Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare Hands On

Developer: Popcap Games / Publisher: Electronic Arts / Platforms: Xbox One, Xbox 360, Microsoft Windows / Release Date: 2014 / ESRB: Rating Pending

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Oh, what I wouldn’t give for the ability to travel back in time, just to see the look on some Popcap exec’s face from their ‘indie’ era—say, around the time of the first Bookworm title—when I showed him some back-from-the-future gameplay footage of a Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare session: “This is what your days ahead have in store! These are your adorably-cartoonish characters, married to the mechanics and tropes used by some of the grimmest, hardcore-shooter titles in the history of video games! And it all works! And by God, it’s somehow still cute! Oh, by the way, some news about Electronic Arts you might find interesting…”

Garden Warfare ’raked’ in—so sorry!—‘Best Shooter’ accolades after a closed-doors preview at this year’s E3. It was understandable at the time for people who weren’t actually there—even seasoned video game editors—to be more than a little, um, skeptical upon being told about PvZ’s out-of-the-blue (and, let’s be honest, admittedly-bizarre) new direction; but after getting my hands dirty in Garden Warfare‘s loamy soil of team-shooter mechanics, I’m happy to report that what we’ve experienced so far—and I say this academically—kicks zombie ass. Or plant ass, as preferences may differ.

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Garden Warfare takes the Plants vs. Zombies brand of Lawn-of-the-Dead, flora/necroshambler tower-defense rivalry, propels it into a team-based, 12-v-12, third-person shooter…and lets you play on the side of the zombie hoards, too. During a gameplay demo yesterday at Electronic Art’s Redwood Shores HQ, we got right into a ‘Team Vanquish’ session—it’s still a Popcap title after all; accordingly, players rack up ‘vanquishes’ because that definitely sounds a hell of a lot more friendly and sunshiney than ‘kills’. Over the course of several deathmatches (in which some of the Popcap folks playing remotely from Seattle were doubtless told to take it easy on us), we all got a chance to check out the primary character-classes on each side—four for the Plants, four for the Zombies.

On the plant side, you’ve got the reliable line-soldier Pea Shooter, the ever-upbeat Sunflower (who naturally doubles as a ‘medic’), the fairly terrifying Chomper (who can land-shark his way beneath the soil and burst forth from the ground) and a prickly cactus filling an engineer role (and who can launch an armed garlic-clove drone).

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The zombies have classes that are comparable—although to the designers’ credit, the two warring factions don’t merely offer mirrored roles, but ones that in fact have a slight functional asymmetry to them, just enough to keep things interesting and unique to each side: the zombie ‘healer’ equivalent, for example, is decked out in mad-scientist garb and has the ability to lay down stand-alone stations that constantly sprinkler-spray streams of zombie-healing glop (whereas the flower ‘healer’ is obliged to move about to keep his ‘patients’ healthy with a tethering beam of healing energy).

The zombies have an ‘engineer’ too, a sort of reanimated construction-worker/plumber-type—exposed butt-crack and all—who also operates a drone (a head, not a garlic clove), but in addition boasts the ability to sprint at increased speed via a jackhammer. Yet another specialized zombie ‘tank’ character is suited up as a reanimated football QB, and in fact carries a sort of belt-fed football gun; he’s slower, but brings the assault-grade pain.

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The practically obligatory ‘classes’, however, hardly begin to tell the full player-customization story. For each possible character choice on each side, there are myriad specialty and costume options that further differentiate each player’s character on the battlefield. In addition to the purely cosmetic accoutrements (funky shades, tophats, pads, shark-fins), there are selectable ‘flavors’ of each class. Pimp your cactus engineer with the ‘ice cactus’ mod, for example, and his default ranged blasts will have a freezing effect to slow down targets.

In addition to their primary ranged attack, each character has three special abilities—some rechargeable, some operating on a recharge/’ammo’ hybrid scheme—such as the ability to conduct straight-line charge attacks, the aforementioned land-shark burrowing, or the classic PvZ ability to plop down a ‘Wall-Nut’ defensive construction. We got ample chances to test-drive both sides; for my own part, I immediately fell in love with the engineer-class characters’ remotely-piloted drones. Get your cactus-guy parked in a relatively-safe region of the map—not even the seemingly-remotest corner is safe for long, you soon discover—and a single tap of the Y button will throw a garlic-cloved Predator into the air. It’s got a set amount of fuel as well as a finite ability to absorb damage, but while you’re up there you can snipe the enemy’s zombies as they shamble down the quaint downtown streets of Anytown, USA, call in area-effect air strikes on clusters of foes…or even get into dogfights with the other side’s drones.

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Since your primary character is essentially idle while you’re doing all this, you may get yanked out of the drone’s-eye view as soon as said primary character is located and starts getting wailed on, so be prepared at any moment to suddenly think fast and haul ass—insofar as a cactus can haul ass.

In addition to Vanquish mode, the final game will also apparently include a zone-based attack/defense mode for four-player co-op that’s most directly comparable to a Gears of War Horde Mode session. Whatever mode you choose, the sight of a Mayberry-esque downtown overrun by shambling dead-headers in lab coats, football jerseys and plumberalls—not to mention upright four-foot sentient cacti and sunflowers scuttling around on their base-leaves and spraying cheerful, colorful death in all directions—is just…ridiculous. Wonderfully, joyously ridiculous, Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare is slated to claw its way from the ground, take root and bloom on February 18th for either $40 (Xbox One) or $30 (Xbox 360). Until then, may Crazy Dave be with you.

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