The original Plants vs. Zombies game is perhaps one of the biggest successes in the modern wave of mobile games. The simple gameplay with surprising depth wrapped with a light-hearted humour warmed many gamers with its charm. Although its sequel is often criticised for being overly reliant on in-game micro transactions – the franchise as a whole is one of the most recognisable and well-regarded in games.
It may have seemed an outlandish idea when Popcap announced Garden Warfare. It’s a third-person multiplayer shooter based on the PvZ dynamics, which was traditionally a top-down tower defence game. Many wondered how it would work. However, what Popcap have developed with Garden Warfare is one of the most fresh and fun multiplayer experiences to be released in years.
Garden Warfare gives you two flavours of multiplayer to choose from in your quest for plant (or zombie) victory. First is Garden Ops, a 4 player co-op equivalent of traditional PvZ gameplay – where you pick from one of three points to plant a garden to defend as plants from 10 waves of zombies. Like the tower defence game, there are locations around the maps (which are shared between co-op and deathmatch competitive games) where you can set plants to remotely attack zombies. There are special rounds where you take on a randomly selected set of larger and more durable zombies, like the Gargantuar or the Yeti, which take more effort and co-ordination to kill. After your ten waves, you are forced to reach an extraction point (a la Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer) where you can be evacuated to safety. All-in-all it’s a fun game type, with varying difficulties and maps to play on to provide a different challenge. Looking long-term, though, it may suffer from the repetitiveness that Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer had – in that once you’ve completed a map several times you feel like you are repeating yourself unnecessarily.
The competitive multiplayer is where the game really shines like the Sunflower. Up to 24 players take turns competing as plants or zombies in competitive games. There are two game modes on offer – Team Vanquish, with traditional deathmatch rules, or Gardens & Graveyards, a mode similar to Battlefield’s Rush game mode. Team Vanquish games are short and sweet, with a 50 vanquish limit to games meaning it doesn’t take long to finish a game. The maps never feel too crowded or too sparse for this game mode, and offer plenty of variety in terms of things like height, running routes etc. The design is simple but effective in making things feel relatively fast-paced. Gardens and Graveyards is slightly more interesting, with a more unique blend of multiplayer and tower defence. In this game type, plants defend a series of gardens from zombie attack. If zombies can get into the garden for long enough, they will capture the base and the plants will be forced to fall back to a new garden. If the zombies manage to capture five or so gardens, they will be able to capture/destory/infiltrate the plants’ base – and will win the game by doing so. Plants only need to defend a garden for the given time limit to win. The game mode is easy to understand but requires a level of strategy that seems unusual given the game’s cartoonish nature. Both sides can call in reinforcements from potted plants or graveyards from their own personal reserve of consumable character cards to help attack and distract the other side – which is a nice touch.
The actual gameplay in both of the games is good, better than I imagined that Popcap would be able to produce considering their limited pedigree in shooters, but not quite as fluid as the ubiquitous military games. Shooting feels satisfying and the range of abilities liven things up. There are some minor drawbacks, which is to be expected, in that abilities sometimes take a while to activate in practice and there is a lack of sprint or melee capability, meaning travelling long distances and fighting close range are both drawn out.
The amount of variety and depth to the multiplayer is impressive. Both plants and zombies have four basic characters to play, each with their own distinctive play-styles and special abilities. Each character can be upgraded and customised through collectible cards that are purchased through an in-game store with coins earned from matches you play. Playing as different classes requires completely different ways of going about the game. The Chomper, on the plants’ side, can only spray goo short range, eat people from behind or burrow underneath people to eat them – so they are only effective at short range. However, they are a nightmare to fight against if they manage to go underground near you. They can be counteracted by the zombies’ engineer – who can throw a stun cannon to bring them up from their tunnel. The Sunflower can help heal teammates, but it isn’t as strong as the common (or garden) Peashooter in attacking enemies. The zombies’ All-Star is a big American Footballer, with extra health and a chaingun-like football cannon – however he’ll be much easier to hit with a bigger character model. This sense of balance exists right the way through the multiplayer and beats even the likes of Call of Duty and Battlefield in some ways for this. Despite the game’s appearance as a kids’ shooter, write its complexity off at your peril.
Another promising sign for the shooter is the promise of post-release support. Already since release, new collector cards packs have been made available to help you decide whether to upgrade your plants or zombies and a playlist has been added that acts as a mixed playlist between Team Vanquish and Gradens & Graveyards. Bi-monthly free DLC has been suggested from Popcap in the way of new character customisation options and game modes – so hopefully the game has room to grow even further (pardon the plant pun).
Stepping into Garden Warfare and you can tell that it is a Plants vs. Zombies game. The beautifully coloured cartoon graphics and the all-round comic presentation values are there and make you feel a childish joy. The sound effects of the game are also great, from the Zombie Overlord or Crazy Dave popping up during the game to give you updates or even just your Peashooter firing on an enemy. The menu music is superb, with the between-game tune being so catchy that it’s hard not to join in after hearing it a few times. It’s a rich game to experience. There are some graphical bugs that you’ll probably come across after a few hours of playing – including textures not loading when entering a match or even having your playing character caught mid-air at times – but these are few and far between.
Along with those mild graphics problems, there are a few other features (or lack of) that lose the game some points. Garden Ops has a relatively easy system of inviting friends to play with you, but no such option exists for competitive games. The only way to play with your friends is to load up a game and ask them to join your session in progress. At this point in time, party functionality for multiplayer games should come as standard – so this is a slight let-down.
The biggest take-away from playing Garden Warfare though is how fun it is. Shooters can be too serious and too competitive, and leave you raging at the other team, your team and the game itself. Games aren’t meant to be like this – and Garden Warfare restores the element of all-round enjoyment to the shooter for me. Being killed, and then seeing your foe in the killcam – perhaps a Sunflower with pink face paint on – can always slay any rising feeling of unfairness from your death. Mowing people down with your Peashooter’s Gatling ability and hearing the ching of the coins you’ve earned come through is a great feeling. Gobbling up a zombie from below as a Chomper is as rewarding as anything you’ll do in a game. Everyone can play Garden Warfare and have a good time, something that makes it stand out above the crowd of shooters.
Overall, Garden Warfare is a fantastic game that will re-awaken the delight of even the most cold-hearted shooter cynic. It is simultaneously a jokey, childish game and an elaborate take on competitive and co-op gameplay. I initially wondered whether the game was worth the £25 I spent on it, but considering how much I’ve played of it over the last week and how much enjoyment I’ve got from it – I have no hesitation in recommending it. Garden Warfare is something completely different and won’t take much time at all to grow on you.