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Splatoon 3 Review In Progress: Do You Need It Over Splatoon 2?

You may not need it, but it's what everyone with a Switch is likely to be playing.

Splatoon 3 screenshot, shooting ink at a boss.
Splatoon 3 is familiar, with enough upgrades to make it interesting for serious players.
Nintendo/Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

My 9-year-old told me he already wants to buy it. But he's still playing Splatoon 2, happily ranking up, while I play bits of Splatoon 3 right next to him. One of Nintendo's biggest in-house Switch games of the holidays this year is a sequel that isn't necessarily something you need to buy. It feels like a new season of a beloved sport, as opposed to a whole new sport.

Too soon, I almost wondered? No way: Splatoon 2 came out five years ago, which kind of shocked me. But in Nintendo years, Splatoon 3 feels early. Mario Kart 8 has lived in repeating iterations since it emerged on the Wii U eight years ago (and still sells for $45), although new tracks have kept it alive. Splatoon 2 could easily have taken that path instead, launching new DLC modes that could have let it live on for years more. But, Splatoon 3 is here, regardless. (It goes on sale this Friday, Sept. 9.)

What I'm saying is that Splatoon 2 is still a really great game, and playing Splatoon 3 doesn't really feel all that tremendously different. Multiplayer battles have largely the same mechanics, with a few new moves, new weapons and new stages. Turf War, the classic battle where your percentage of the paint-splattered stage determines the win, is still wonderful, and still similar. Anarchy Battles (which I didn't get to try yet prerelease; my online connection acted up) have four different modes to lend more esports flavor to the competition. Salmon Run, a co-op survival game against waves of enemies, is now an always-available mode instead of the sometimes-around oddity it was on Splatoon 2. 

Tableturf Battle screenshot, of a puzzle battle game.

Tableturf Battle: I want to play this as an actual board game.

Nintendo/Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

There's also a tiny and fun collectible card game in Splatoon 3 that I'm weirdly into, called Tableturf Battle. Card-weapons become Tetris-like blocks you lay onto a grid to claim territory in a turn-based battle. It's almost like the board game Blokus in Nintendo card form (and I'd buy it as a board game, too, if it existed).

A lot of the other extras in Splatoon 3 are collectibles -- there are a ton, along with lockers that can be laid out to show off possessions to friends, but the customization game isn't always for me.

I'm a terrible online team player, and lousy at shooters. Splatoon is forgiving enough that I can feel like a nonfailure, sometimes, while still relentless enough to make me feel like I have a lot of work to do. It's still maybe my favorite thing about the game.

There are a few Splatoon alternatives now for competitive team gaming on the Switch, many of them free to play, like Knockout City and Fall Guys. There's also Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Super Smash Bros. and Mario Strikers: Battle League. Splatoon's quick matches win me over, especially when the chaos and strategy seem to balance just right.

Read moreBest Games on Nintendo Switch

The weirdest part of Splatoon 3 is its story mode, which I didn't know would be an exploration of how mankind became extinct and intelligent squid-octopus creatures ruled this game universe. I wasn't craving an origin story for Splatoon, but I love it. It's as surprising as Kirby and the Forgotten Land's apocalyptic origin story. (What's with Nintendo's year of subtly dark cute post-apocalypse games?) I daren't share any more spoilers, though: Like previous games' single-player modes, it's a fun mix of gameplay tutorial and puzzle-solving action.

As CNET's Sean Keane noted when he played Splatoon 3 at an early hands-on event, a lot of the new game's features are so subtle that you might need to play a lot to appreciate them. I would have loved some bolder moves. A big new idea that I love is the three-team SplatFest, which ends in a three-color turf war. But that's only for special events, alas (one of which just wrapped up as a free demo session). I'd love if Nintendo explored this idea in the rest of Splatoon 3, opening up the concepts for the gameplay even further. What if you could have turf wars with four, five or six colors? Madness, you may say. I'd like to see the rainbow.

A yellow Inkling wields a Tri-Stringer Bow in Splatoon 3

The Tri-Stringer Bow, one of a number of new weapons that do surprising things with ink.

Nintendo

While Splatoon 3 doesn't quite feel like a massive leap forward compared to Splatoon 2, it's also likely to be the game most Splatooners will be inking on this fall. Considering Nintendo doesn't currently have that many other big games to come this year (other than Bayonetta 3 and Pokemon Scarlet and Violet, that is), this might be the place to be if you're looking for the next must-have online multiplayer hit. But, at $60, it'll be interesting to see how many Switch gamers just decide to play Splatoon 2 instead. The same-but-different feel reminds me of many Madden football updates of years past, in some ways. At least, in this case, it's been five years. 

Nintendo is promising more updates, including new weapons and stages, and some sort of paid DLC that could mirror the expansion that hit Splatoon 2. 

But Splatoon 3 still doesn't have the one feature my kid wants most of all: a split-screen co-op mode so I can play with him on the same TV with only one copy of the game. I'll need to buy a second copy for that for his Switch, or hope Nintendo enables this as an update someday (hint, hint, Nintendo).