Developer: PopCap Games | Publisher: Electronic Arts | Played on: Xbox One (Also available on Xbox 360, PC) | Price: $39.99 | ESRB: Everyone [Animated Blood, Crude Humor, Fantasy Violence]
Plants Vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare is that rare breed of game: one that none of us expected, but upon its reveal, was hardly a huge surprise. It’s not what you consider to be a natural evolution of a revered mobile game franchise, but if you think of it in terms of a sensible spin-off, taking the series’ tower defense design and turning it into a third-person shooter isn’t that outrageous of an idea.
You only have four characters to control on each side, but some of their abilities and items allow familiar secondary characters to shine, like the adorable and lethal Potato Mine. By consuming one of a large variety of character cards, you can fortify your surroundings with a supporting staff of NPCs by using an empty pot for the plant team or a burial ground for the zombies. This is how the tower defense gameplay factors in. While the largest match can only support 24 live players, the abundance of automated minions make Garden Warfare matches feel like there are at least 36 in the battlefield.
Between your skills, NPC cards, and the inherent motivation to survive, Garden Warfare gives you a lot to do, an achievement given the game’s modest selection of modes. There are only three game formats, but PopCap makes them count. The classic Team Deathmatch, titled ‘Team Vanquish’, flies by fast even with the default goal of 50 kills. The cooperative ‘Garden Ops’ is highly recommended for Gears of War and Halo fans; as plants, you have to protect your garden from multiple waves of zombies and to strategically take advantage of those potted plant NPCs. PvZ fans are treated to a number of cameos, and their reveals are part of the game’s appeal. Let’s just say that some undead guest stars are especially hairy, while others know a few good moves.
The garden defense stakes are raised in the PvP rush-inspired ‘Garden & Graveyards’. Whichever side you’re on, this is the mode that truly capitalizes on the series’ comedic strengths. Even if you’re reduced to your final stronghold as the plants, you sort of win, because everyone gets to see the often hilarious payoff of the zombies reaching the final stretch. If you want to see giant walnuts rolling over players indiscriminately or if you want to see how zombies plant bombs, the final sections of the Garden & Graveyards maps off some amusing payoffs.
Though, it is disappointing that the Xbox 360 has been excluded from two features you can only get on Xbox One: couch split screen co-op and an overhead management mode inspired by Battlefield 4’s Commander Mode.
Garden Warfare’s near excessive charm factor not only makes it stand out among many of today’s adversarial online shooters, it also makes the game a viable gateway title for those who don’t normally play shooters. Even with EA’s Titanfall receiving much of the multiplayer attention in 2014, it’s not that odd to think that Garden Warfare would sell a few Xbox Ones on its own. The cartoony zombies and the saccharine technicolor art direction are both endearing, but it’s the plants that take the charm spotlight. I never got tired of the cute muffled sound coming from the Cactus as it moves around the map. And then there’s the Sunflower, whose flowing petals and vibrant yellow hue is offset by a smile that often looks sadistic.
The Cactus and the Sunflower also happen to be two of the most useful characters in the game and, like the rest of the cast, are indicative of PopCap’s attempts to properly emulate the familiar class systems in the modern shooter. There’s a lot of variety in skill and abilities to go around in a team mixed with classes. That’s not to say you necessarily need to have each plant type in the cooperative Garden Ops or three of each class in the other modes to obtain ideal balance.
Even if the majority of a team wants to be the tank-class All-Star zombie, it’s possible for the team to go far. Same goes for the Sunflower, a plant that can heal and fire its basic weapon at the same time, not to mention kill with effective lethally with a laser. For a “species” known for slow, labored movement, the zombies are slightly more mobile than the plants. You have an infantry grunt that has a jetpack, and a scientist who can teleport across short distances. The fact that the opposing sides aren’t symmetrical in abilities adds positive unpredictably to Garden Warfare, the balancing of which couldn’t have been easy for PopCap.
It’s great to see EA’s Frostbite 3 engine working outside of a traditional modern warfare context or racers like Need For Speed. When a game like Garden Warfare doesn’t demand excessively realistic detail, it’s no surprise that all the matches perform smoothly, including the 12 versus 12 modes. Still, for all that EA’s bragged about regarding environmental destruction through Frostbite 3, it’s surprising that you can’t partially flatten the Garden Warfare landscape given all the weapons of botanical destruction.
When practically every Xbox One launch game featured a form of microtransactions, it’s a bold move by EA and PopCap to withhold such in-app purchases for Garden Warfare’s release. When you look at the game’s point system, the digital blind pack model, and the ability to cash in those points, you can see how ripe the game is for IAPs. The items you redeem are a well-struck balance of practical and cosmetic prizes. Some of the collectables are an addictive throwback to the sticker book craze of the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Right now, blind packs are adequately priced, where you have enough to replenish your seed or zombie supply after a match, or you can wait about half a dozen matches to tear open a surprise character reskin. When you see a buddy or opponent as a redressed scientist-turned-astronaut, you can’t help but be motivated to expand your own collection of alternate outfits.
Even long before you’ve collected your share of stickers and have studied all the map layouts, Plants Vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare is that kind of game that makes you excited about what the developers can come up with in a sequel or a major patch. If PopCap managed to project this kind of level design imagination with their future maps, you can consider me excited, and this is coming from someone who usually doesn’t get excited about DLC map packs. It’s been almost a year since Gears of War: Judgment, and Garden Warfare took little time to renew my fondness for last-stand style missions. Yet more than anything, PopCap managed to successfully reinterpret their flagship franchise without losing sight of what made the series’ characters so memorable.
+ Plants Vs. Zombies as an online shooter works very well
+ No in-app purchases (for now)
— Xbox One-exclusive modes is disappointing for Xbox 360 owners