The original Plants vs. Zombies was a very simple tower defense/strategy game that took the world by storm. It invaded almost every platform imaginable and was a rousing success. Plants vs. Zombies 2: It's About Time expanded on that idea, but it got some heat from some players for adopting a microtransaction system to complement its status as a free-to-play game. None of those games gave any hint that the series should explore other genres. Yet here we are with Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare, which transforms the strategy game into a multiplayer-only, class-based, third-person shooter. To say that people are shocked and confused is an understatement. More shocking is that it works very well.
The war between the zombies and the plants, led by Zomboss and Crazy Dave, respectively, rages on. The roster for each side has been slimmed down significantly to just four character class types. While the classes have counterparts on both sides, they all act differently enough. With the focus on teamwork, as evidenced by the lack of solo modes, it is necessary to have a team that has all four character types in play, or else you'll have a tough time winning.
For the plants, the four characters are some of the more popular ones in the series, but now they're mobile instead of stationary. The Sunflower is your designated healing class, as she's the only one who possesses a healing tether. Her primary attack is rather weak but fast, and she also moves the fastest. She's also the only character who can self-heal, though it can only be done until her meter is half-full. The Peashooter is your standard soldier who uses his vegetables as projectiles and can lob chili bean bombs to bait and damage zombies. While his firing speed isn't that quick, the splash damage of the peas makes up for that. The Chomper is significant because he's the only melee class in the game. Aside from his ability to chomp at zombies from a close range, he can also burrow under the ground and act as a trap to devour any zombie that steps. Finally, you have the Cactus, the plant analog for the sniper class. Her shots are more powerful than the Peashooter but don't fire as rapidly. She can also lay down spud mines that take time to set up but provide great explosive force when detonated.
For the zombies, three of the four characters are new creations. The Soldier class carries your standard shooter, and the rocket launcher on his back helps him leap higher to get better vantage points. The Scientist has a heavy goo gun, and the damage makes up for his slow firing rate and low ammo count. He also has a warp ability that lets him traverse short distances in a blink, so he's harder to target. The Engineer's big ability is sonic grenades that help him stun enemies and knock Chompers out of the ground. Finally, the All-Star, the only returning character on the zombie side, is the tank character due to his large health pool. He's slow, but his charge move takes out weaker plants in one hit, and his Gatling gun fires footballs at an alarmingly quick rate.
All of the above describes each character in their default state. Leveling up each character class opens up more abilities, and the game wisely makes sure these extra abilities open up very early on. Leveling up characters is a bit different in Garden Warfare. While other titles use an experience system based on your actions, and winning/losing contributes to a general XP pool, this game accomplishes leveling through challenges. Depending on your character level, the number of challenges varies, and the challenges cover a wide set of activities, from reviving three characters to using your inherent ability multiple times. It serves as a way for players to learn the mechanics of the game and their selected character, and it prevents players from power-leveling through their classes. Even then, once you get to level three for each character, getting higher levels has no immediate benefit.
In lieu of XP, the game gives you coins, which can be spent on card packs. Similar to how these card packs behave in Madden NFL 25, they're separated into classes based on their cost, and those classes determine what kind of cards you'll get. The most basic card pack gives you consumable cards to be used in other game modes. Go higher on the list, and you'll get cards that unlock challenge skips, customization parts, and gestures. Go even higher, and you'll unlock sticker parts that, when combined, unlock a new variant of the basic characters. Getting a Fire Chomper, for example, grants a flame spray ability to that class, while the Marine Biologist version of the Scientist gets a longer-range dolphin gun. Also unlocked from these packs are augments, which grant things like a shorter cooldown time.
The presence of a faux microtransaction system gives people some pause. We've seen full retail games go down this route before, some of them rather invasive in urging players to spend money for a boost. The random nature of the cards seems to go against the stigma of pay-to-win that is commonly associated with microtransactions, since you have no idea how much money you'll need to spend. The card pack mechanic might mean you'll get what you want right away, or it could take countless attempts. As it stands, the grinding needed to get packs isn't as high as one would imagine since an average player can collect enough coins for one pack in a single match.
The game has three modes with variants that either permit or ban character customization and variants. Team Vanquish is your standard team deathmatch mode that has a maximum of two teams, with 12 players on each side. The goal is always 50 kills for each side, but the nice little twist is that for every teammate you revive, one point is removed from your team. It makes you think twice about opting for an automatic respawn upon death, but it also encourages others to start playing with a team mindset.
Gardens & Graveyards is the equivalent to Battlefield's Rush mode, and teams are given specific objectives. In each stage, there's a goal for the zombies, whether it's destroying a giant Sunflower in a lighthouse or taking over Crazy Dave's mansion. To reach the goal, the zombies need to advance from the graveyard to the end, one area at a time. The plants are on the defensive as they try to prevent zombies from taking over each garden. There's an initial seven-minute time limit on the mode, with a five-minute limit after each garden is captured.
