Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Splatoon 2 - Worthy of being called a sequel

Product provided by Nintendo
(Disclaimer: As of the posting of this review, I have yet to play Rainmaker and Tower Control
due to a lack of players pre-release, as well as matches with friends due to a lack of friends and mobile app)

If you're already a fan of Splatoon, you probably already know most of the important things about Splatoon 2, and you're going to like it. It's generally more of the same, but better. And it's not just a port of the Wii U game; it's a fresh new can of squid (that's a good thing).

For those who aren't aware of how Splatoon works... It's a family-friendly third-person shooter in which the player controls an Inkling - an ink-shooting squid-person - which can transform into squid form and swim through its own-colored ink for fast movement across the ground and up walls. The objectives vary across the game's many modes, but to simplify things for the moment, you'll either be using the clever inking gameplay in the single player adventure to do platforming and combat against computer-controlled enemies to progress to the end of each stage, or you'll be playing with teams of real people online and competing against other teams or waves of non-player enemies.
Since each mode comes more or less in a self-contained chunk of game, let's go into some details on them one at a time:

Octo Canyon (Single Player)
I already wrote a preview article about Octo Canyon, and though I had yet to finish the adventure at the time of writing, the opinions and details still hold true now. When I played the first Splatoon, I was blown away by the single-player level design, but Splatoon 2's makes the original feel bland in comparison. The level design is still top notch and satisfying, but there are a lot of new gameplay elements to mix things up this time around, from grind rails to boost pads to orbs you can shoot and warp to. What really adds to the depth though, is that any level can be played with any weapon type (once you've progressed far enough to unlock that weapon type), and each level's completion is tracked per weapon. And for those who aren't familiar, Splatoon's various paint-themed weapons each handle in unique ways and with different combinations of sub-weapons (throwable ink bombs) and special weapons that often totally change up the style of gameplay. Anyway, check it out the preview for more details on Octo Canyon. Seriously, just because this paragraph is a small percentage of the review, don't discount Splatoon 2's single-player mode; it's a significant part of the game and it's fantastic.

When you first enter the game, after an unskippable announcement of the current level rotation (each mode is limited to two maps at a time, which rotate out every two hours), you'll find yourself walking around a city hub area. Here you can buy new weapons and gear once you reach the appropriate level, exchange tickets for temporary experience buffs and other bonuses, enter online multiplayer lobbies, create a local multiplayer lobby, scan in amiibo for rewards of gear, music, and screenshots, enter Octo Canyon, and even play an impressively challenging rhythm game in the Sound Test.
"I'd better just try this for the review," I thought.
And then I played for over an hour.
The gear that you can buy to make your Inkling look spiffy also comes with valuable bonus abilities in battle, such as faster ink refilling, stealth when jumping to a teammate's location after respawning, higher swim speed, and many more. Each piece of gear has one visible bonus and up to three additional bonuses which are randomized and unlocked as the gear is used online and leveled up. In the first game, this resulted in a whole lot of luck and grinding if you wanted to get gear that both looked cool and had your preferred strategic set of abilities. This time around, there are couple options to ease the process: bonus attributes can be scrubbed from gear and then reattached to other gear (for a fee of in-game money), and there's a character who sells items which increase the likelihood of a particular bonus being unlocked next. It still seems like it'll take a lot of effort to get what you want, but it ought to make building a strategic loadout more dependent on the player and less about luck.
(Click to enlarge)
Returning Modes
As a beginner, the only modes you'll be able to play are Octo Canyon and Turf War. Turf War is the original, simple challenge of covering more ground in your team's color of ink than the enemy team within the time limit. The simple concept turns out to have more depth than it might first appear, because you'll want to be attacking enemy players at the same time to delay them from covering any more ground, and some weapons are better suited for quickly creating paths for your teammates rather than covering large areas in ink. It often tends to feel like the last 45 seconds is all that really matters in this mode, but what does a noob like me know anyway.

Once you've played enough of Turf War to get to Level 10, Ranked Battles become available. These make use of one of three returning modes: Splat Zones, Tower Control, and Rainmaker (once again, one mode at a time and two levels at a time, changing out every two hours). Each ranked mode has slightly more complex objectives, and has had some updates and gameplay tweaks since its appearance in Splatoon. To summarize though, "Splat Zones" matches have two teams fighting over control of a smaller area rather than the entire map, and the winner is whoever can hold the territory for a certain total amount of time. "Tower Control" challenges players to ink and ride a moving tower across the map and push into the goal on the opposing team's side. And finally, "Rainmaker" is a fight to capture a sort of super weapon, the Rainmaker, and bring it into the target area of the enemy team's base. It's kind of like capture the flag, but the flag is a gun.
In Splat Zones, team fight to control a much smaller area, so it's extra important to "splat" the opponents.
Anyway, since these are ranked modes, winning will increase your rank and losing decreases it. New to Splatoon 2, each mode has its own rank as well, so you're allowed to be bad at Rainmaker without hurting your record for Tower Control. Additionally, if you're able to reach rank B- or higher, League Battles become available. With these, you can compete with a group in the Ranked Battle modes over the course of two hours to try to achieve the highest rank with everyone starting from scratch each time. This way, you once again can play without the pressure of needing to maintain a good record, and it gives players who have maxed out their rank something else to do.

Salmon Run
Finally, we have Salmon Run, a new cooperative mode where a team of up to four players fights against waves of computer-controlled enemies with the goal of defeating boss enemies and taking their golden eggs back to a repository. This mode is somewhat randomized each time because players are forced to use a different weapon with each wave, the water level and repository location can change, and the location and type of enemies varies. It can be a challenge, especially with less than a full team, since the game ends if the entire team is defeated or if not enough golden eggs from the boss enemies are collected during the wave's time limit. This mode also ranks you based on your success over time, and rewards you with money and items for reaching certain point thresholds. Unfortunately, this mode is only open during certain time periods for public play, but you can still meet up with friends in real life for local multiplayer and play any mode and any level, regardless of the current rotation on the server.

