PAX EAST 2015: Splatoon Preview – Slip n’ Slide

PAX weekend is still young, but that doesn’t mean it’s too soon to choose favorites. When I consider the elements that comprise a positive gaming experience on the show floor — great gameplay, a pleasant and comfortable demo space, positive interactions with fellow gamers and showgoers — Splatoon ticks each box with ease, and makes it look easy in the process. My press appointment has come and gone, and yet I find myself yearning for more time with the game, even if it means waiting in a multi-hour line to do so. If that’s not a litmus test for the quality of a title’s show-presence, then I certainly don’t know what is.

My favorite thing about Splatoon has always been its clever subversion of most shooters’ primary objective; shooting and killing opponent players. Yes, it’s perfectly possible to dispatch human foes with bombs or stiff jets of ink, but only as a means to an end. When the points are tallied, your team will need to have doused more of the of stage in ink than opposing forces, or else victory will elude you — no exceptions. Fancy headshots (which are never highlighted by the game, by the way) won’t save you, and I didn’t realize how refreshing that would feel until I experienced it.

In a strange way, Splatoon almost reminds me of Graffiti mode in the Tony Hawk series; traverse levels, establish territory, repeat. Ink, the game’s primary mechanic and gameplay device, is the means by which nearly all of your strategies will take shape, and I found the Wii U’s GamePad-based controls to be a surprisingly natural match for Splatoon’s run and gun in no particular direction style of play.

3DS and Wii U Zelda players will already know this control scheme well. Aiming is handled via GamePad movement, thanks to its built-in gyro sensors. The camera can be re-centered via a button press for fine-tuning your view, while triggers handle shooting and squid-ing. Oh, that’s right — the whole turning into a squid thing. It’s Splatoon’s ace in the hole, and is not only how you’ll restore ink once its depleted, but also your main mechanism of stealth, fast-travel, and even ambush or coordinated sneak-attack.

One of my concerns with Splatoon that’s persisted since the beginning is that it might be too easy to simply plaster everything in ink and hide in the shadows will full ammo, waiting to strike opponents down. This could lead to stalemates, where players simply wait for the other team to slip up instead of taking the offensive. While the ticking clock certainly helps this along, there’s something else that impacts it even more strongly — un-inkable surfaces.

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The demo stage we played on (by “we” I mean my team of four, the Patriots, versus the opposing four Seahawks) featured ample amounts of this slippery ink-proof material, and its presence forced me to think when I didn’t expect I’d need to. Additionally, it encouraged me to use fast-travel more often by tapping teammates on the GamePad: doing so in squid mode launches you into the air toward an allied player, landing safely in the nearest ink-pool of your team’s corresponding color. It’s a great way to get back in on the action after respawning, yet still allows for domination by one team or the other when things get hectic. If 3 players or your entire team are killed at approximately the same time, you can bet your opponents will reclaim gobs of territory while your forces scramble back into the fray without the ability to squid-leap directly there.

Nintendo reps present during the carnage told me that Splatoon will feature ample character customization, but outside of a slew of interchangeable weapons I wasn’t able to witness much of it during my demo. To me the most thrilling element of online play is seeing other players with amazing gear that you just have to have, and thus making it your unwavering goal to acquire it. A mix between weapons and gear upgrades but also awesome non-functional character adornments will determine how effective this ends up being, and I’m personally hoping for a particular emphasis on the latter. In fact, I’m calling it now — you’ll be able to unlock and wear a Mario hat.

Splatoon is releasing sooner than you think; this May on Wii U exclusively. My demo suggests that it won’t be delayed or pushed back, as the game looks polished, feels fluid, and offers frantic “deathmatch” fun that, all things considered, is probably going to account for the majority of your time spent playing it. There is one nagging question that remains, however. Will there be Splatoon amiibo? I was met only with a laugh and silence when I asked, so for now you’ll have to interpret that for yourself. We all know what happened the last time Nintendo employees were caught laughing.