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Splatoon: What You Need to Know About Nintendo's First Shooter

Splatoon, Nintendo's first-ever third-person shooter, is a beautiful mess. Eschewing the grimness and hyperviolence of many modern gun games, this new Wii U exclusive has two teams spray an arena with as much colorful ink as possible, in a battle for who can cover more ground.

It's Nintendo's first brand-new franchise in a long time, starring adorable, player-customized "Inkling" characters that can transform into squids. If you're eager to splat your friends all over the world, here's everything you need to know about Splatoon.

What's Splatoon all about?

Splatoon is a squad-based (and squid-based) four-on-four online shooter in which players must cover as much of the battlefield as possible with their team's color of ink, using a variety of neat guns and bombs.

It's not just about spraying, though — your cutesy character can transform into a squid, allowing you to swim through any portions of the arena covered in your team's ink and pass through obstacles (such as fences) that you normally wouldn't be able to traverse. Get stuck in the enemy's ink, however, and you'll be knocked out. At the end of a 3-minute Turf War — the game's current main multiplayer mode — the team that has coated more of the playing field wins.

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As you play Splatoon online, you'll level up and earn cash, allowing you to unlock and buy new weapons, as well as gear that gives you a distinct look in battle. Once your character reaches level 10, you can play more intense ranked battles that track your wins and losses. Splatoon's weapon set includes the Splattershot, a water-gun-like assault rifle; the Splat Charger, which works great at a distance; and the Splat Roller, which, as its name suggests, is a massive paint roller that lets you mow down enemies.

If competition isn't your thing, you can play a full single-player campaign called Octo Valley. This mode has you wage war against evil octopuses, across levels that pack plenty of hidden goodies and challenging traversal puzzles. If you want to play with a friend in the same room, check out the Battle Dojo mode, which lets you go one-on-one, with one person playing on the TV and the second using the Wii U gamepad's screen.

Is Splatoon any fun?

Based on our time with the game, Splatoon is a refreshing take on the shooter genre that mixes new ideas with Nintendo's signature charm. Online matches can be every bit as intense as those of Halo or Call of Duty, even without bullets and blood. Splatoon's swim-and-shoot gameplay flow is unique and satisfying — few things are as enjoyable as diving in and out of your team's ink puddles while carefully avoiding the enemy's, before finally trapping one of your foes with a well-timed grenade.

To dominate in the game, you must pick your weapons (and your shots) carefully, as charging blindly toward the enemy will likely get you stuck. Some of my favorite Splatoon moments have come at the end of each Turf War battle, when you get to see a bird's-eye view of the multicolored mess that you and your opponents have made.

While Splatoon is billed primarily as an online multiplayer game, it's the Octo Valley single-player mode that nearly steals the show. Octo Valley turns Nintendo's shooter into an inventive platformer, filled with clever stages that highlight the game's addicting spray-then-swim traversal mechanics. Some highlights of Octo Valley include sponges that expand when you shoot them, paint geysers that elevate you to new heights and armored octopus foes that you'll have to distract with grenades before taking down.

Even just hanging out in Splatoon is awesome. The game's hub world lets you see other Inklings and view their gear and stats, and doodles that players post to Miiverse (Nintendo's social network) will randomly show up as in-game graffiti.

Does Splatoon support amiibo toys?

Yep! Nintendo has launched a new series of Splatoon amiibo, including an Inkling Girl, an Inkling Boy and a straight-up Squid. Tapping one of these three toys into your Wii U gamepad unlocks a set of challenges that yield exclusive gear once you beat them.

How does it use the Wii U Gamepad?

While some Wii U games can be played entirely on the Wii U gamepad's built-in screen, the majority of Splatoon needs to be played on a TV. The gamepad's second screen serves as a map when you're in battle or navigating the hub world, and you can even play a charmingly pixelated mini game called Squid Jump on the small screen when you're waiting for an online match.

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Does the game support voice chat?

Oddly enough, no. Despite being a team-based shooter that calls for strategic play, Splatoon ships without voice-chat capabilities, presumably to prevent young players from being exposed to the sometimes nasty language that online games inspire. 

Is downloadable content on the way?

Yes, and all of it will be free. Nintendo plans to roll out new stages to complement the game's five starting arenas throughout the summer, and will eventually add new Ranked Battle modes, such as Tower Control and Rainmaker. New weapons (including an awesome-looking Inkbrush) and clothing will also be added to the game regularly. If you're worried that the squid-shooting action of Splatoon might grow stale, don't; there should be plenty of new stuff to keep you busy over the next few months.

Mike Andronico is an Associate Editor at Tom's Guide. Follow Mike @MikeAndronico. Follow us @TomsGuide, on Facebook and on Google+.