Sunday, 10 November 2013

Worms Ultimate Mayhem Review

Worms Ultimate Mayhem is the 2011 combined remake of Worms 3D and Worms 4 Mayhem with the intent of being the ‘Ultimate’ 3D Worms game. It may have achieved that, but is 3D Worms a concept even worth bothering with?

I remember being surprised to see the release of this. Team 17 had clearly abandoned the idea of making a 3D Worms game after the PS2 generation. After learning that this actually a port/remake I realised that the developers simply wanted to compile a bunch of existing resources so they could make a quick downloadable game for the modern consoles and PC. Not a bad idea, really and I can’t blame them when the assets already exist. I bought the game for XBLA more out of morbid curiosity. I certainly never expected it to become my de-facto multiplayer turn-based strategy game nor did it. I’ve been a fan of Worms since playing the PS1 port of the first game. Worms Armageddon was my first ever PC game in 1999 and it has been a staple of my multiplayer gaming life ever since.

I actually owned Worms 3D for the PS2 and enjoyed it a fair bit but once I abandoned it after a month or so I never looked back. I played it with friends in the odd small-scale birthday party and I will admit four player matches were rather entertaining. Unfortunately that was then and this is now- and now I find Worms 3D borderline unplayable. For the purposes of this review I did dust off my copy of Worms 3D but just found it to be a mess. The biggest problem was with the camera. I blame my issues on a combination of modern generation standards and the improvements Ultimate Mayhem has made. Playing Worms 3D again made Ultimate Mayhem’s improvements all the more obvious.

One thing that has made Worms so massively popular is how accessible it is; something that usually prevents strategy games becoming major mainstream hits. Worms is a turn-based strategy game or rather more specifically, an artillery game in the vein of Scorched Earth. You have a team of worms and you have to take turns shooting the other players worms. Easy. There is a learning curve in understanding how weapons behave but after a session or two of experimentation a new player can probably get enough of a grasp to hold their own in a game against other humans. Yes, there are the insane ‘roper’ players but I won’t discuss that here. For a casual group of players, Worms is easy to get into. Sadly adding an extra dimension multiples the game’s complexity by several orders.

The actual location of the worms in 2D games isn’t an issue. Its never been a problem in any game to navigate a single plane clearly. In 3D there’s a lot of spatial awareness to be… aware of. The game takes a few measures to help players keep track of the game like a radar and the game always keeps the name labels on screen. Put these all together though and it just becomes information overload. It would help to have knowledge of a map before starting but this is a game that includes randomly generated maps. Even with being able to see the enemy moves, it’s hard to get a grasp on where they are in proximity to your team. Hell, just remembering where your own team members are can be a challenge.

Hey remember how home console fighting games like Tekken and Marvel Vs Capcom 2 used to force you to play through the single player in order to unlock half the characters? Do you remember when those games stopped doing that because it was dumb and nobody likes having to play single player just to access the majority of the content for what is mainly a multiplayer game? Well Team 17 apparently didn’t get the memo about people being sick of this antiquated trope. When playing Ultimate Mayhem for the first time I was genuinely shocked by how little content the game had. Well it turns out that most of it has to be unlocked in the item shop. This includes soundbanks, maps, weapon schemes, customisation items and some select weapons. I won’t hesitate when I say that the main draw for the Worms franchise is the multiplayer. That’s a fair assessment to make, right? While the games have always had single player elements, I never enjoyed them too much. I’m fine with playing against bots in a multiplayer game type, my issue is with the structured missions. Sadly in order to unlock things in the item shop, one must play through the story mode. And this isn’t a loose use of the term ‘story’ this game has an actual story mode, complete with cutscenes.

