Happiness is a worm gun.
Worms burrows. They’re all simple games but, man, they just dig and dig during the hour it takes me to acquaint myself with every new Worms iteration. Always there’s a moment where the game just clicks and I slap my forehead and think that’s why I love the series. Something like creating the perfect battleground for death and destruction. Or hearing a worm’s spoken insult, spiked with cheeky English humor. Maybe letting go of the trigger button too early or too late, an explosive miscalculation that sends a pack of worms, both mine and the enemies, flying in all directions screaming and cursing. Try something from the back catalogue like Worms World Party or Worms Armageddon. It’ll happen. It’s only a matter of time.
That’s why it’s a shock that I “got” Worms 4: Mayhem right away. It allowed me to check practically everything off my list of things I thought the series should do with its second 3D effort. Yorkshire-based developer Team 17 balanced the game. They smoothed the corners. They treated last year’s Worms 3D as a stepping stone and corrected all of its problems. But then did nothing more. Imagine the (almost) perfect 3D Worms game for long enough so that when it finally does arrive, there’s nothing left to surprise.
US: Jul 2007
The big non-surprise: the core gameplay remains intact. No reason to mess with that. With your team of worms, the goal remains to take out all enemy worms using an arsenal of weapons like missile strikes, bazookas, shotguns, dynamite, and baseball bats. Anything that’s typically designed to make a large gaping hole (and even some that don’t, like combustible grannies and sheep that explode in a show of fire and lamp chops) is represented. It’s all turn-based so each turn you’re given less than a minute to maneuver your worm into position, take aim, and pull the trigger before handing the controller to the next person. Every inch of land is fully destructible and, regardless of the outcome, there’s always a peculiar tinge of accomplishment as the camera pans around the map surveying the mess and rubble created by such tiny hands.
Getting a round of friends to join is what makes having a copy of Worms always in retention. So especially in comparison, the single-player story pales considerably, which is also not much of a surprise. But it’s never more apparent that Team 17 is traveling into the new century kicking and screaming (or, more appropriately, wriggling contemptuously). Can you believe Worms still doesn’t have proper voice acting? Well, the worms chatter and yell during battle and the voices are always humorous and affable. And so it’s even more baffling why the narration and dialogue in cutscenes is a discord of mewling, beeping gibberish. Cost-cutting measure? Consciously obnoxious? Less entertaining than it should be? Whatever the reason, it was a mistake.
The story mode is actually a cute tale about a worm class field trip gone wrong that causes them to jump around eons of time, trying to find a way back home. But for all that setup, the action itself lacks narrative heft. Sure, you’re in the desert and there are a lot of cacti for the Wild West world, or there’s the necessary architecture for Arabian palace world, but they’re never more than visual cues to destroy. The worms don’t do different things in the different centuries (it’s almost always kill these opposing worms with this set of weapons, or get from point A to B and don’t die along the way) and the action feels completely removed from the story.
So once you set up some multiplayer games, appreciation comes much easier once you realize how much more playable this is over Worms 3D. It makes Mayhem sound like a series of errata and revisions but, really, you’ve got to sweat the small stuff for a game so miniature. Inhaling poison gas, for example, was barely a danger before. Now it’s a constant life-sucking threat in the form of randomly placed barrels and land mines, and new weapons like the poison-tipped bow and arrow. The Worms 3D gas canister was a bauble that leaked gas, utterly laughable and useless. In Mayhem, it now explodes, leaving a dead zone of green vapor that lasts for several turns.
But the most welcome improvement is the removal of the wacky moon physics. In 3D, the slightest touch or explosion would send the worms flying and, once landed, sliding like upon ice. And because every map is surrounded by fatal water, worms rarely died from health loss; one well-placed bazooka shot was enough to send them straight into the drink. Gravity takes back its place in Worms 4 and in turn that bit of determination and skill required to take out the worms.
The second grand improvement? Team 17 bidding farewell to the maps that had cubes and platforms floating above the ocean like a crappy George Braques scribble. Every exquisitely designed level in the story mode can be unlocked for multiplayer and even the randomly generated maps are complex enough to have the feel of (dare I say) intelligent design.
The scattered level design and floaty controls is part of the 2D Worms’ appeal, something that Worms 3D vainly clutched as the series transitioned into modern times. Worms 4 takes baby steps away from that but, like said before, it’s all just errata and revisions. As appreciated they are, this is not the full transformation to really wow us. This game’s fun and entertaining, but after 12 years of this series, Team 17’s universe has become so effortlessly amusing that anything less than amazing from these worms becomes lazy and a bit spineless.