It’s hard to believe it’s been almost twenty years since we were first introduced to the explosive invertebrate action game Worms. What was once a hilariously charming take on the traditional turn-based strategy has now become somewhat of an aging veteran in the gaming world. Perhaps then a museum is the adequate theatre of war for Worms Battlegrounds, the nineteenth entry into Team 17’s delightfully witty but all-too-familiar series.
The original game landed on the Amiga back in 1995, before being ported to virtually every games console imaginable, and while the regular garden worm may not be your ideal man o'war, Team 17’s deadly invertebrates certainly had a little more backbone, and a hell of a lot more charisma. From exploding sheep and holy hand grenades, to high pitched takes on regional accents, the series owes an awful lot to the proud tradition of British comedy.To that end, Worms Battlegrounds tries to move with the times and features the vocal talents of Katherine Parkinson, best known for role in the Channel 4 comedy The IT Crowd.
As the narrator to the game’s single player campaign, she portrays tomb raider, relic hunter and general crypt-blower-upper extraordinaire Lady Tara Pinkle - and she has summoned you to the museum because she requires your assistance. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to retrieve an ancient relic with the power to psychically control worms to do your bidding. The relic in question is the fabled stone carrot, which just so happens to be in the clutches of the evil worm, Lord Crawley-Mesmer.
The single player mode is made up of twenty-five historically themed, almost fully destructible levels in total, taking your crackpot clan of wriggly worms behind enemy lines into the various exhibits the museum has to offer. There are five areas in total, ranging from the Stone Age and the ice-cold era of Vikings, right through to Ancient China and the Industrial Revolution. Missions generally comprise of getting from one end of the map to the other, taking out the armies of mind-controlled enemies in your way, making the single player mode more of a tutorial rather than an expansion on what was traditionally a multiplayer favourite.
It makes for a good introduction (or reintroduction) to the series as each level progressively trains you up in the ways of the wormy warrior. Each level contains a number of puzzles, most of which can be solved with the use of the usual Worms toolkit. A well-placed shot from your trusty bazooka or making a quick getaway with the infamous ninja rope gives you plenty of experience, preparing you for the real challenge in the game’s various multiplayer modes and, for a time, adding a bit of variety to the traditional clan vs clan gameplay. Getting a chance to put the game’s ever expanding arsenal of ridiculous weaponry, such as exploding the old granny or making weapon drops with the winged monkey, is great fun, even if you don’t plan on using them all when you eventually venture online.
As usual, your clan consists of four worms, even in levels where you’re outnumbered by enemy clans. Thankfully, each of the four has their own personality and perks. Your soldier worm is the most balanced and can remotely detonate grenades before their fuse completely depletes. The scout worm meanwhile can walk over mines without setting them off, while jumping higher than the rest of his company, despite being more susceptible to getting tossed across the screen like a ragdoll in the face of an explosion. The scientist has a huge cranium to contain an abnormally large brain and gives your clan five health points at the start of his turn, while rounding off the platoon is the tough-as-nails heavy worm, who may be slow moving, but can use immense strength to punch, kick or baseball bat the enemy to kingdom come.
The campaign doesn’t come without its problems however. First of all, entire turns can consist of just walking from A to B within the allotted time. Rival worms shout “Boring!” and you can’t help but agree. Level designs are partly to blame, while sometimes poorly worded tips and hints can lead to you making an error and having to revert back to the last checkpoint. When a rival worm takes their turn, surprisingly, they have to think about it. Patiently waiting for an enemy worm to decide whether he wants to fire a few rounds at you with an Uzi, or just perform a Street Fighter-inspired Dragon Punch becomes rather tedious, particularly when you’re trying to rattle through the level as quickly as possible. If only there was a button you could press to shout “Boring!” right back at them while you wait.
It takes only a few hours to bazooka, blow-torch, dynamite and girder your way through the main campaign, so there are a number of time trialled “Worm Ops” missions to undertake as well. These are in keeping with more traditional style of gameplay the series has become known for, while being a clever play on the increasingly popular game mode that features in modern first-person shooters such as Call of Duty or Halo. Worms IS a war game after all.
Local and online multiplayer have of course always been at the heart of the Worms franchise and Battlegrounds remains faithful to the series’ roots. Putting clan vs clan is great fun particularly because everyone has their own unique approach to how they play. Whether you’re one to build a towering fort and defend, or just go in all guns blazing depends on your strategy, but no matter how you play, you’re guaranteed to feel waves of nostalgia, even when you are laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of it all.
Before going online, you can create and customise your own platoon to suit your personality. Naming worms after your heroes or even just your mates has always been part of the game’s appeal, so being able to give them moustaches, hats and other accessories allows you to further put your stamp on an otherwise tried and tested formula. There’s even a level editor which means you can put your strategic mind to work, trying to craft a twisted battleground that even the best armchair general might struggle to make it through alive. We’re a long way from the random level generator days of old.
As far as the pre-made levels go, they can be problematic at the best of times. Despite being colourful and taking full advantage of the game’s historical themes, certain parts of the backdrop are indistinguishable from the foreground. Seemingly innocent jumps can send you into chasms and pits that are difficult to clamber out of, wasting turn after turn using girders or throwing your ninja rope in an attempt to make a valiant escape. It’s good to see the series has moved past its previous obsession with trying to make an all 3D Worms game, but even on PS4, it shows its age. The frame rate does drop on occasion which is bizarre for such a simple game.
To make things worse, some of the awkward controls that have plagued Worms since the nineties have remained unaddressed. Far too often time is wasted trying to find the perfect ridged spot that will allow you to perform a backflip onto an overhanging ledge. It’s tedious and annoying, to the point where frustration kicks in and you feel like restarting the game altogether. The controls themselves translate well to the DualShock 4, bringing with them the only real benefit to this console version, aside from the fact that strategy games are few and far between. The worms hilarious trademark taunts between turns comes through the speaker, while the touchpad can be turned into a hot key of sorts to which you can map up to four of your favourite weapons.
They’re nice touches, and there’s no denying that it’s the biggest Worms game to date. However, there just aren’t enough new features to warrant the somewhat hefty price tag currently attached to a game that is essentially a port of last year’s Worms: Clan Wars. A disc copy has the RRP of £34.99, while on the PlayStation Store, it costs a more reasonable £19.99, which may be enough to tempt strategy games, given that consoles are generally starved of the genre.
The core gameplay may even leave you feeling a little nostalgic. Team 17 took a simple idea, blowing up enemy worms named after your mates with an arsenal of ridiculous weaponry, and turned it into one of the most iconic and fun memories in gaming. But that was 1995 and here we are in 2014 realising that not much has changed in nearly two decades. That goes for the series’ flaws as well, turning what should be the retro fun of Worms Battlegrounds into another peculiar case of history repeating.