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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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Worms Open Warfare

Stuck in the mud.

So there I am, standing next to one of my little female friends, and my mother turns to her neighbour and remarks, "Aw, don't they make a sweet little couple?" At the time, I was dressed as a rough boy from the mountains and her as a sheep.

It was the school nativity, see, and we were holding hands because we were five. Shortly afterward we had our first argument after she tried to "baaa" while I was telling Mary and Joseph how amazing Jesus was. We were not meant to be together. We just looked like a nice couple.

The Nintendo DS and Worms Open Warfare (let's call it WOW - that'll confuse Google) have a similar problem. The DS offers Worms the chance to be 2D again, using the stylus in place of the mouse in lots of ways that make sense, and using the d-pad and A/B/X/Y buttons instead of the PC keyboard's directional pad, space bar and so on, and so people reckon the two were made for each other.

Moving around, jumping (and backflipping), and using your tools and weapons all come very naturally. You can even use the ninja rope to swing around the level a bit if you don't trust your aiming ability with the bazooka or grenade, and you can scroll around by dragging a rectangle across a little silhouette of the level on the touch-screen.

Pick it up for a Quick Game and you won't have any trouble figuring out what does what - the only thing you might need explained is that you tap X to change the fuse length on a grenade or cluster bomb. Pretty soon you're tossing things around, trying to send worms hurtling into the water that surrounds you (and enjoying it immensely when you do), and generally playing Worms. Except on the DS. Aw, don't they make a sweet little couple?

Visually too, the game cuts a familiar form, resembling a slightly lower-resolution version of the cartoonified Worms 2/Armageddon/World Party vintage. Worms leap around with less animation than you'd expect in a PC game, but with nicely rendered landscape graphics over a subtle backdrop, foreground effects like snow and the traditional rippling sea at the bottom of the level, it creates the right impression.

To use a weapon, just tap it on the screen, point with the d-pad and fire with B. Simple.

On the audio side - an oft-celebrated part of Worms - there's a decent complement of options from stiffly turned out Brits and hammy Frenchman to Connery-loving Scots and the Three Stooges, while weapon noises have plenty of fizz.

So far so good then, and with the option to create your own custom teams, DS Download Play for four-player battles on one cartridge, and a reasonably lengthy Challenge mode, you're well equipped for the titular Open Warfare.

Or so you'd think. But, like my relationship with the sheep, the DS and WOW don't get on as well as they appear to.

For a start, the game's prone to annoying graphical glitches, which make the screen flicker quite frequently. Given a bit more time, you'll also encounter slightly annoying bugs like your worms' propensity to get stuck on top of barrels and wedged against walls, often forcing you to self-harm to escape.

There's also a real sense that, once the team had put the game together, layering on all the graphics and sounds and calculating all the physics and environmental damage, the whole thing resembled a slide show, prompting cut-backs. It has to be that, really, because as actual design decisions the gaps in your arsenal and toolkit and the lack of environmental damage would be quite alarming. Where's the parachute gone? Why don't the explosions carve bigger holes in the landscape? How come the ninja rope's so short?

You can take reasonable chunks out of the landscape, but chain reactions feel much less exciting.

What you do have can feel a bit stunted too. The homing missile was usually reserved for finishing enemies off - just having it in your arsenal, whether from a weapons drop or because you'd saved it up, struck fear into your opponent and forced him to play defensively. Here you can't fling it far enough into the air before it zeroes in on its target, sticking to the straightest of straight lines, so really it's only ever an imposing threat if you have a height advantage over your target - a situation that generally wouldn't require its use anyway.

Cluster bombs, meanwhile, do surprisingly little damage, despite their scarcity - seldom more than a bazooka, grenade or even a mine. And although the camera control is quite good, the DS screen is small and you can't zoom out massively far, so you tend to rely on close combat rather than indirect action.

The cluster bomb's relative weakness is symptomatic of a wider problem, which is that WOW is nowhere near as pyrotechnic as it should be. You can chip away at the landscape with explosions, but it's firecrackers to old-days Worms' nukes. You used to be able to carve levels to pieces until they were intricate hives of ledges and caves, but here even a cluster bomb struggles to leave any useful scars, while drills and the like are gone. Wind effects, meanwhile, often a great leveller, only seem to affect certain things.

Comparisons to old-days Worms are inevitable in this situation, but some might argue they're not fair - the DS is a new system with quite a diverse user base, and whereas ports of current games can seem a bit superfluous, people seem prepared to shell out on old classics again if they're done reasonably well.

Mines are quite brutal now, and the AI tends to use them a lot.

That said, WOW's problems and omissions make for a less exciting game overall, even when you're killing your fellow man. It's still reasonably enjoyable, but with less pyrotechnics and fewer of those random moments that used to make you turn to your friend and deliver smiling profanity. Frankly I'd rather outsmart someone in Advance Wars these days, and there are a great range of other single-cart multiplayer options on the DS.

Played alone, the game lacks the imaginative (and indeed challenging) challenges of its predecessors, but the worst problem with it is the AI, which can be appalling.

Often enemy worms take ages to do anything and then just boringly fire their bazookas at some distant target that they can inexplicably hit quite easily, but that's not the half of it. Within less than an hour of starting to play WOW, I'd witnessed a worm stood next to three health crates for 30 seconds pondering what to do before skipping a go, while another managed to fall off the edge of the level after thinking about it for another half-minute. Surely the winner, though, is the chap who, when I ended up stood roughly beneath him, spent the rest of the match devoting his turns to vertical dragon punches, which left my little worm quite safe - and freed the others around him up to go and deal with his less loopy colleagues.

In the end, you might decide Worms and the DS just weren't meant to be together. They get the basics right, but the relationship never hits the heights of the annelids' older flames. My best memories of playing Worms with my friends were all about things backfiring hilariously, victory through blind luck, and big explosions, and the DS can't seem to show enough or process enough to deliver these things. Might as well dig out one of the old PC versions instead, and give "WOW" back to the elves.

5 / 10