Splatoon 3 continues to do what the series does best with another explosion of colourful action underpinned by a sublime gameplay loop.
For a company often content to trade on its heritage, 2014’s Splatoon was a breath of wild fresh air from Nintendo. It launched a bold new IP and was a welcome fillip for the maligned Wii U.
The game reinvented the online shooter on Nintendo’s terms, finding fun and humour in the often enraging genre of headshots and camping. It was an effervescent first-party alternative to the inventive (but creatively safer) pastures of Hyrule and the Mushroom Kingdom. And it’s a testament to the underlying qualities of the Wii U original that finding an online multiplayer match is still easy, some eight years after release.
Splatoon got so much right at the first attempt that its sequels – 2017’s Splatoon 2 and now Splatoon 3 – have faced accusations of being little more than glorified expansion packs. That’s rich talk in a world built around annualised video game releases like Call of Duty and FIFA, but there you go. However, such is the proliferation of service games and battle royales, Splatoon 3 does still manage to stand out. (And not just because of its Day-Glo Jackson Pollock aesthetic.)
Some years ago I speculated that, given the landscape of the multiplayer shooter, Splatoon 3 might end up as “Splatoon Free”, a free-to-play game with microtransactions and/or battle passes. Thankfully, it’s not. The game is, in fact, a refined and polished sequel that dials everything to the max and beyond without losing an ounce of charm. Let’s just call it Splatoon 11 and be done with it.
Splatoon 3 is underpinned by the same gameplay loop as its predecessors. Ink serves as ammunition that can be spread across the playfield with weapons that range from guns and brushes to rollers and buckets. As you cover the floor in lurid glistening goo, it becomes a method of traversal into which you can submerge and swim. In doing so, your ammo is replenished, thus giving you more even more ink to spread. It’s a wonderfully designed cycle of movement, combat, and stealth.
This core of the game is another generous selection of online multiplayer modes. The lineup is headlined by the marquee Turf War mode, in which teams must compete to cover as much of the arena in their team colour as possible. There’s a mix of new and returning maps, the best of which is Mad Max-esque Mincemeat Metalworks. Elsewhere, ranked battles provide a changing roster of other modes – Rainmaker and Tower Control among the highlights – plus the fan-favourite Salmon Run horde mode returns.
And, of course, there’s another lengthy single-player campaign. As before, it’s an introduction to the game’s weapons and abilities built around a series of challenging obstacle courses and boss battles that almost reach Super Mario levels of quality. Single-player is also where Splatoon lore enthusiasts – of which there are many – will gradually uncover a gonzo tale that charts the end of humanity through to earth’s post-apocalyptic, ink-splatting future.
So far, so similar, then. But where Splatoon 3 justifies itself is in the top-to-bottom level of polish and usability. Take the lobby, for example. What was a simple menu in Splatoon 2 has now become a full-featured training area in which you can practice for the match ahead. Salmon Run, previously only available at certain times, is now an option any hour of the day you fancy.
The Splatville hub world is also larger, busier, and more intricate. It’s packed with secrets to discover, including a fully-fledged – and dangerously compelling – collectable card game.
A paltry two new weapons – the bow-like Tri-Stinger and window wiper Splatana – might seem stingy, but they are balanced and thoughtful additions to an armoury that already supports a range of play styles depending on whether you prefer to target opponents or focus on ink coverage. The new Squid Surge and Squid Roll moves also have a meaningful impact, particularly in the new roster of maps.
The experience is once again wrapped up in the franchise’s peculiar blend of Day-Glo street fashion and punk fish fetishism. It’s squelchy and sometimes gross but undeniably fresh.
For Splatoon’s most ardent fans, the game’s emphasis on fashion and gear is just as compelling as its combat. That’s why we should be glad Nintendo has stuck to its splattershots and resisted the temptation to nickel-and-dime the experience. Every shoe, cap and t-shirt is there to own if you put the time in, and the new customisable locker feature lets you show off your hard-earned trinkets to friends and foes.
Those threads also look better than ever due to a noticeable visual boost. Splatoon 3 is brighter and shiner – to an overwhelming degree, occasionally – and looks tremendous, especially on a Nintendo Switch OLED model. And despite the increased visual punch, all single and multiplayer games run at a rock-solid 60 frames per second.
It’s fair to say that Splatoon 3 is an exercise in refinement rather than reinvention, but it would be unfair to wield that as criticism; there’s more than enough on offer to justify a new numbered entry in the series. This splat and polish – along with a new calendar of Splatfest events – will reinvigorate the community for years to come. And based on its stellar first-week sales, the game firmly establishes Splatoon at the top table of Nintendo franchises.
Game: Splatoon 3
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: Out now