Yes, some madman decided that a Worms game needs a story. This originates in Worms 4 but this is my first exposure to it. I don’t know what to say, really. There’s some fluff about time travel and a professor and… its boring as shit. I don’t wish to sound unnecessarily mean but the story mode is woefully unfunny. It’s the kind of comedy that isn’t offensively bad its not funny either. Its just friggin’ bland and forgettable which in some ways is worse than something. Each level features a narrator with zero charisma and there’s nothing memorable about his lines whatsoever. This may have been written for kids but even children have more discerning tastes in comedy than this. There are other problems with this mode too, for instance your Worms always have the same generic English voice for dialogue, which is pretty jarring when it completely contrasts with the voices you selected for them in-game. The missions are generally just about killing the enemies although they do occasionally add some bullshit like having a pacifist ally you must protect. Ultimate Mayhem adds all the fun of friggin escort missions to the franchise. The mode feels like a chore and realising you have to play it to get to the good stuff makes it an actual chore you have to go through if you want decent material for multiplayer. It’s the most damning thing I can say about a game, its not bad, its just boring and uninspired. Normally I’d let a superficial mode like this by but the problem is, as mentioned, you HAVE to play it to access the content you’ve already paid for. The package also includes the single player campaign from Worms 3D which is even more basic and linear with its objectives. And for some reason the rewards are based on time. Because that’s what a turn-based strategy game needs, time attack. Whaa?

The controls are incredibly unorthodox and downright awkward, contrasting with modern standards. As I mentioned I’m playing this on the 360 so I cannot comment on the keyboard + mouse setup. Even the HD port of Resident Evil 4 included an option to use the triggers to aim and shoot. To aim in first person you have to press a face button. Every time I load this game I can never remember the damn controls. In fact I often get confused even in the middle of a match. Worms 2 Armageddon on XBLA burned into my mind that A is jump which has resulted in a lot of cliff diving in Ultimate Mayhem.

The game also has the ugliest, blockiest shadows I’ve ever seen. I expected this to be patched out but two years since this game’s release they’re still there. I usually don’t let something like shadows to bother me but they are astonishingly ugly and pretty much always visible. When I say they’re blocky I’m talking Tetris blocky. I really don’t understand how they shipped this with such a glaring graphical flaw yet alone fail to fix it through patches. I don’t know if this problem exists in the PS3 and PC ports. I also noticed this exact same problem in some pre-rendered videos which really just makes it apparent they just couldn’t be arsed to fix it.
I’d argue that the biggest problem with Ultimate Mayhem (or just the concept of 3D Worms in general) is that its very difficult to gauge shots. In 2D its very easy to judge your bearings of a projectile. In 2D the arc a weapon makes is clear to see. In 3D, not so much. After several hours of playing I’m still not sure how to effectively use the 3D bazooka. Just when I think I’ve got it down, my rocket whiffs the enemy by an inch. The game does feature auto-aiming which is tied to your currently selected weapon scheme. To me, adding autoaim to an artillery game seems to counter the main skill factor involved. At least an FPS also takes into account reaction time. The game includes the binocular item that tells you specifically what power to use your weapon in order to hit your mark. Again, this seems to contradict the appeal of this genre and making an aid for new players into a selectable item is completely baffling to me. This item has no reason to exist in 2D which just reminds me that I should probably play a 3D game instead.

Worms Ultimate Mayhem brings back a lot of the staples from the 2D games but I question how useful they are with an extra dimension. Wind still exists as a factor that can affect bazooka shots. Given how difficult it is to shoot accurately in 3D, I really wish they just left this out. Sheep return functioning exactly as they did before- they run in a straight line, occasionally jumping. Pressing fire a second time will detonate them. Finding a clear path to an enemy is a rare occurrence and when it does appear, it is a far safer option to just walk up to the enemy and place some dynamite by their feet (tails… you know what I mean).

