jumping out at enemies when they least suspect it and even travelling up vertical walls if they’re coated in ink. It’s a fantastically imaginative concept that is, and always has been, a joy to play. It’s further enhanced by a wonderfully unique game universe complete with its own art style, music, and surprisingly dark back story – all of which looks and feels very different to anything else in Nintendo’s portfolio.

The first game, on the Wii U, was great fun to play but it launched with very little content, especially in terms of game modes and customisation, and only five maps. This was added to over time and while Splatoon 2 initially wasn’t overflowing with content either, it also added a mountain of free extras in the subsequent months (before, in typical Nintendo fashion, suddenly stopping for no reason).

Splatoon 3 has the same foundation, including most of the old maps, but adds to the basic gameplay with, um… well… nothing really. We’re not being facetious when we say that, as we’re not even sure what Nintendo thinks is meant to be the main new selling point. There are new maps, weapons, and customisation options, of course, but in terms of new game modes and gameplay concepts there’s absolutely nothing.

There’s still only a single game mode for unranked matches – the 4 vs. 4 Turf Wars described above – while ranked battles, now called Anarchy Battles, have the same four match types as before (Splat Zones, Tower Control, Rainmaker, and Clam Blitz). These are slightly more complex, with variations on typical shooter modes like King of the Hill and Capture the Flag, and last for five minutes instead of three.

In five years though, apparently Nintendo couldn’t think of a single new idea to add to that list. The closest they get is a little pet you can throw at enemies to distract them and a collectable card game, where you lay down splat patterns of ink on a grid-based board. They’re both exactly as inconsequential as they sound.

There are new weapon types, though, and they’re a lot of fun, including a bow and arrow that fires three projectiles at once, a combination of windscreen wiper and katana, and what is basically a chainsaw sword that flicks ink. There are new special weapons too, which need charging to use, such as the Zipcaster grapple hook and the Ink Vac, which sucks up incoming ink and fires it back as a giant explosion.

Unfortunately, nothing of substance has been added to Salmon Run, the PvE co-op mode introduced in Splatoon 2, beyond a handful of new boss enemies. That’s a shame because as good as it is – and it is very good – it could certainly have done with a more involved structure and reward system, as there’s relatively little incentive for continued play, especially if you’ve seen most of it before.

There’s certainly no attempt to add a new game mode of the same scale as Salmon Run, with the closest being the fact that Splatfests now feature 2v2v4 matches as well as the usual 4v4. That’s not as unfair as it sounds, though, as the two smaller teams attack the bigger one in the centre of the map.

Splatfests are occasional special events and have you picking a team based on a question like do you prefer dogs or cats (or rabbits as well, we imagine now). The only Splatfest pre-launch was in the beta, which asked you to pick rock, paper or scissors, but it’s no great feat of imagination to picture how it’d work, especially if you’ve played the previous games.

Alas, no great feat of imagination sums up Splatoon 3 as a whole, which is extremely frustrating given the game itself is still enormously entertaining and a lot of work has clearly gone into it on the artistic side. It’s never fair to call any developer lazy, and that certainly isn’t the right word to describe the single-player mode, but Splatoon 3 is extremely disappointing.

The story campaign is a mix of the ones from the first two games and the excellent Octo Expansion DLC for Splatoon 2. It’s a sizeable experience, lasting at least 12 hours, but unfortunately none of it is terribly interesting. As usual, it’s a sequence of short, abstract levels, that generally don’t take more than five minutes to beat and vary between pseudo-tutorials and basic assault courses to things like one-off puzzle stages, rail grinding levels, and maze games.

A number of ideas are borrowed from Octo Expansion, such as a stack of boxes you have to shoot to make a particular shape, but there are very few new ones. Some of the most enjoyable concepts, like a full-on race course in squid form, are only used once and peculiarly that includes replicating the online combat with computer-controlled bots. There’s precisely one level like that and it’s never used again for a full stage, which we imagine means Nintendo weren’t happy with the AI – even though it worked fine in the last game.

Despite the amount of effort that’s gone into the story mode, shorn of the difficulty of Octo Expansion it feels just as listless as the first two games. It’s fine, but the fast action and high stakes of the multiplayer contrasts heavily with the low intensity, clinical pacing of the single-player, such that they end up feeling like two completely different games, even though they both use exactly the same mechanics.

We keep feeling there’s something we’ve forgotten here, but that really is it. Which brings us full circle to the opening question: if Splatoon 3 is barely changed from the excellent Splatoon 2, does that means it still deserves to be credited as a top flight game or should it be marked down for adding nothing of significance?

It’s an age old problem but not one we expected to rear it’s head in a Nintendo sequel that’s been five years in the making. Splatoon 3 is a great game but it’s a terrible sequel.

Splatoon 3 review summary

In Short: Technically this is the best Splatoon ever, but the complete lack of anything approaching a new idea is profoundly disappointing.

Pros: Splatoon itself is superb and the action and premise still as engaging as ever. Plenty of maps right from the start and the new weapons are all great.

Cons: No significant new features of any kind, beyond the absolute basics of new weapons and costumes. Story mode is still not very engaging.

Score: 8/10

Formats: Nintendo Switch
Price: £49.99
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Nintendo EPD
Release Date: 9th September 2022
Age Rating: 7

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