As we know, following a poor response to marketing of Swarm last year, Thorpe decided to "revisit" Swarm's image and increase the "'thrill factor' for visitors". This was despite very positive reviews for Swarm as it stood last year. So, along with the new billboard theming elements, the back two rows have been turned backwards.
Now, in a way, it's very hard to do a comparison between the two. They are, essentially, the same ride - they follow the same layout, you more or less experience the same things, the off-ride experiences (queuing, ride interaction, etc.) are basically the same and so forth. More or less the only difference is the way you're facing. So, a comparison between the two is highly subjective - it boils down to what you're looking for when you ride Swarm.
So, the best way I can think to compare the two experiences is to focus on individual aspects of the ride's layout and how they ride when going forwards and backwards. Then, any other things can just be dealt with afterwards...
One of the defining features of Swarm is the 'head first inverted drop'. When going forwards, you are either in the front row, so are left looking at the track ahead of you, unaware of how much of a spectacle the 180 degree turn really is. In any other row, you see the train twist slowly upside, which is one amazing sight. It shocks you, makes you realise what you're about to experience, and before you know it - there you are, spinning around yourself. It is truly great. Going backwards has little difference to the front row in my opinion, except you just don't know exactly when it will happen. It's still a great feeling, but it neither adds nor takes away from the experience. So, basically, either way, it's great!
The Plane Wing
The first of the near misses really does little for me when going forwards. It's there, but it is a generic 'close, but not too close' near miss. It's certainly there more for the spectacle of it all as opposed to being something that's genuinely too close for comfort. That said, when on the left hand side of the train, it can catch first-timers off guard. When going backwards, it's as you would expect - you don't see it. I personally don't really even realise it's there when going backwards - may as well be a mist box there as the plane wing adds absolutely nothing. So the plane wing is nice and all going forwards, and superfluous when going backwards. So, forwards > backwards.
Now, I absolutely LOVE this when going forwards. It's an inversion you really, really feel - something which I think is lost on more modern inverting coasters. When you are nearer the back of the train, it's great being able to see the train twist through the inversion as well. Going backwards is good as well; again, you really feel the inversion. But I'm not as big a fan of it going backwards; I still enjoy it, but just not as much as going forwards. A part of me thinks that, because when you were at the back of the train (I.e. row 7) and going forwards, it added to the idea of seeing the train twist through even more, I'm thinking that 'well, the backwards rows lose this effect'. Thus, as a straight out comparison between the forwards and backwards rows, I think the forwards rows JUST edge it out over the backwards rows, but comparing the Swarm we have now to the Swarm we had last year, the Swarm we had last year was better. So, forwards > backwards.
It is here I'd also compare the ways facing when the fire goes off from the fire engine, but as I've only been fortunate enough to experience it going forwards, it would be unfair of me to compare.
The all new near miss for 2013 is certainly a great addition. Many people's favourite near miss of the ride, it is certainly effective. Off ride, it is great to look at, and has a nice bit of quirkiness to it. On ride, when going forwards, just WOW. The way the train twists out of the zero-G roll means is it is genuinely an exciting feature and one where it seems like you may not 'twist enough in time'. The left hand side also provides a secondary near miss after the corkscrew, which is nice. Backwards though, you of course don't get the effect. You simply twist out of the zero-G roll and dive on through. Yeah sure, you see it afterwards (which is a nice advantage of the billboard compared to the other near misses, as it feels designed for backwards as well as forwards viewing, probably due to the fact it was built with the backwards rows in mind), but it's nothing special really. So, again, forwards > backwards.
The back of the billboard.
The inclined loop follows. It's nothing special either way - just a solid element that is paced well. Nothing more to say here other than forwards and backwards are equally solid.
Turnaround / The Helicopter
The turnaround is probably by favourite section of the ride when going forwards. It is surprisingly fast and forceful, and lasts a decent length of time. When on the right hand side of the train, it is just phenomenal, with the addition of the water spray and the subtle near miss of the spinning helicopter blades which can catch the unsuspecting off guard. One of the reasons why last season the back-right seat became my favourite was because of this part of the ride - you'd get a splash of water, force, speed and a near miss - what more could you want?! Backwards through this section is great as well; being able to see the water effect 'chase' you feels nice, and is something missed a bit when going forwards. But the subtle near miss from the helicopter is missed, which is a shame, as it is my favourite near miss of the ride.
When it boils down to it, riding forwards or backwards through this section of the ride is equally good. However, I did prefer back-right going forwards to going backwards there.
The entrance into this element is great, continuing the forcefulness of the turnaround. Going forwards, the corkscrew is another solid element, and I think it has been designed with the visual spectacle in mind - going through the inclined loop looks great off ride. However, going backwards, it is a real highlight. I can't explain it really, but I just love it. Maybe it's the novelty of doing a common inversion on coasters backwards, but it's just a great feeling and the one thing I think 'WOW' about the most after riding backwards. So, backwards > forwards.
The corkscrew, beautifully cutting through the inclined loop!
The Tower, Church and Inline Twist
Near miss wise, I don't rate the tower or church highly. They're a very generic 'close, but not too close' near miss, and whilst nice, it doesn't impress me much. This doesn't mean they're bad in any way, and off ride it is simply stunning. The inline twist is, as with all the inversions, one you feel, and even if you don't get the near miss effect too much from the theming, it's still great being twisted upside down over it! Backwards you miss the near misses (same old story there then...), but the inline twist is fun, and as with going forwards, it's great seeing the station when you're hurled upside down. So, backwards and forwards are both equally good.
The tower, where the brilliant 'Swarm noise' plays.
And that basically ends the ride. The rest that follows is the worst part of the ride as it stands, going forwards or backwards.
Other Bits and Bobs
Just one final thing I want to say. I'm going to ignore the fact that I hate the way the queue system works and not use that in my judgement of which 'way' is better. However, the fact that the old Fastrack queue is now the backwards queue means there's less chance to see the ride in action, and it's harder to see the queue line TVs (and they are less frequent). I'm a big fan of having the experience of a ride start when you enter the queue, and finish when you're out of exit - a ride should never just be about the hardware. The backwards queue suffers from the fact that you can't get a decent 'feel' of the back story unless you've already seen it, which is a shame. It's only a little niggle, but it's a niggle nonetheless.
And so, there we have it. So, if you haven't been counting, here's how each of the individual on-ride elements 'score up', if you will:
Forwards 'wins' - 3
Backwards 'wins' - 1
Ties - 4
The fact that there are equally many ties and 'wins' should tell one thing - The Swarm is an amazing ride. Whether you have the seats facing forwards, backwards, inwards, whatever-way-wards, you won't take that away. However, facing forwards is the way forward (if you'll pardon the pun...); as, simply put, it allows you to experience the theming and the near misses that Swarm has been designed to take advantage of. If you take them out the equation, the experience is lacking something. Now, me knocking the backwards rows all sounds very negative, but honestly, it is my third favourite coaster experience - only beaten by Swarm going forwards and Nemesis at Alton Towers. So, time for the final verdict:
The Swarm (Forwards): 10/10 (In a way, I don't want to give it a perfect score, but I just can't justify not doing so).
The Swarm (Backwards): 8.5/10
(And comments and criticisms are welcome! )