Release Date: February 25, 2014Platform: Xbox One (reviewed), Xbox 360Developer: PopCap GamesPublisher: Electronic ArtsGenre: Multiplayer third-person shooter
If you’ve been known to dabble in the world of video games from time to time, then you’ve probably heard of PopCap’s casual “tower defense” game Plants vs. Zombies, and there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve even played it before. Garden Warfare, however, is not your typical Plants vs. Zombies game. And that’s because PopCap decided to take the quirky 2D strategy game and build it into a wild multiplayer third-person shooter. Pretty crazy, right? But while the whole idea surrounding Garden Warfare is a decidedly strange one, you really have to hand it to PopCap for taking such a huge risk like this. And the good news is that this risk pays off immensely, as PopCap has managed to create one of the most lighthearted and refreshing online shooters that you’re likely to play all year.
The bright and sunny graphics of Garden Warfare look absolutely stunning when running on the Xbox One, and character animations are fast and smooth. It’s a fun and airy thrill to see all your favorite Plants vs. Zombies characters brought to life in these vivid 3D character designs, and it’s even more fun to actually control them. While there are only a small handful of different maps to choose from in the game right now, each one is positively brimming with character and charm, and they all capture the sense of humor of the series to a shining degree. My favorite map so far is easily the one called Suburban Flats, which takes the iconic neighborhoods and backyards from the quirky PvZ world and makes them fully realized with tons of interesting nooks and crannies to discover during battle.
Each playable Plant and Zombie character in the game has their own unique feel, and you’ll constantly find yourself switching back and forth between them because they’re all just so darn fun to play. Maybe you’re in the mood for a little stealth, and the Chomper’s sneaky burrowing ability is just want you need. Maybe you’re in the giving mood and want to help out your teammates with the Sunflower’s healing ability. Or maybe you just want to go all out on the frontlines with the Peashooter or sniper-esque Cactus. The zombies are just as diverse and a blast to control, from the powerful Foot Soldier and All-Star, to the more strategic Scientist and Engineer. There are also so many smart and funny references to the main Plants vs. Zombies games that die-hard fans of the series will love pointing out: even if they’ve never played a shooting game before.
There are two main ways to vanquish zombies in the game: the titular Garden Warfare mode and online multiplayer matches. The former option functions as a co-op horde mode of sorts, where players are tasked with protecting their garden from continuous waves of zombies. You can play this mode by yourself or with up to three other players, but it should also be noted that Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare requires a constant internet connection and an Xbox Live Gold membership to really do anything. This mode was probably my favorite part of the game, as in true Plants vs. Zombies fashion, you can place little defenders from the original games in plant pots around the environment to give you an extra edge when things start to really get, as Crazy Dave would say, “CRAAaaZZZyyyy!”
But the best parts about Garden Warfare mode are easily the randomized boss rounds that pop up every five waves. Each of these boss rounds begin with Dr. Zomboss spinning a slot machine reel, and whatever three images turn up is what you’ll be faced with. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and have one of the images help you out with a 500-coin bonus. But if you’re like me, then it’s likely you’ll have to face a devastating team of a Gargantuar, Disco zombie, and Yeti zombie. The boss fights are larger than life and positively thrilling, and you’ll need all the skills and the teamwork you can muster to come out of them with your leaves and stems still intact. The good news is that players can revive one another if they fall in battle, and lots of other bonuses will make the higher difficulties of Garden Warfare grow easier over time.
The other big selling point is the online multiplayer, which features a seamless competitive PvP experience for up to 24 players at once. And let me tell you, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a frantic suburban neighborhood swarming with plants in the backyards and zombies rocket-jumping to the rooftops. In addition to a basic “Welcome Mat” match type for newcomers, there are really only two different match types in the competitive portion of the game: team deathmatch and the objective-based Garden & Graveyards, which functions as a “control point” mode of sorts. There are also special variants of each match type, which either restricts or allows which unlockable characters and abilities you’ll be able to use depending on your character levels and player ranking.
Garden Warfare also has an addictive sense of progression for those who are in it for the long haul. As you play through the game, each one of your Plant and Zombie characters has their own upgrade paths through a series of in-game challenges. For instance, an early challenge for the Peashooter might be to vanquish 3 zombies with your alternate Chili Bean Bomb attack, while a challenge for the Sunflower might involve healing 3 of your teammates. The more you level up each character, the more difficult these challenges become, and the more of them you’ll need to complete to go up a level and earn new abilities. You’ll also have an overall player rank, which is derived from how good you get at leveling up your different fighters.
Luckily, you’ll be able to skip some of the trickier challenges with special stickers that help make up the other main source of progression in Garden Warfare. Everything you do in the game, from completing multiplayer matches to vanquishing Disco or Yeti zombies will reward you with silver coins, which you can solely use to buy sticker packs in the game store. Each sticker pack will contain things like customization accessories, new helper items to plant in the Garden Warfare mode, instant revive cards, and sticker pieces that go towards unlocking new character types. The sticker system is an especially nice touch to give this lighthearted game a deeper sense of fulfillment, and it’s also a welcomed surprise to find that there are no grubby microtransactions tied into the system (at least not that I’ve seen so far after launch).
It’s true that Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare is a different type of shooter, and to be perfectly honest, we need to have more shooters like this in the future. The game is just so fun that it’s impossible to play without a huge smile on your face, and it might even serve as a great gateway game for more casual players who don’t have a ton of experience with the shooter genre or multiplayer games in general.
An impressive start on all accounts, I think Garden Warfare will only get better over time as more maps and match types are hopefully introduced. But until then, be prepared to have more fun than you can handle, and of course, be sure to keep a firm grasp on all those precious brainz!
Graphics – 9/10Gameplay – 9/10Music – 9/10Replayability – 9/10Multiplayer – 9/10