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‘Plants Vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare’ pulls up a dandy-lion of a shooter

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Plants Vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare (Xbox One)

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PopCap Games conquered the tower defense genre with Plants Vs. Zombies before unexpectedly announcing a multiplayer shooter based on the franchise for the Xbox One and Xbox 360. Plants Vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare hits store shelves today and is a surprisingly solid online shooter that is loaded with fun personality though light on gametype variety.

From the Backyard…

The basic premise of Plants Vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare remains much the same from the original tower defense release. There’s a wacky evil genius named Dr. Zomboss who has unleashed a bunch of wacky zombies and the only defense is a bunch of wacky plants assisted by the also wacky Crazy Dave. The main difference now is that little backyard has been expanded into a fully realized world featuring a sprawling suburban neighborhood, evil and good mansions, seaside ports, castles and more. Oh yeah, it’s all played in the third-person view too so you can get a perfect view of a cactus wiggling his rump as he runs.

What, you didn’t know that a cactus wiggled his butt when he ran? Yeah, I didn’t either until I played Garden Warfare. That’s part of the off-kilter humor that PopCap injected throughout the game with the character designs, animations, weapons, abilities and even environments.

A Flying Winnebago?

The core experience is Garden Ops which transfers the 2D tower defense of the original to a third-person shooter. Up to four players team up to pick one of three gardens on a map to defend against ten waves of zombies before trying to escape to an extraction point for where Crazy Dave to pick them up in the first flying Winnebago seen since Spaceballs.

Helper plants like Peashooters, Bonk Choy and Fume-shroom can be planted in strategically placed pots around the map as well to help with defense. These come from the roster of plants you’ve collected from sticker packs purchased with in-game coins instead of an unlimited number for each level. This adds a bit of strategery as you must decide what packs to spend money on and whether to use your plants or save them for later.

Every few waves, Dr. Zomboss will appear to spin a Zomboss slot machine and initiate a boss wave. The slot machine typically calls in boss zombies like the Disco Zombie or Gargantuar or tombstones which spawn a stream of one minor zombie type until destroyed. However, it will also grant extra coins with the possibility to ring up a substantial coin drop if all three slots are coin rewards. Conversely, dialing up Gargantuar or Disco Zombie in all three slots results in an even larger and tougher version of the bosses.

One Player Splitscreen

The Xbox One exclusive Splitscreen mode is a two-player local spin on Garden Ops that works excellently with the exception of one glaringly curious design decision. Both players only have access to Player One’s roster of plant characters and collection of helper plants. Additionally, progress is only tracked for Player One.

This inevitably led to a situation where I initially leveled up my Cactus but my son decided to focus on the Chomper. This led to a poor gameplay experience as my son wanted the full Chomper abilities when I was in the driver’s seat and vice versa for me and the Cactus when he was numero uno. Also, the little stinker burned through almost all my helper plant collection before I realized what was going on.

Choose a Side

On the competitive multiplayer side, Gardens & Graveyards is the main attraction with a mode similar to the Battlefield series’ Rush Mode where twelve Zombies must attack and capture a series of locations in a set amount of time while twelve Plants try to repel the invasion. Each capture point gets wilder and crazier leading up to a unique capture event for each map. For example, one ending will shoot the Zombies out of a canon across water to an island for a final assault on a giant sunflower. Did I mention that the Plants can man anti-aircraft plant guns to shoot the Zombies out of the sky? Yes, that happens.

Meanwhile, Team Skirmish is the traditional team deathmatch mode featuring 12 vs 12 matches in a fight to reach 50 vanquishes (the family friendly replacement of the traditional “kill”).

There are also “Classic” modes available for both Gardens & Graveyards and Team Skirmish which strips the ability to use character customizations or variations. These modes are alright but they help highlight the one weakness in both the Xbox One and Xbox 360 versions of the game and that is the limited number of modes available. The discounted price on both platforms helps counter this lack of diversity in gametypes and PopCap Games has promised free content in the future but it is what it is. You are essentially going to be playing three different modes with four additional slight variations.

Chomping at the bit

Though the number of multiplayer modes may be sparse, Garden Warfare nearly overwhelms with the number of customization options for characters. The in-game coins you earn can be spent on sticker packs ranging from 1,000 coins to 40,000 coins which contain common, uncommon, rare and super rare stickers which unlocks both character content as well as helper plants and helper zombies.

The character content includes customizations like sunglasses, tattoos, hats and more as well as variations on weapons so you can turn the Zombie Scientist’s shotgun into a dolphin shotgun.

This is what sets Garden Warfare apart from the majority of multiplayer games on the market. Where others focus on maps, killstreaks and big events¸ PopCap Games caused an explosion of characters that drives the entire enjoyment of the game. It’s also all surprisingly well-balanced as well despite the fact that this is an intentionally unbalanced experience.

Online shooters typically have a one-to-one mapping of classes and abilities for each side in a match so that one side does not gain an advantage over another. Not so with Plants Vs. Zombies as the four playable Plants – Pea Shooter, Sunflower, Chomper and Cactus – differ in almost every way from the four playable Zombies – Soldier, Scientist, Engineer and All-Star. Surprisingly, it and the entire in-game economy work hand-in-hand together to ensure that one side does not overpower the other in competitive matches.

Like a Boss

The other Xbox One exclusive feature is the Boss Mode which takes Battlefield 4’s Commander Mode and puts strategic control of the Plants and Zombies in player’s hands. This grants an overhead view of the battlefield via the TV or tablet (Via Xbox Smart Glass) to collect brains or coins to be used to call in artillery strikes, heals, resurrects or radar. In my house, the tablet provided the best experience as my son, daughter and I would rotate playing Commander in Splitscreen mode while the other two play on the TV.

Boss Mode can also be used in the competitive multiplayer modes which provided a neat experience when my son just picked up the iPad while I was in a Gardens & Graveyards match and began helping out.

Verdict

Plants Vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare drives a stake through the heart of the same formulaic online shooters we’ve seen for the past decade by focusing on characters and core gameplay mechanics that are both fun and amusing. It definitely could use some additional game modes and I am worried that it will get lost in the deluge of upcoming releases. However, this is one shooter that is not only a kick to play but something parents would never be embarrassed to let their kids play either.

Update: Plants Vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare did launch with some server issues Tuesday which were not encountered at all during the pre-release review period. So far this only appears to affect connections with servers which EA is trying to get a fix in for. However, we will keep an eye on the situation.

Pros

  • The Plants and Zombies shine with plenty of personality through customizations.
  • Competitive multiplayer is a blast and well-balanced despite asynchronous classes.
  • The world of Plants Vs. Zombies successfully makes the jump to 3D and looks fantastic.
  • Boss Mode successfully ports over Battlefield 4’s Commander Mode.
  • The first shooter that my wife has approved my kids to play without reservation.

Cons

  • The number of gametypes is shallow at launch.
  • Splitscreen co-op mode only tracks the progress and has access to characters for one player.
  • Can it standout in the flood of upcoming games?

Title: Plants Vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare
Platform(s): Xbox One, Xbox 360
Developer: PopCap Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Price: $39.99 (Xbox One), $29.99 (Xbox 360)
Release Date: Feb. 25, 2014

A review code for the Xbox One was provided by Electronic Arts for the purposes of this review.

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h/t to Robert Workman for inspiring the very punny headline.

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