This year marks Worms' 25th anniversary, and in that time it's largely stuck to its tried and tested formula. There have been spin-offs and a detour into 3D, but picking up a new Worms game usually guarantees that it's going to be a turn-based artillery romp with exploding environments and maniacal invertebrates. Worms Rumble promises a shake-up to get rid of some of the cobwebs, but I'm not convinced it's the kind of shake-up the series needs.
Making Worms a real-time affair seems sacrilegious, but I was genuinely quite excited to play a game of Worms where I had no idea what was going to happen. New territory, at last. And it's not just real-time—it's a 32-player deathmatch and battle royale deal. Awkwardly chasing trends sounds like a recipe for disaster, but I still had high hopes. Worms is always a laugh. I'm sure it will be fine, I thought to myself.
It took only one deathmatch battle (the battle royale mode isn't ready yet) before I transformed into a curmudgeon who just wanted to moan about how Worms was better back in the day. It all feels so wrong! No teams, no destructible terrain, a focus on reflexes and speed instead of tactics—it's bizarre. It seems to have more in common with Soldat, which is also getting a sequel this year, than Worms.
But then I played a bit more and, despite my doubts, actually started to get into it. It's missing so much of what I adore about Worms, but as a fast-paced 2D arena shooter it's actually got a few things going for it. The closed beta only contains a small selection of weapons and items, and it's absent lots of good stuff like ninja ropes, jetpacks, suicidal sheep and a lot of my faves—but the weapons that are available feel great, spitting out big cartoon projectiles and creating plenty of worm-obliterating explosions.
Rumble has also preserved the slapstick nature of the series, despite the fact that the beta has hardly any of the previous games' comedic ingredients. Instead, it all comes from the real-time fights, with costumed worms hopping around, jumping on launch pads and pulling off improbably acrobatic moves. There's room to be precise and smart, but most of my fights have been chaotic, frantic battles where the outcome is never assured.
One confrontation sticks in my mind. I was being chased by a heavily-armed worm who had me outgunned and I just could not lose them. I took elevators, ducked into air vents and rolled into a wee worm ball to give myself a speed boost, but to no avail, until we walked right into the middle of a much larger fight. Somehow we both survived, but the tables had turned. They were down to a sliver of health and seemed to be out of ammo, so the chase began again. Air vents, elevators, worm balls—but this time I was the hunter. We were both taken out by another player's holy hand grenade.
It's only thanks to the shift to real-time that these chases are possible, and being able to react instantly to an attack instead of waiting for my turn—if my worm survives—is a novelty that I've enjoyed. But it's hard to ignore the fact that I'd probably be having a lot more fun if I could blow up the terrain or take advantage of the extreme physics to knock enemies all the way across the map. In Rumble, only stuff like air vent grates and the occasional wall can be destroyed, while the physics has been toned down quite a bit.
Only one map is available in the beta, but it's a big 'un. It's still 2D (or 2.5D, rather) but has more in common with a battle royale map than, say, Worms WMD. It's a sprawling thing full of different areas, like a car park, cinema and rocket silo, and if you've got an enemy worm in your sights there's almost always a bunch of different ways you can approach them. Along with the elevators and air vents, there are also ziplines, and plenty of paths both sneaky and obvious. It's the sort of place you'll have to explore before you can really take advantage of it.
The map might be too big, however, but it's hard to say because I've not been able to play with a full group. While Worms Rumble supports up to 32 players, I've yet to play a match with more than 20 during the beta. It's also visually very stale. A car park? A cinema? The art style is considerably more subdued than any game before it, featuring little of the wacky, cartoon charm of its forebears. It doesn't even have any fun with the scale. Instead of having tiny worms duking it out amid human-sized cars and buildings, everything has been shrunk down to worm-size. Or maybe the worms are just very large.
I'm glad Team17 doesn't feel beholden to tradition, but the scope of the changes and the features that have been yanked out makes Rumble feel like more like a spin-off than a new Worms, and even Worms Crazy Golf has more in common with the rest of the series. The omissions also include local multiplayer and bots, so it's a pure online PvP game. As someone who plays Worms almost exclusively offline, it's just another indicator that it's not really for me. I think there's a way to marry the classic Worms shenanigans with dramatically new features, but this ain't it.
The online PvP focus also gives me some worries about its potential longevity. It's a big risk, and you could fill a book with all the games that have dropped off the face of the Earth because the online scene died. Without an alternative, it's going to need a consistent playerbase to keep the worm wars alive.