The folks over at Team 17 apparently don't subscribe to the idea of opening a whole new can of worms. Each new incarnation of the popular Worms franchise plays like a mere expansion of the previous outing, and in many regards, Worms: Battle Islands for the PSP is no different. Granted, these worms work well for Team 17--so well that they've shied once again from drilling any new wormholes into the franchise. The difference here is in the details. The controls have never felt so effortlessly intuitive, the customization options have seldom been so extensive, and the multiplayer modes have rarely been so welcoming. That said, it's still simply Worms. Battle Islands is palatable bait for series newcomers, but even devoted veterans may find their time better spent elsewhere.
For the uninitiated, Worms places you control of a battalion of adorable oligochaetes as they assault another team with missile launchers, exploding sheep, and the occasional concrete donkey. Here you bounce over hills and burrow through tunnels with flamethrowers, worming your way out of dangers such as proximity mines. Combat is turn-based, and you have only a minute to slither over to your enemy and make your move. Of course, this same tactic works for your nightcrawling foes, so there's a chance that you'll find yourself staring straight at your killer with nowhere to run.
The single-player campaign comprises 30 moderately challenging missions spread across six islands based on widely different themes. For instance, you start out in a postapocalyptic nuclear test site and work your way through tropical jungles and frozen wastelands. In each case, you wreak havoc on the jagged landscape with your rocket launcher or some other goodie from your weapon stash, and in certain cases you can assign snipers to eliminate the competition before a round even starts. As a welcome new addition, blueprints now drop from the sky in each campaign level (and sometimes land in absurdly unreachable locations), and you can use these to modify items like your unassuming baseball bat into something decidedly more threatening.
Indeed, customization has always been at the heart of the Worms games, and easily pleased thrill seekers will be happy to know that you can customize your worm's appearance with prizes earned from missions (including new items like masks and backpacks). If you've always wanted to see your murderous worm squiggle about with a Jason Voorhees-style hockey mask, this is your chance. You can even customize your victory dance or what kind of tombstone appears after you die, and there's a welcome option to design your own level.
Aside from the campaign, you can also test your skills through a series of time attacks or challenging puzzles. In one of the timed trials, you need to speed through multiple laps in a cavern while using only your jetpack; in another, you swing through a canyon using only a ninja's grappling rope while avoiding a lake of ectoplasmic goo. The puzzles are considerably more rewarding: in one, you must kill two opponents in the same turn; elsewhere, you need to finish off an enemy with only a weak mine and a punch. Still need training? Battle Islands offers three training modes and a free-for-all firing range to test out your new toys.
Be prepared for several difficulty spikes as you progress through the levels. In earlier levels, your worms can sometimes stand in plain sight before their enemies and watch as the missiles intended for them head off in the other direction; in later levels, enemy projectiles find your worms as though guided by your very thoughts--even if you were "safely" buried several yards within a bunker.
The five options in Battle Islands' robust online and offline multiplayer modes will easily keep you occupied for hours--provided you can find anyone online. The usual suspects are all here, including Deathmatch, Racing, Triathlon, and Forts, which gives you a base of operations, and each features leaderboards for those eager to become the Emperor Worm. Of particular note is the new Tactics mode, which lets you return to your war room at any time during the battle as well as see the battlefield for a minute before the match so you can place traps in advance. Best of all, you can even win items from your opponents in an online session.
Thankfully, Worms has lost none of its peculiar charm. Worms shout things like "Bor-ing!" when enemy players miss, although the limited voice options ensure that you can usually predict which phrase you'll hear next. All the best weapons from previous incarnations are here, including favorites like the holy hand grenade, which triggers Handel's Hallelujah chorus when launched. Missions are preceded by well-animated cutscenes that are often good for a quick laugh. The backgrounds are decently lively but not distracting, and the island environments are filled with quirky obstacles like downed airplanes and half-sunken ships. The music, while usually subdued, is nevertheless appropriate for the often methodical pace of Worms. All in all, Battle Islands marks a welcome return to the series' two-dimensional roots after comparatively lackluster offerings like Worms 4.
Almost. Battle Islands suffers from a few minor drawbacks, such as load times that approximate the time it takes an earthworm to traverse a summer sidewalk. Elsewhere, an annoying bug repeatedly insists that your Memory Stick was recently replaced (when it wasn't) and that you need to reenable autosave. Even so, Battle Islands makes Worms seem like it was specifically developed for the PSP, and not ported from another platform. You can zoom in and out with the left and right bumpers, and you can view every corner of the whole map with the analog stick. You can control your worm and adjust your weapons with the D pad, and trigger chaos with the action buttons. Every other button is mapped as it intuitively should be.
But is it enough? Battle Islands approaches its source material as though all 17 previous incarnations of the game were but worthy betas. Here we have no giant leaps forward; only a finished product that's been a long time coming. To be sure, newcomers may enjoy worming their way into this enjoyable though worn artillery adventure, but experienced Worms players will likely balk at paying $24.99 for more of the same.