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‘Splatoon 3’ adds a fresh coat of paint to a proven formula

(Washington Post illustration; Nintendo)

Splatoon 3

Available on: Nintendo Switch

Developer: Nintendo | Publisher: Nintendo

Release: Sept. 9, 2022

“Splatoon 3” doesn’t change the formula too much from the previous games. That’s okay, because if you’re familiar with it, you already know the formula is golden.

Instead of playing like a traditional online multiplayer shooter that pits players against one other, Splatoon puts players in teams of four and crowns the winning team based off which team has more paint on the field. It leads to a unique, intriguing balancing act where players constantly have to weigh whether it makes sense to attempt to shoot an opponent to temporarily remove them from the battlefield, or instead concentrate on laying down more paint.

What you’ll notice right away if you’re a fan of the series is that the game’s main mode, Turf War, plays very similarly to the previous two titles. This is the game’s bread and butter, the PVP mode users will play most often. “Splatoon 3” also offers three other modes: a single player mode, which offers light platforming and boss battles ala the Super Mario series; a co-op mode that is an extension of the second game’s Salmon Run; and Anarchy Battles, a ranked mode that offers four different game rulesets and is accessible once a player hits Level 10 (or if a player has Splatoon 2 data on their Switch).

Understanding how to play the game and navigating its many modes can be a struggle if you’re a new player. The game is confident in its identity, and doesn’t go out of its way to explain much about its universe. As a relative newcomer, it took me a moment to realize that the Single Player mode is called “The Crater” in the menu, and that the co-op mode can be found under the “Grizzco” option. But it’s easy to understand where to go and how things work within the modes with a little exploration and experimentation. And once you do, you’re in for a treat.

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As previously mentioned, the main mode, Turf War, is largely the same from the past games. You attack your opponents with paint, and to refill your gun, you hold onto a button to enter Squid Form, which allows your character to quickly swim through paint you’ve already laid on the battlefield. The cool thing about Squid Form is that you can travel with it horizontally or vertically, wherever your team’s paint color is splattered on the environment. So it’s easy to see why things can get complicated quickly — your opponent can prevent you from entering the much more mobile Squid Form by simply shooting their paint on top of yours.

The battles are extremely fast-paced, three-minute romps that never feel overlong. Various maps like Mahi-Mahi Resort and Inkblot Art Academy make a return, with subtle aesthetic changes fans will be sure to notice.

Each map features some form of an obstacle. On Mahi-Mahi Resort, for example, parts of the map change elevation, which can provide players an advantage should they pay attention to its patterns and time their movement accordingly.

There are also multiple new movement options, like the Squid Surge, which lets players climb walls quickly, and the Squid Roll, which you can perform by flicking the control stick to quickly change direction. These movement options feel smooth, and they force your opponents to be precise with their aim. New weapons also appear in Turf War, like the new Splatana Wiper, which is a hilarious approximation of a katana that, in reality, is just a windshield wiper.

The different weapon classes are the key to what makes Splatoon so fun. Each weapon has three qualities — how it normally fires, a secondary grenade ability you can use after you absorb a certain amount of paint (it’s indicated by a white line on the ink meter that appears once you enter squid form), and a special attack you can unleash after hitting the highest threshold of paint on the field, indicated by a meter in the top right corner. Experimenting with the different weapons is key, as they not only offer different playstyles for downing opponents, but different methodologies for filling the field with paint. The Paint Roller’s lack of range, for example, is made up for by its ability to move and paint the battlefield simultaneously.

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Gear is another important aspect to customization. There are three gear slots for hats, clothing and shoes respectively. The more you use a piece of gear, the more it levels up, unlocking further passive stat buffs like a shorter revive timer after being downed by an opponent. Because of these two qualities, and the sheer amount of different weapons and gear at your disposal, Turf War becomes a joyful experiment in which you actively try out different playstyles to figure out which matches you best.

Salmon Run Next Wave is the sequel to the co-op mode featured in Splatoon 2. In that game, the co-op mode was only available during short periods of time, but in “Splatoon 3,” the mode is available to players 24/7. That’s a great thing, because Salmon Run could be an entire game in its own right.

The mode features three waves of enemies, and your goal is to collect Salmon Eggs, which get dropped by boss enemies known as Boss Salmonids. Once the boss is downed, it leaves behind three eggs, which players have to quickly deposit in the team’s communal egg basket before an enemy known as a Snatcher grabs the eggs and runs off. There are multiple forms of Boss Salmonids as well. One Salmonid took the shape of a spaceship, and I had to find a way to use the environment to get on top of it and bring it down.

At the end of each game, players receive a certain amount of points, called Grizzco points, that they can exchange for various items in-mode, like cosmetics. This creates an entirely different gameplay loop and provides a welcome break from the PVP chaos of Turf War. Gun loadouts that work for you in Turf War might not necessarily be the proper choice for Salmon Run, since AI enemies function differently from human opponents. It forces you to experiment with guns you might not otherwise want to try.

Then there’s Anarchy Battle, a ranked mode that features four gameplay styles. The first is Clam Blitz, in which players race each other across maps to collect clams. Splat Zones is essentially Turf War but only within certain sections of the map. Tower Control is a King-of-the-Hill-style with a hill that moves. Finally, there’s Rainmaker, where players must escort a giant golden cannon deep within enemy territory to claim victory. Anarchy Battle unlocks once your character hits level 10 (achieved over time by playing Turf War), and you need to spend rank points to play. Teams are matched by the lowest-ranked players on each team. The more battles you win, the more rank points you earn.

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Reviewers were asked to keep plot points for the single-player Crater mode under wraps, but the mode prioritizes platforming and pitting players against bosses in a fashion that would give the Mario series a run for its money.

“Splatoon 3′s” creativity also shines outside of the game modes themselves. The “menu” is actually a hub world called Splatzville, and it’s populated by avatars of other players. While they don’t move around the city, you can examine these players to see their gun and gear load-outs, then order them for yourself from a character named Murch who’s chilling just outside of the main lobby area. To access the games different modes, you navigate the city and enter the buildings that house each mode. You can also access the modes by opening the pause menu, which contain different secrets and Easter eggs hidden throughout the city for players to find.

“Splatoon 3” doesn’t drastically change the formula because it really doesn’t need to. Its modes are varied and offer truly different experiences that would shine on their own. If you’re a newcomer looking to break into the series, you may be a little lost at first, but stick with it. It’s an inky mess well worth your time.