Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare is a long way from the franchise’s home. The original and its sequel were both quirky takes on the tower defence genre, but in Garden Warfare, that theme has uprooted itself and run off to the realms of 3D, co-op and competitive multiplayer. It probably shouldn’t work, but it does.
Everything about the game feels like a perfect fit in the franchise. The chirpy and cheerful music is as effusive as ever, while ridiculously vibrant art style comes to life in the Frostbite 3 engine with some clever twists to the character design and animation along the way. However, it’s another example of the Xbox One not quite hitting 1080p.
For the more staunch fans of tower defence, it’s the Garden Ops co-op mode which will be where you’ll spend most of your time. It can be played solo or split-screen, but works best with 4 players online. It’s a blend of the traditional Plants vs. Zombies play and the co-operative Horde modes that you often find in games these days.
Crazy Dave drops you and your three plant buddies into a map, and you head off to pick one of a handful of locations to plant a garden which you then need to defend from the incoming hordes of zombies until Dave comes to pick you up, with tons of zombies swarming your extraction zone.
The key is to get the four classes to work together in harmony. The Peashooter shoots at a fairly slow rate, so needs a bit of precision to play with, but can also turn into a gatling gun emplacement for a short time, chuck highly explosive Chilli Bean Bombs and go into a Hyper mode that makes it run at speed and gives it the ability to jump really high.
The Peashooter is the all-rounder, while the Cactus is more about placing defensive emplacements, the Sunflower about healing friendly plants and doling out the sun’s energy, and the Chomper is about getting right up to a zombie to gobble them up, through stealthy burrowing, spitting purple goo or placing tangleweed.
Together, the classes have all the bases covered, but you can get additional help by placing potted plants – many of which return from previous games – in set places around the garden. They make a pretty good distraction and impediment to the zombies, but really, it’s all down to you and your team.
Especially when the 5th and 10th rounds deal out a randomised trio of boss characters, from zombie spawning Tombstones to the giant Yeti Zombie, which really take one hell of a beating. On normal difficulty they’re pretty challenging, but on Hard or Crazy, these can quickly wipe you out if you’re not careful. Even the more regular special zombies will start to pose a big problem a few rounds in.
If you fail, and this is especially true if you do so at the final hurdle, a handful of team respawns let you quickly satisfy that “one more go” feeling. The only penalty being that you lose all the placed plants you already had, and your game-wide supplies might be running low.
You can restock your sticker book of summonable plants and zombies just by playing the game. As you play, you earn points which can be spent on sticker packs that will include a bundle of plants, zombies, or some of the vast array of character items and class variation parts. It doesn’t take too long to earn enough points for a sticker pack, and you earn thousands per round, though it feels like competitive play can earn you points a little faster.
All of this done without a micro transaction in sight and, in a nice touch, you’re actually given a few sticker packs to open the first time you launch the game. One of these will include a randomly selected full class variant, but further variants can only be unlocked piece-by-piece through purchasing sticker books or earning them by completing class-based challenges. It will be a while before you get your second complete variant.
The variants take the standard classes and put a slight spin on the class and its abilities. It could be a time travelling cactus from the future, sent back in time to protect the plants in a lovely little film reference, with a multi-stage or the Cricket Star variant of the All-Star, rocking a cricket-themed gun that shoots flaming cricket balls. There’s the cute little word play and the pervasive sense of humour in every facet of the game.
Where the plants all have a defensive slant to their abilities, some able to root themselves to a single spot for higher powered attacks, the zombies all have more offensive abilities. The All-Star’s charge will knock a plant to the ground, the Engineer’s grenade launcher stuns burrowing Chompers, and the Scientist’s teleporter lets it get up close quickly to wield its shotgun-like weapon, while the Soldier is the all-rounder.
The competitive multiplayer kicks off with the Welcome Mat, a place for new players to go to unlock their abilities by completing their challenges – Rocket Jump 3 times as the Soldier to unlock the ZPG – It’s a better and quicker way to unlock those early powers than Garden Ops is, with powers awarded between lives and demonstrated with a short video, but it’s really just the Vanquish team deathmatch mode wrapped up for new comers to the game.
It’s when you get into Gardens & Graveyards that the competitive multiplayer sings. PopCap don’t shy away from admitting it’s based off a blend of Battlefield’s Rush and Conquest modes, but it has been very much simplified from those inspirations.
It has Rush’s defined progression of objectives, but each one is a single Conquest-like capture point. The Plants have to defend it and can place plants, just as in co-op, while the Zombies attack down a handful of paths with the support of some summoned regular Zombies and a semi-randomly placed teleporter that the Engineer can turn on.
The final section of each map mixes things up, giving the Zombies objectives like getting five Zombies into Crazy Dave’s mansion or placing Z4 explosives to take out a huge tactical “cuke” missile – essentially a weaponised cucumber. Win or lose, the teams then switch around so that the defenders can attack.
It’s cleverly constructed and there’s always plenty of action, lots of scope to skirt around the Plants’ defences and so on, but it’s also quite constrained. There’s only a small selection of maps for each mode, for one thing, though there’s already a line of fresh content on the way for March – maps, modes and surely more – and all DLC will be free.
However, what’s there, while cleverly twisted to something quite uniquely PvZ, also feels quite limited. It could just be the way that people played at the review event, but all bar one round of Gardens & Graveyards would see the Zombies fail at the 2nd or 3rd capture point, struggling with some choke points and the inability to split the defensive focus, as can be done in Battlefield’s Rush.
Similarly, nobody knew quite how to deal with onrushing Chompers – the Engineer’s grenade launcher is the key – which resulted in numerous one-chomp-kills. However, it’s still very early to critique the map and class balance, but this is something that PopCap will naturally have to keep an eye on.
It’s one of the unlikeliest genre shifts that I’ve seen in a long while, but Garden Warfare really does do a great job of taking the Plants vs. Zombies franchise, with that peculiar sense of humour and the catchy music intact, and wrapping it round a multiplayer action shooter which borrows and twists ideas from the rest of the industry into something distinctly PvZ.
And it’s distinctly PopCap that there’s a stream of new content to come, which is very much needed, and that this will all be free content. It’s just a shame that it might pass by or alienate many of the more casual fans of the original, simply by virtue of being a console game.
Version tested: Xbox One