Nintendo titles tend to look back. That's what happens when a company has spent decades building a sprawling legacy of classics. They stack atop each other like layers of a cake, with new titles built on the foundation of older ones. With years of history, the games exude equal parts polish and nostalgia.
But "Splatoon 2" is different -- a sequel born in the modern age, influenced by the online-shooter genre and molded by the youth culture of today.
At startup, players create a character called an Inkling, a humanoid protagonist who can also turn into a squid. They're then set loose on Inkopolis Square, a trendy shopping district where players hang out with avatars of other online players. They can purchase outfits and weapons, but the centerpiece of this area is the lobby, where players queue up for online competition.
That's what Inklings do for fun -- gather in teams of four, and battle each other in a high-concept form of paintball. The gameplay fundamentals are similar to FPS titles, but this being a Nintendo project, the developers have turned the gameplay on its head and wrapped it in a nonviolent package.
They can fire and splat each other, as in other shooters, but what's more important is for teams to cover the ground with their ink. That's the key to winning in Turf Wars. These battles are timed, and the team that slathers more of their ink on the map wins.
It's a clever concept that favors teamwork and strategy over quick-twitch skills. Nintendo bolsters that idea by linking combat and traversal to that ink. Players don't have a reload button; instead, they must turn into a squid and swim in the ink to replenish their supplies. In addition, squid mode allows Inklings to move faster and climb ink-covered walls.
There's also a slew of customization options, as well as a progression system. Players can spend the money earned from each online match on hats, clothes and shoes that boost their stats. They can even buy weapons, including the new "dualies" and "brellas," which change how teams attack a level.
A diverse set of weapons permits different forms of play. Arms such as the Chargers are good for long-range attacks, but awful for splattering the ground. Rollers are great for covering the map with paint, but not the best in mid- or long-range fights. Meanwhile, players have various types of grenades and specialized weapons that can be mixed or matched.
With "Splatoon 2," Nintendo doesn't rewrite the formula. It doubles down on the core experience and expands the ways to play. The developer continues to give fans a curated experience, rotating stages every few hours. In Ranked Battle, players can participate in contests with other rule sets, such as splat zones, tower control and rainmaker.
For dedicated competitors and their teams, there's even a League Battle, which requires friends and a commitment to a 2-hour session.
Those looking for a more cooperative mode can check out Salmon Run. Up to four players must work together to survive waves of enemies while harvesting salmon eggs and depositing them in a basket. (It's the equivalent of the Horde mode in the "Gears of War" series.) Unfortunately, that mode is available only as a local-play mode and at select times online.
To ensure that teams can communicate, the developers offer a Nintendo Switch Online App for smartphones. That companion program enables them to communicate during battle. It also features player stats and the option to buy items from the in-app store. I wasn't able to test this out, but it will be interesting to see how Nintendo's foray into online chat systems works in real life.
Topping off everything is a Hero mode that's comparable to the original. The single-player campaign essentially teaches players the ins and outs of the game. And this time, the story is a little better, as players once again rescue the great zapfish, but the finale has a predictable twist.
Fans can just enjoy the level design, which again explores the potential for the paintball gameplay.
"Splatoon 2" is a refinement of a good idea -- one that gives players of all stripes a reason to pick up a Nintendo Switch and play.
3 1/2 stars
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Rating: Everyone 10 and older ___
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