Splatoon 2: Superb sequel serves up more of the same
Coming up with a successful sequel to a well-received original IP is gaming's equivalent of the 'difficult second album'.
It's a delicate balancing act where developers need to weigh up whether to stick with a winning formula and deliver more of what worked well the first time round or, if they're feeling ambitious, go in a different direction and try to develop new ideas and features.
Either way, they usually end up getting criticised for it. Go with the former and you're accused of being samey and unimaginative, push the boat out too far and you'll be charged with losing the soul of the series. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.
Unless you're Nintendo, of course. The house of Mario have always been the masters of breathing new life into old games. Franchises like Mario, Zelda and Metroid boast 30-year pedigrees, selling millions of copies despite always following a fairly familiar format.
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It's not often that Nintendo introduces a brand new IP, and even rarer that they dabble with third-person shooters, so when Splatoon launched on the Wii U in 2015 it was seen by many as a breath of fresh air.
A combination of novel mechanics (a shooting game based on painting territory, rather than fragging enemies), eye-catchingly bright aesthetics, and trademark Nintendo cute-but-cool characters made it one of the most interesting games in years. Unfortunately, hardly anyone played it.
The Wii U was a much-maligned and misunderstood system that never quite caught on with the public. It had tons of great features and a decent lineup of first-party games, but ended up being viewed as a flop due to some strange marketing choices and a lack of third-party support.
Ironically, the Wii U's failure could end up being partially responsible for the Switch's success. We've already seen Breath of the Wild (which started out as a Wii U game) and Mario Kart 8 (a souped-up version of the Wii U edition) shift millions of copies on the Switch. People don't seem to mind being served up more of the same if they missed out first time round.
That said, as someone who sank 30+ hours into the original, I was surprised at just how similar this sequel is. Entire maps, weapons, character models and even the music and menus have been copied and pasted wholesale. There are a few new touches here and there, but essentially what you're getting here is Splatoon 1.5.
Thankfully, the game is so much fun and so brilliantly designed that none of that really matters. I've been struggling to put it down over the past week and the portability factor of the Switch more than makes up for the lack of originality.
Being able to pull out the handheld for a quick blast on the bus or in the bath is the game's biggest selling point. Multiplayer games are done and dusted in under five minutes, making it perfect for quick, pick-up-and-play gaming on the go.
The format of the main mode, Turf Wars, is exactly the same. Use a variety of paint-based firepower to cover as much of the map in your team's colour as possible. Splatting enemy team members is a bonus, as it takes them out of action for a few seconds, but the aim of the game is territorial, rather than take-outs.
Standing on your own team's colour also allows you to sink into paint and transform into a squid. This allows you to move around quicker as well as making you harder to spot and refilling your ammo - adding an extra layer of strategy to everything you do.
Winning games (or even performing well on the losing team) earns you coins which you can use to unlock new weapons and buy stat-boosting clothing. The more you use each item, the better it gets, so it pays to find your ideal loadout and stick to it for a while.
One of the few new features is Salmon Run, a multiplayer co-op challenge where you face off against waves of computer-controlled enemies, similar to Gears of War's Horde Mode.
It's a surprisingly slick addition to the lineup - it starts off fairly simplistic and straightforward but the difficulty quickly ramps up once you clear the first few promotions. Unfortunately, you only get to play it sporadically, as entry to the Salmon Run is rotated on and off every few days.
Indeed, every map on every mode is only available on rotation. Most other multiplayer shooters allow you to select (or vote on) every map in the game but for some reason Splatoon 2 rations out the maps and modes so only two are available at any one time.
It's a strange decision, possibly an attempt to keep players interested by restricting access, but I found it frustrating that I wasn't able to jump on for a few rounds of Salmon Run whenever I liked.
Another annoying niggle is the inability to change loadouts between games. If you want to swap your weapon or equip a different item of gear, you have to back right out of the multiplayer lobby, make your changes, and then log back in. A puzzling lack of flexibility from a developer that is usually all about user-friendliness.
Possibly the most disapppointing feature (or lack of one) is the ridiculous approach to integrating voice chat into the game. Multiplayer shooters are all about team communication, and on most consoles this is as simple as plugging a headset into the controller and sending an alert to any mates online.
With Splatoon 2, not only do you need to download a separate app to your phone, you then need to go to a special team lobby area, and use an overly-complicated $60 "splat and chat" headset which plugs into your phone via your Switch with three different cables (and a splitter).
This is a confusing and complex solution to what should be a very simple problem. In an attempt to protect their family-friendly image, they've thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
Despite all these frustrating shortcomings, because Splatoon 2 is so much fun, it's almost impossible to give it anything other than a glowingly positive review. There's not much new here, and there are plenty of frustrating foibles but just try playing it for longer than two minutes without a smile on your face.