Team17 has been trying to bring Worms, its rambunctious strategy series, into the realm of 3D for a few years now. Some efforts have been more successful than others, but none have fully replicated the chaotic glee of the 2D original. It's a relief, then, that Worms: Open Warfare for the PlayStation Portable and Nintendo DS opts for the classic gameplay that made the series a success in the first place. The game is a great fit on the PSP, and the widescreen perspective complements the large, horizontally oriented level designs nicely. By contrast, the DS version is awkward and ugly and generally fails to capture the feel of Worms.
There's a good amount of baggage attached to strategy games. Turn-based wargames can feel dense and abstract--like chess with a god complex--and the modern real-time strategy game is thick with years of genre convention buildup. The whole genre often feels impenetrable to those who haven't been immersed in it for years. It can be intimidating, but Worms has always offered a much looser, more accessible take on strategy. There's no resource gathering, no tech trees, and no unit balance issues--just a bunch of worms sitting on a big rock, taking turns enthusiastically trying to murder each other. In Worms: Open Warfare, you're given a team of four cute, anthropomorphic worms and then pitted against up to three other teams of worms, and winning is a simple matter of whittling down your opponents' health before they can eliminate you.
The worms themselves are deceptively cute, with wide eyes and a wide, multicultural array of squeaky battle cries. They also have access to an arsenal of potent weapons, ranging from shotguns and hand grenades to deadly bananas and exploding sheep. There are more than 20 different weapons you can arm your worms with, which sounds like a lot but is actually pretty lean by series standards. How you use what you've got, though, is the main strategic element at work here. Some weapons work only when you're going toe-to-toe with an opponent, while ranged weapons give you a bit of security against immediate retaliation. The ranged weapons, such as bazookas and grenades, are also tough to use effectively, as you're given only a rough idea of the trajectory, which can be hugely affected by the winds. The nuanced ways in which the different weapons work give the action a measure of depth, but they're mostly intuitive enough that the game remains easy to pick up.
The battlefields can be pretty big in comparison to the worms, and hazardous too, with lots of craggy terrain, sheer cliffs, exploding barrels, and touchy land mines. With the camera zoomed in pretty tight it can be tough to get your bearings, which can lead to poorly aimed shots and accidental team kills. This is mitigated on the PSP with the option to zoom in and out using the shoulder buttons, which lets you take in almost the entire map on a single screen or get up close and personal with your worm. The solution on the DS is less elegant and less useful; you're given a paltry amount of zoom control and are required to use the stylus to drag the camera around a minimap on the lower screen to see areas beyond your active worm's immediate surroundings on the upper screen.
It's an uncomfortable game to play on the DS because of its use of both the stylus and the traditional controls, requiring you to switch back and forth between the two on a near constant basis. The game also looks pretty bad on the DS, with lots of chunky, pixilated sprites and textures, while the PSP version looks relatively crisp and clean, with richer colors and more detail. What really kills the DS version, though, is that the gameplay doesn't feel right. Movement feels stilted and worms can get hung up pretty easily on pieces of the environment, and the physics on a lot of the weapons are exaggerated, which can lead to frustration when a well-thrown grenade hits its mark, only to then bounce wildly away into the drink or, worse, next to one of your own worms.
There aren't a lot of ways to play Worms: Open Warfare, though again, the PSP gives you a few more options than the DS. You can jump into a quick one-off fight against a random opponent on a randomly generated battlefield, or you can create your own custom game, defining the theme of the level, the level layout, and the participating teams. If you're looking for a bit more structure, there's a challenge mode that pits you against a series of increasingly tough and cunning opponents. There's some basic multiplayer support for up to four players as well. Both versions have the same modes of play, but there are some subtle differences that give the advantage to the PSP; for instance, though you can edit the teams in both versions, only the PSP version lets you create a whole new team, and the PSP version offers a more granular level of customization when creating your own game.
Neither version of Worms: Open Warfare is particularly ambitious, and you get the feeling that Team17 is simply testing the waters to see if there's still a demand for an old-fashioned 2D Worms game. DS owners get a pretty raw deal here, and the game is too rife with poor design decisions and unattractive execution to make it recommendable to anyone. If you've got a PSP, though, and you're looking for some light and breezy strategy fun, Worms: Open Warfare hits its mark.