From the moment you pick up a Nintendo Switch, it feels like a magical device. The company nailed the hybrid TV / portable concept and created a genuinely fun console that seemed to shed the awkwardness of the Wii U. Indeed, Nintendo has a habit for making fun consoles -- but for the last three generations, it's failed to build online communication options on par with Xbox Live or PlayStation Network.
Rather than baking voice chat into the Switch itself, Nintendo's new console relegates the feature to a companion smartphone app. We just tried it out and it works, but it's messy, confusing and completely unintuitive.
The idea behind the Nintendo Switch Online app isn't a bad one -- it's designed so players can access game data, communicate with other players and organize online matches with friends even when they are away from their consoles. Each game will have its own in-app hub with a bevy of options. You can use the app to access SplatNet 2, for instance, to view your match history in Splatoon 2, check which multiplayer maps are in rotation, and even use in-game currency to buy new gear for your character.
Most of those features work perfectly well -- seeing how much ink I've spilled in Splatoon 2 is neat, as is the ability to see how I performed in the last 50 matches -- but the communication aspect is where the experience falls apart. Using the Nintendo Switch Online app to join a voice chat in Splatoon 2 is both physically and logistically complicated.
Here's how it works right now: Players who want to voice chat with friends need to visit the Online Lounge menu of Splatoon 2's multiplayer lobby and create a room. This opens a private match and sends a notification to the player's smartphone -- where they can then invite friends to join them through their friends list, a shortlist of other players they've encountered in other voice chat sessions who aren't on their friends list or via a link sent out over social media.
Players invited to that voice chat room will see a notification on their Nintendo Switch -- but they won't be able to simply join it by opening the smartphone app alone. Instead, they have to open the app and join the private match through the Splatoon 2 Online Lounge menu. It doesn't matter if you're starting or joining voice chat through the Nintendo Switch Online app, you're going to be juggling your smartphone and your console.
To make the cumbersome experience worse, hosting voice through the smartphone app separates the game's audio from the chat audio -- which potentially creates a situation where a player is wearing multiple pairs of headphones or choosing between hearing the game and hearing their teammates in voice chat. Nintendo and manufacturers like HORI are creating headset accessories that merge the two audio sources together, but that adds yet a third device into the Nintendo Switch-voice juggling act.
There are limitations, too. If users switch to a different smartphone app, they'll be temporarily removed from voice chat -- making it impossible to check text messages without removing yourself from the conversation. The app also requires the screen to stay on at all times, which takes a significant toll on the phone's battery life. Finally, the chat ends as soon as your multiplayer sessions is over. If you want to use the Nintendo Online app for cross game chat with friends playing other Switch games, you're out of luck.
At least once everything's set up the experience works pretty well. While in the lobby in between rounds of Splatoon 2, all players can chat amongst themselves -- but when a match starts, each team is automatically sorted into private chat rooms. The voice quality isn't bad either and seems on par with Skype or other VOIP programs on a smartphone. Unfortunately, it offers few advantages over just using one of those services instead.
It's early for Nintendo's voice chat solution -- the only game that supports it isn't even out yet, and the service itself has only been live for a few hours -- but at first blush, it's not off to a great start. The act of juggling menus between two different devices is cumbersome and frustrating, and the entire process isn't intuitive to new users at all.
Relegating the chat functions to a separate device is a strange decision, too. Competing services like Xbox Live and PlayStation solved the puzzle of online multiplayer voice chat years ago. Nintendo seems to be reinventing the wheel for no reason.
It's worth noting, however, that the Nintendo's Switch Online services are technically in beta and won't have a full feature launch until early 2018. With any luck, the company will iron out the kinks by then. For now, however, Nintendo's solution for online voice chat is cumbersome, unintuitive and weird. Unfortunately, that's classic Nintendo.
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