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Splatoon remains the most playful and stylish shooter around in third outing

And now it has a killer single-player campaign, too

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A trio of new characters from Nintendo’s Splatoon 3.
Image: Nintendo

Splatoon has always been something of an outlier for Nintendo. Here is a company that is infamously bad at the internet yet managed to create one of the most adventurous and singular online shooter franchises of the last decade. Even now, years after the series debuted on the ill-fated Wii U, there’s still nothing quite like the goopy mayhem of a Splatoon Turf War. Splatoon 3 for the Nintendo Switch doesn’t change the formula all that much. It’s not the kind of sequel that takes its predecessor in a brand-new direction. Instead, it builds on that solid foundation with some clever ideas — and finally adds the story-driven Splatoon campaign many of us have been waiting for.

For the uninitiated, the Splatoon games take place in a post-apocalyptic future where humanity is gone, replaced by squid creatures called inklings who act like skate punks and play a lot of paintball. Where the series differs from its contemporaries is that it’s a decidedly non-violent shooter. Instead of firing bullets and grenades, you’re hitting opponents — and the levels themselves — with colorful globs of ink. In the game’s main multiplayer mode, Turf War, the goal isn’t to kill your opponents but to cover the map with as much of your squad’s color as possible. You can still hit the opposing team with a well-placed snipe, but you can also run around the level with a giant paint roller making sure everything is the right shade of blue. It’s a structure that opens up the often intimidating world of online shooters to a whole new audience.

This is still true in Splatoon 3, and, at a glance, it doesn’t look all that different from its predecessor — which isn’t a terrible thing since Splatoon 2 was a great game. But there are some important new things here. The most notable, for me at least, is the single-player mode. Splatoon has always had fairly anemic solo options. That changed slightly with the Octo Expansion for Splatoon 2, which added a campaign for an extra fee after the game launched. Splatoon 3’s offering is similar but more expansive, with players assuming the role of a squid agent fighting through an underground city.

The new Splatsville hub in Splatoon 3.
Image: Nintendo

The levels are a mix of platforming and shooting, sort of like if you crossed Super Mario Odyssey with a cover shooter. They’re also a great showcase for the level design talent at Nintendo: the stages are brimming with ideas, constantly forcing you to use the various weapons and movement options in different ways, as if the level itself was a puzzle to be solved. One of the more memorable stages doesn’t even involve any enemies or dangerous jumps; instead, you’re tasked with destroying wooden boxes in an attempt to copy a giant block sculpture. At one point, you pilot a crab mech that transforms into a massive rolling ball — Overwatch fans who love Wrecking Ball will feel right at home — and other stages have you riding flying bullets at dizzying heights. It’s a great mix that keeps things from getting even close to monotonous.

Some of the levels can get extremely hard — for those who have bad aim like me, good luck at the timed shooting stages — but the structure is also pretty wide open. You earn eggs for completing levels (among other tasks), which can then be used to open up more areas of the map. Whenever I found myself stuck, I always had a few other options to play through instead of the stage that was troubling me. The campaign even has a skill tree where you unlock new skills over the course of the campaign.

Perhaps even more exciting is the fact that we get some real story here. The Splatoon universe is a fascinating one, and over the years, we’ve gotten bits and pieces about the downfall of humanity and the rise of squid-kind. Splatoon 3 makes that narrative a much bigger part of the experience. Over the course of the single-player mode, you’ll fill out a scrapbook full of remnants collected from the old world — ranging from classical paintings to comic book pages to torn-out magazine ads — that let you piece together key moments in humanity’s decline. As you beat levels, you’ll also get access to new computer logs centered on the futuristic and mysterious city of Alterna that are much more explicit about what went down. Often I found myself pushing through a really hard level just in hopes of getting a single juicy sentence of lore. It was always worth the effort.

A Splatoon 3 level covered in ink.
Image: Nintendo

Aside from that, the main draw, of course, is Splatoon’s competitive multiplayer experience. Fundamentally, things haven’t changed much. There’s still the classic Turf War, a four-on-four battle to claim as much territory as possible, as well as Salmon Run, Nintendo’s take on a horde mode (which, thankfully, is now always playable, as opposed to only at specific times like in Splatoon 2). There are new weapons, including a very satisfying bow and a wiper that doubles as a paint-flinging katana. Joining these additions are some nice quality-of-life tweaks, such as a lobby that doubles as a firing range where you can practice while waiting for a match. Even better: you no longer have to watch a short broadcast every time you boot up the game. There’s also a beautiful new hub city called Splatsville to explore.

Unfortunately, since the game isn’t out yet, I was only able to experience a taste of this through some matches with other members of the press and folks at Nintendo. Turf War was as fun as always, but it’s impossible to properly judge an online experience until it’s out in the world. I haven’t even been able to test the intriguing new in-universe card game. How will the new weapons and maps impact the meta? Will Nintendo keep things interesting with timed events like the iconic Splatfests? How much time will I spend unlocking the perfect outfit for my squid kid? These are all impossible to answer now, and it will likely be weeks or months before we really know if Splatoon 3 has legs. (Expect more from me in the future as the game’s online experience becomes more clear.) That said, Nintendo is at least saying the right things, promising regular free updates of weapons and gear for the next two years.

As it stands, Splatoon 3 has just about everything I’d want in a sequel — and my real hope is that it’ll be a nice, long while before we see another one. The online space has changed dramatically since Splatoon debuted in 2015, with almost every large-scale multiplayer game essentially doubling as a live service experience. The living, breathing worlds of games like Fortnite have altered player expectations. I spent a long time perfecting my craft (and wardrobe) in Splatoon 2, and now I have to essentially start over from scratch. Hopefully, Splatoon 3 has the kind of life — and support from Nintendo — that means I won’t have to do that again for a long time.

Splatoon 3 launches on the Nintendo Switch on September 9th.