Worms 3D marked what I’d called the start of the ‘modern’ era of Worms. This isn’t based on Technology (which could be divided up differently) but rather a shift in tone. The original Worms games on the Amiga (Worms 1 and Director’s Cut) had a somewhat dark art style emphasising the notion of Worms at war. Worms 2 was slightly lighter but still used war as a template for its cute critters. Worms Armageddon styled itself on a nuclear holocaust. Worms 3D definitely pushed the cartoon aesthetic ahead of the subtle dark humour of the past. Please don’t misinterpret this as the franchise’s biggest problem. It isn’t remotely. But it is a subtle change of design philosophy that I think has misguided the franchise since Armageddon. Just compare the main theme from Armageddon (a rave remix of the original military-esque theme with a gloomy yet amusing monologue about Boggy B’s final stand) with Worms 3D (an overbearingly bubbly licenced track by a group I’ve never heard of outside of Worms 3D). Thankfully this dumb licenced track hasn’t been brought back for Ultimate Mayhem. To put it simply, Worms Armageddon was just cooler. I’m not sure if this lighter and softer shift was because of natural progression or if it was a manufactured attempt to appeal to kids.

Giving the Worms funny voices is another defining trait of the series. I’ve liked this in the past but for some reason the lines in Ultimate Mayhem come off as pretty annoying. I could be wrong but each voice bank seems to have less lines to draw from and yet they speak far more frequently. Its possible that I’m wrong about this and my reaction to the lines is actually based on my agitation towards the game in general. Either way, the speech irritates me. Worse yet you have to stick with a single team for the single player progression. If I hear “OI CUT OUT THE MONKEY BUSINESS” one more time I’m going to go insane.
I do appreciate the changes Ultimate Mayhem makes. I must admit that because I haven’t played Worms 4 I’m not sure which features are new to that game and which are new to Ultimate Mayhem. Nonetheless here are some of the features I think make Worms in 3D more pleasant:

Characters can be customized with hats and glasses. This may sound like a superficial addition on paper but its very helpful to differentiate the worm teams visually beyond the colour of their name tag. This has also carried over to the modern games which use Vector graphics and polygons.
Melee weapons now beep when they’re in range so there are no more awkward whiffs to waste a turn.
I distinctly remember that in Worms 3D knocking worms into water was far, far easier that actually whittling them down to 0 HP. Ultimate Mayhem fixes this with larger land masses and less eccentric physics.
The game uses splitscreen to show the effect of a shot fired while still letting the player move their worm clearly. Looks cool and it’s a practical benefit.

Despite its flaws, a 3D Worms game does have some merits over 2D. Positioning is much more important than in the flat games. Getting a worm on some high ground with a lot of cover is very satisfying as he can snipe (yes there is an actual sniper rifle in this game) almost the entirety of the map. It is equally satisfying to use the deformable terrain to destroy said high ground and cause him to tumble to the ground.
To be honest, while I do admire these fixes in Ultimate Mayhem, most of them are fixes for problems that simply didn’t exist in 2D.

You can also… make weapons. That’s… neat. I guess. Whatever, I never use it. The weapons you can make are just combinations of the features of other weapons so I’d rather just use them.

In conclusion I’ve pretty much just beat a dead horse here. 3D Worms simply isn’t a format that will ever work to the same level of success as Worms in 2D.. To be honest, the improvements Ultimate Mayhem makes the game perfectly playable but the notion that you have to endure such dull single player content to get most of the good stuff for multiplayer makes this a very tough sale. Even then, the game’s extended learning curve also kind of makes finding someone willing to play Ultimate Mayhem with you kind of tough. Its clear Team 17 have learnt from the past but sadly it isn’t enough.

If you do have a craving for a 3D Worms game, I recommend Hogs of War instead for the PS1 and PC. Predating Team 17s own take on Worms 3D, Hogs of War wasn’t burdened with the Worms name. While some may have accused Hogs for being a rip off, it had a number of unique quirks such as a consistent World War I theme, different voices for each individual pig, vehicles and character classes. The weapons in Hogs were also clearly designed for large open environments. While the multiplayer wasn’t as customisable as Worms the requirement to choose different classes put a nice strategic spin on things. In addition to that, it had a considerably better single player campaign than any Worms game ever had with character promotion choice. If you have to play a 3D Worms game, skip Ultimate Mayhem and try and find a copy of Hogs of War.

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