Garden Ops will feel the most familiar to series fans, and it's the only mode that supports co-op. Limiting the team to four members, all on the plant side, you must defend a garden plot from up to 10 waves of the zombie horde before you reach Crazy Dave's extraction point. Like Gardens & Graveyards mode, you can plant additional help in nearby pots, but it'll ultimately be up to you and your teammates to prevent the garden from being taken down. Every few rounds, a slot machine comes up to randomly choose new challenges, such as destroying nearby graveyard spawning spots, introducing the disco zombie, or having you face the giant zombie boss. Like the main game, it remains frantic in action and rewarding when you finally survive it all.
The Xbox One version comes with a few exclusives. Boss Mode isn't really a mode but an extra character class that can be played in either Team Vanquish or Gardens & Graveyards modes. Depending on your side, you'll play as either Zomboss or Crazy Dave, but instead of being present on the field, you'll fly above the field in either a blimp or RV, respectively. Only one person at a time can play this way, but you'll get an overhead view of the map, complete with ally and enemy locations. You'll collect sunshine or brains from the sky, and you'll be able to deploy healing stations, bombs, or faster revive stations. It is the closest the game gets to the original title as far as gameplay and viewpoint is concerned, and Battlefield fans will recognize this as the friendlier version of Commander mode. While the mode can be played with the controller and the Kinect functionality isn't that bad once you get used to it, Smartglass-enabled tablets and phones are the preferred way to play, as the touch controls are very intuitive.
The other exclusive is split-screen mode. It isn't really a new mode as much as it is Garden Ops that's been limited to two players and features an infinite amount of rounds instead of the standard 10. It is rather disappointing to see that split-screen isn't applied to any of the online modes, but what you get here is fun enough for those who are fine with the limitation. More disappointing is that the second player can't earn any coins in this mode, nor can he or she complete challenges and level up characters. Everything is dependent on the progress of the first player, and since the second player can't even save plant customizations, this mode becomes more of a footnote than something to crow about.
With Garden Warfare being completely dependent on an Internet connection, it is good to see that particular component working well, especially when you consider some of the issues that recently plagued some of EA's more prominent releases. There were some server issues early on, but that seems to have been fixed, since it's rather easy to enter any game mode. Server stability is also good. No games were dropped during the review period, and even temporarily trying to slow down the connection didn't result in lag or dropped frames. Games are also well populated, with barely any open slots seen at the end of any match type. For the time being, it bodes well for the game's health.
The biggest issue people will have with the game is the number of maps available. Both Garden Ops and Team Vanquish share the same six maps, while Gardens & Graveyards has a total of three maps. Even when you take into consideration the low launch price, the number of maps is rather low for a game that's completely focused on multiplayer. The maps are quite sizeable, especially the Gardens & Graveyards stages, and the action is addicting, but with so few maps to select from, some people are bound to get tired of the lack of choices. PopCap has gone on record saying that there is more DLC coming in a bi-monthly basis in the form of new maps and modes, all of which would be free, but if you were to just look at what's on the disc, it's a rather light offering.
One of the laments of gamers is that the shooter genre seems to only be familiar with brown and gray. Garden Warfare breaks out of that by adhering to the same color palette as the original games. It is dulled a bit due to the move to polygons, but the colors of the backgrounds and characters are bright. Particle effects are abundant, but they don't do anything drastic in terms of slowing down the frame rate, no matter what's happening on-screen. The character models are nicely detailed, whether they're on the major characters or the helpers, and there are some pretty nice details if you're willing to look. Really, the only criticism about the graphics has to do with the Sunflower's face. For something that looked rather cute in the 2-D game, her face is way creepier in 3-D.
Even with the change in focus from strategy to action, the vibe of the game's audio remains the same. The music is rather cheery in parts, and even the more spooky selections have some whimsy attached. It doesn't play constantly, mostly in menus and when games begin and end, but it is worth listening to when it does come on. The effects are vibrant, with the right pitches being hit at the right moments, and nothing sounds off. Voices are still limited to grunts and other gibberish, but it is for the best, as it manages to keep the original flavor of the game. While the overall audio isn't worthy of a sound system demonstration, it is very pleasing to the ears.
Despite some setbacks, Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare is a fun game. The map count may be low, but you absolutely have the urge to play just one more match, an aspect that's always important in multiplayer titles. Getting into servers is easy, and the servers are well populated no matter which mode you choose. The aesthetics are clean and very family friendly, and the promise of more maps and modes for free could take the sting out of the random nature of unlocking new character parts and variants. For those tired of the military themes used in shooters and those not quite sold on Titanfall just yet, Garden Warfare is a great alternative for multiplayer shooter fans.
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