The key to Splatoon is mobility. While victory may be determined by the percentage of terrain your team has claimed, that terrain both grants and requires mobility.
Before I explain that, perhaps I should explain what Splatoon is to those woefully unaware of the game’s existence. Splatoon is a new team-based third-person shooter released by Nintendo. You play as a child that also happens to be a squid, and the primary focus is to leap into the “Turf Wars” multiplayer and fight with three other kids to cover as much territory of a given map with your team’s color of ink. Naturally, there will be an opposing team of an opposing color trying to accomplish the same goal.
If shooting at the floors was really all there was to the game, then it wouldn’t be any fun. It would be a tedious time waster. This is where mobility comes into play. On regular, ink-less turf, the player is capable of moving at regular speed as a kid. If the player really wants to move, they’re going to need to swim. In order to swim, you need to lay enough of your ink down over the environment. This allows the player to move at least twice as fast as normal, as well as refills their ink supply. Step in the opponent’s ink, however, and the player will stomp through the opposing color as if wading through knee-high mud.
Therefore the ultimate goal of the game isn’t merely to cover more territory, it’s to restrict the opposing team’s movement.
Let’s take the game’s scoring method into account. The more territory you splatter, the more points you get. However, if you focus meticulously on a single area, you won’t really get a lot of points. The game also doesn’t provide points for walls. This means to score as high as possible, which also rewards more experience and more cash at the end of the match, the player is going to want to constantly be on the move. Lay down some ink, swim on through, and lay down more. In order to always be on the move, it is most advantageous to have more ink available to swim in.
Even though walls don’t count towards the player’s score, the game’s early tutorials and even single player campaign make a point to emphasize early on that the player should coat walls with ink and swim on up the vertical surface. This is because walls provide a tactical advantage. They can allow a shortcut into enemy territory, or grant the player a quick route to high ground that offers a better vantage point and range to the surrounding map. But be careful, as these spots are also quite visible and give the enemy a spot to target.
So while Splatoon may determine victory by territory, the mechanics favor the mobile.
What about the recently released “Splat Zones” game mode, exclusive to the ranked battle? This is a mode whose rules are similar to traditional King of the Hill games, where you want to have a certain portion of the map covered and occupied by your team for a greater time than your opponent. However, if you focus purely on that single zone, you will lose. It becomes a kill box, and your team members will have no place to run once the enemy focuses all of their efforts on that location. The surrounding area is just as, if not more, important as it allows players a haven to escape to.
At first blush, “Splat Zones” seemed more oriented towards combat than “Turf Wars”, the latter of which being a match where a player can score well despite avoiding enemies and combat during an entire match. All that matters there is territory covered, after all. “Splat Zones”, on the other hand, pushes players into a closed in scenario, where combat is seemingly inevitable. However, the clever player can still focus more on terrain, providing a space for their team to travel against their opponent or by focusing on cutting the enemy’s escape off.
This is the secret ingredient to making Splatoon so fun. While there’s an advantage to “killing”, or more accurately “splattering” other players, it’s mostly just a way to buy time. It is, if anything, a support role. In fact, all of the roles are support roles in some fashion. Even if you’re entirely focused on covering as much area as you can, hoping to get a high score in Turf Wars so that you can level up your gear and unlock new abilities, you’re still helping provide your allies a space to maneuver and recharge ink. Even if you’re going to stay at a distance and snipe, a role that barely covers any ground in ink at all, you’re likely going to prevent an enemy player’s progress for a few crucial seconds. Seconds that, in a three minute match, are absolutely precious.
It could be, a minute into the match, that one of your teammates finds themselves head to head with an enemy player in central territory. Because you managed to coat certain walls and floors with ink, your teammate is capable of diving into the ink, hiding themselves from view of their opponent, swimming up the wall and gaining the high ground. The opponent is just shooting in front of them, and suddenly your teammate rains inky death from above, keeping themselves in the game and removing one player from the opponent’s side for several seconds.
That is the nature of Splatoon. The course of battle can change any minute, and all because the team with the advantage of mobility loses crucial territory. When I first played the game I thought the key to its fun was a notion of “dynamic objectives”, where a simple glance at the map can inform the player of a new location that needs attention. This, however, is driven by the need for territory and mobility.
What makes Splatoon so different from other shooters is that “killing” other players is helping, but it is not the core of the game. The core is about mobility, which is gained through the objective of covering territory.
As a result, anyone can be of use. It may take some time to figure out, but even a child can understand the strategies to the game’s various modes. Even players that are no good at direct conflict within the game can be of use. I expect no less from a Nintendo game, and they certainly delivered.