Miscellaneous Tidbits
Everything listed so far is what Splatoon 2 primarily consists of as a game, but you probably knew most of that already, and there are a few more details worth mentioning:

With the game's release, a mobile app will also be available which will allow players to organize teams with friends, voice chat, and order unique gear. Since that's not available yet, I don't know anything beyond what's already been publicly announced.

Amiibo can be used once again, and all I know for sure is that the Inkling amiibo from the first Splatoon unlock the same gear they did in the first game, in addition to music for the sound test rhythm game, and the ability to pose your character with the amiibo character in the city for cool screenshots. Another very useful feature of amiibo is that you can store a weapon and gear loadout set, along with your control settings, to an amiibo and then scan it in again to instantly switch to that set. I imagine this would be very convenient for tournaments (though amiibo scanning can be disabled in the local multiplayer options if tournament organizers desire), but it's a bit odd that saving favorite loadouts and control profiles is locked behind amiibo rather than being freely available functionality.
And finally, like the first game, free updates of new gear and stages will be made available over the course of the year following Splatoon 2's release. The number of maps currently available feels acceptable (eight for competitive multiplayer and two(?) for Salmon Run), but having more on the horizon ought to keep things fresh for a while.

The Final Word
It's not wrong to say that Splatoon 2 is mostly more of the same, but it's hard not to be without drastically changing what made the first game so fun. Even though most of the modes are very similar to the first game's, the absence of certain special weapons, addition of new ones, new levels, more convenient gear customization,  Octo Valley's many new gameplay elements, and Salmon Run, there's enough newness here to make it all feel fresh again. When all I had seen was the Nintendo Direct announcements, I feared that Splatoon 2 would be more like Splatoon 1.5, but now that I've played it, I'm pleased to have found it worthy of being called a full sequel.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Splatoon 2 - Give Single-Player Some Love (Preview)

Product was provided by Nintendo.

Much of the focus when talking about Splatoon always ends up landing on the multiplayer portion of the game. That makes sense, considering it is the game's most advertised point and it's what you spend the most time playing after finishing the single-player campaign. But unlike most online multiplayer-centric games these days, Splatoon, and now Splatoon 2, have as well designed of a single-player experience as one would come to expect from any offline Nintendo game. I was blown away by how well the gameplay of inking surfaces for movement combined with shooting for a unique action platforming experience in the first game, and after a few worlds of Splatoon 2's single-player adventure, I'm loving it all over again.
Shooting one of these targets causes objects to move.
Splatoon 2's Octo Canyon mode is arranged much like the first game's Octo Valley. Several hub areas house a handful of levels each which must be cleared before that world's boss stage becomes available. Even the hubs are like small levels though, as each stage entrance is initially hidden and often requires you to perform some platforming and exploration before shooting and revealing the entrance. This time, Marie, the celebrity squid from the first game, helps you on your quest by dropping the knowledge on all the new weapon types and their new functionality (for example, flinging ink in a narrower, vertically oriented line when jumping with a Roller, or using the new Dualies' dodge roll to instantly activate and ride a grind rail). Her and other characters' dialogue is also pretty darn amusing, so that's another plus.
Nearly every level I've played so far introduces new gameplay elements that weren't present in the first game (and a few that were) and then expertly builds on the concept with more complex level design as you progress. To give a few examples, the first game's "Inkrails" have been upgraded to Grind Rails, which allow for shooting, swimming, jumping, and bombing while riding them. There are "Grapplinks", glowing orbs which warp you to them when shot. Also, "Inkfurlers", which extend like party noisemakers when shot with ink, creating a temporary path and mowing down enemies along the way. And these are just a few examples from the first few chapters of Octo Canyon.

The single-player adventure would be fun enough as it is, but what really brings it above and beyond is the ability to use any weapon type in any stage (once unlocked), and have each completion tracked with an icon in your stats menu and at the level entrance. Weapons are unlocked for single-player as you progress when, on particular stages, Sheldon will send in a new type for you to try. After clearing that stage, the weapon will then be available for use on any other level. These levels are usually designed with the newly introduced weapon in mind, so I found that I ended up quickly learning to use things that I hardly bothered to touch in the first game. Furthermore, using a different weapon often means that you'll need to find a new method for success and some levels even have minor redesigns to accommodate you when playing through again with something different. Each weapon can also be upgraded with the plentiful orange orbs and hidden trinkets hidden throughout this mode, although the upgrades are surprisingly expensive, meaning that you'll need to replay levels with the other weapons if you want to get all the upgrades. To be clear though, these upgrades only work in Octo Canyon, so it's not like you'll need to grind offline for online success. (I'm not exactly clear on whether or not you need to use a weapon type in single-player to unlock it for mutliplayer though...) Unfortunately, these upgrades can only be performed at a particular location in the World 1 hub, and even though you can warp to it or any level you've unlocked from the menu, each hub is separated by a loading screen this time around, so chances are you won't want to be checking your available upgrades between every single level. (Also, chances are low for finding a way to skip a whole world this time around, speedrunners!)
Speaking of speedrunning, your fastest time on each level, along with which weapon you used to achieve it, is also tracked on the stats menu. At the point I'm at, there's not really any incentive for speedrunning stages, or any online leaderboard for times, but something about seeing that "New Record" pop up really makes me want to go back and play everything faster. Now if only there was an update to have the timer show fractions of seconds and keep records for each weapon on each level... please? Update: The mobile app shows your best times per weapon per level!!
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