Plants vs. Zombies has been on one wild ride since PopCap was acquired by Electronic Arts. What started off as a grassroots (hah) series with humble beginnings on the PC has become an exclusive-heavy franchise -- with Plants vs. Zombies 2 originally launching on iOS, and Garden Warfare launching on Xbox platforms and the PC.
In many ways EA has hurt the overall image of PopCap, but there are some benefits to being owned by a major publisher. Most notably, an in-house engine ripe for the taking, and the resources to create one of the most oddball third-person shooters ever made. While it's not everything it could be, Garden Warfare is most definitely a successful experiment.
Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare (PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])
Developer: PopCap Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Released: February 25, 2014 (Xbox 360, Xbox One) / TBA (PC)
MSRP: $39.99 (Xbox One) / $29.99 (Xbox 360)
Garden Warfare at its core is an unconventional shooter similar to Team Fortress 2. There are classes that fulfill specific roles, skirmishes mostly involving two teams, and of course -- there are hats. Garden Warfare looks great with its use of the Frostbite 3 engine, as every single character model has an alarming amount of detail, as do the wonderfully crafted maps. It's weird to see the Plants vs. Zombies cast come to life in full 3D, but I think it's worked out for the best.
Typical Call of Duty-style progression schemes are generally eschewed for a more interesting method of earning new skins and abilities -- opening random card packs. Immediately when I heard "EA" and "random packs" alarm bells went off in my head, but thankfully, there are no microtransactions involved. All of the packs are bought by way of coins, which are earned entirely in-game and are performance based. Depending on how well you do, you can generally buy a mid-tier pack every two to three games.
Cards can yield partial unlocks of new characters (which generally need a few pieces to open up), hats, other costume pieces, and consumables to use in both co-op and competitive modes. It can be a relatively slow burn sometimes -- especially if you're on the losing end of a few games and have nothing to show for it -- but if you just sit down and play the game for a while, you'll see the rewards start to pile up.
One of the most brilliant aspects of Garden Warfare though is how easy it is to pick up and play. All you need to do is aim and fire like any other third-person shooter, and learn the three special abilities of each class. Most of them are self-explanatory: the Soldier Zombie can rocket-jump and fire off heavy artillery, the Sunflower can heal allies and drop healing hubs, and the Cactus is basically a sniper with a few tools at his disposal.
As simple as it sounds, there's lots of tactical nuance here. To be blunt, it's much more than I expected, and once I played a ton of online multiplayer against other human opponents, the game really opened its wings. As expected, class diversity is the key to success, and PopCap went through great lengths to balance them. Although it's good to have a number of standard Peashooters on hand for any plant team, having at least one or two Sunflowers to heal, a few Cactus classes to snipe, and a number of Chompers is also a good idea.
With all of the classes on the board at once, things get hectic and you'll constantly be clashing with different counters and other players. For example, Chompers are formidable units with a lot of health, and they can also employ a special one-hit kill stealth move if they chomp zombies from behind. But their Achilles heel is that they're extremely slow and basically can't jump worth beans, so taking to high ground and always watching your back is a perfect counter.
When you're skittishly looking around for Chompers, a Peashooter could easily toss a bean grenade your way, a Cactus could hit you from above with a flying drone, or you could walk right into a potato mine. It's that sort of orchestrated insanity that happens nearly every spawn, and in the game's 12-on-12 online modes, it can get extremely chaotic -- in a good way.
The maps are one of the best parts of the game, and they're not only the perfect size, but fun to look at and play in. They're just as playful as you'd expect from the Plants vs. Zombies series, ranging from a giant pirate ship theme park, to a shopping center, to a giant suburban sprawl with its own giant playground. There's tons of detail here, from hundreds of breakable objects to graffiti that states "plants R stoopid" -- to the point where I found myself roaming around arenas just to find Easter eggs.
They remind me of some of the best Twisted Metal or Tony Hawk levels in that there's a certain amount of diversity to their design and a practicality to it, which is quite the accomplishment. Sadly, there's only a scant few for use in two of the three game modes (five to be exact), and even though a few offer day and night cycles, you can't help but shake the feeling of deja vu after a while -- even if the maps are so well done.
So what are the three modes you can play? Well, Garden Ops is basically co-op base defense for four players -- in other words, it's literally plants versus zombies 3D. Waves of zombies will come your way with various modifiers to mix things up each session, and multiple difficulty modes help keep replay value high.
In the end it eventually suffers the same fate as many other horde modes in that it becomes predictable to a fault, slowly shuffling you into the other two gametypes. This is also the only mode you can play by yourself -- so if you're planning on not playing online, you may get bored really quickly. Be warned, this is a multiplayer affair at heart, and the meat of the game most definitely lies with the other core game modes.
Team Vanquish (team deathmatch) and Gardens and Graveyards (Garden Ops with two teams) both support 24 players, which helps bring out some of that consistent chaos I was talking about earlier. I've been playing shooters all my life, but to see two armies of plants and zombies go at it is something else. Every single class looks and feels utterly different, and constantly picking your battles with certain players doesn't really get old.
Although Vanquish is fun all on its own, Garden and Graveyards can often yield some of the crazier matches. Here, Plants are on the defense, with Zombies slowly acquiring base after base until they reach the end goal, where an all-out war happens. If the Zombies make it all the way to the last point they have to fulfill a unique objective, like destroying a giant boss plant or invading a mansion with its own security measures.
Since there's no AI element to this it feels fresh every time, and almost every match I've played was filled with intense moments that had me on the edge of my seat. If you're not keen on any upgrades or customization options, "Classic" matchmaking choices are there to keep things on a completely level playing field.
In terms of platform differences, the Xbox One version sports improved visuals over the 360, and it has a split-screen mode as well as SmartGlass support. Sadly, split-screen is limited to a pared-down Garden Ops mode that's only playable offline, and player two can't earn coins or achievements. While it is nice that some sort of concession was made to even allow split-screen in the first place, it's a shame that the second player can't earn their own rewards or play online in general. With those options, Warfare would be a force to be reckoned with in terms of local play.
With a few more tweaks, Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare would be a must-buy for pretty much any shooter fan out there. But even with its blemishes, I was incredibly surprised by the amount of depth the game has to offer on top of all of its charm. Hopefully EA will ease off the microtransactions in the future and even more content will pile in, because with the right moves and support, Garden Warfare will be something special for quite some time.