Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare has no right to be any good. It's everything we're supposed to hate: the corruption of a beloved franchise into yet another multiplayer shooter. Peashooters, zombie workmen and Sunflowers trade charming tower defence for ironsights and circle-strafing, more casualties of the war on wallets that never changes.
So I'm genuinely delighted to report that, despite all odds, Garden Warfare is a rather lovely little thing! PopCap may lack experience with the gritty genre, but their unsullied innocence allowed them to inject fun, happiness, colour and real personality into what's often a crushingly drab shooting gallery. Sunflowers and zombies merrily flounce and flail around some vibrant maps, working together to push the simple objectives or 'vanquish' as many foes as possible. It's easily the most stress-free and family friendly shooter out there, eschewing K/D ratios, sprinting, gore and microtransactions to create a safe and relaxing environment for newcomers to enjoy.
Don't mistake a cheerful and casual approach for a lack of depth, however. Behind the smiles lies an impeccably unbalanced set of classes and abilities that can cater for any play style. Often you'll find me sniping flowers from rooftops as a mobile zombie foot soldier, whereas much of my time is spent ruthlessly stalking my undead prey from beneath the Earth, hunting my quarry as they vainly flee in abject terror, only to meet their grisly demise as I smash through the tarmac and devour them whole with razor-sharp fangs.
I am Chomper! I am Death! And I am having an absolute blast with Garden Warfare, even if I might not be able to recommend it quite as highly as I'd like.
At its core, Garden Warfare is built around solid and straightforward third-person shooting mechanics that PopCap have strived to keep as streamlined as possible. You've only got basic movement, aiming and reloading to worry about, allowing players of any age or ability to quickly learn the ropes and get involved with the 12 v 12 online battles. Though suspect hit detection and feedback can sometimes make it difficult to know whether your attacks have connected, and I occasionally encountered a little lag over the opening weekend, it's functional, fun and accessible. Brilliantly, the lack of K/D ratios and other more 'hardcore' contrivances allows everyone to compete in a stress-free and relaxed environment regardless of skill.
So far, so generic, but PopCap wastes no time in turning on the charm. Everything is vibrant, vital, cheerful and upbeat, from the colourful yet surprisingly intricate maps to the carefree background music and tongue-in-cheek item descriptions. The switch from cartoon visuals to full 3D may have slightly compromised the series' familiar aesthetic (cel-shading might have been more appropriate), but the handsome-if-not-jawdropping visuals do a fantastic job of bringing real personality to the all-important character classes, all of whom are as carefree and adorable as you'll remember from the original tower defence games, and display their own unique personalities through sumptuously fluid animations.
From the zombie physicist to the humble Peashooter, they're the stars of the show, and elevate Garden Warfare from a garden variety shooter [groan - Ed] into something much more exciting. Despite their lack of experience, PopCap have managed to craft a finely-balanced asymmetrical multiplayer arena by ensuring that both teams are completely, uniquely unbalanced. Each class is totally overpowered so long as they remain in their specific situational niche, thanks to a range of finely-honed abilities.
On the Plants team we find the Peashooter, who thumps out powerful medium-range projectiles and burrows into the ground to punish zombies with gatling fire, but they'll be picked off in short order without close support from healing Sunflowers. In turn, these de-facto medics need protection to survive in pitched battles, aptly provided by withering long-range sniper shots from the Cacti, who fortify choke points with Tallnuts, deploy potato mines and field remote-control Onion Drones for aerial battlefield superiority. And then we have the terrifying Chomper: a dedicated melee class who can instant-kill enemies from below-ground or behind, stealthily noshing the undead foe without pity or remorse.
However, Chomps McGomps ain't so tough when zombie Foot Soldiers use their rocket jumps to secure lofty rooftop perches, denying territory with gas bombs, while engineers force them out of the ground with stun grenades. Though more conservative than the Plants, Team Zombie fields tightly-balanced classes who can void anything the plants throw at them, forcing players to think tactically about how they decide to play their chosen role. Scientists can brutalise fauna with shotgun blasts and teleports, or hang back to support their team-mates with healing spires. All-Stars suppress distant foes with rapid-fire football volleys, or set up defensive screens to protect their allies before closing to point-blank range with deadly tackles. The action may be disarmingly friendly, but sweeping team strategy pays dividends, as does exploiting the pleasingly vertical maps to the full.
This balance-through-imbalance approach encourages players to work together, ensuring that the team who communicates effectively, sticks together and revives each other almost always wins. Neither side is overpowered or has a clear advantage over the other, making true teamwork the order of the day. Continued play will unlock some extra class variants who pack powerful new attacks, not limited to the tesla-spewing zombie physicist and fire-gouting Flame Chomper - though there's an odd catch we'll discuss later in the article.
Your first port of call ought to be Garden Ops mode: a four-player cooperative 'horde' gametype that most closely resembles the traditional PvZ gameplay. Your team has to defend a garden from ten randomised zombie waves before extracting to Crazy Dave's flying van (a pleasing nod to Titanfall's epilogue, perhaps?), which provides an infinitely-replayable slice of comfort gaming to return to throughout your career. It also allows you to get to grips with some of the more advanced gameplay elements, such as deploying stationary consumable plant turrets to stem the tide.
Garden Ops deserves to be more than a tutorial, but it's a crying shame that Garden Warfare ignores solo players or splitscreen fans, offering only a watered-down endless mode for two couch co-op buddies. The action might have been borderline-unplayable on four tiny screen quadrants, but we should have been able to decide that for ourselves.
The meat of the package is naturally to be found in the two 12 vs 12 multiplayer gametypes. A familiar team deathmatch is on hand for straightforward fun, whereas the more tactical players can leap into 'Gardens & Graveyards' to defend and assault territory over some truly enormous maps. This latter mode is easily the highlight of the package, requiring real teamwork to push the objective as zombies or secure the myriad approaches as the leafy defenders hold the line. Again, the impressive breadth and verticality of the map design makes for an unpredictable and versatile experience.
With only two game modes, though, Garden Warfare's long-term appeal hinges around its progression system. Participating in any game mode rewards you with coins to spend on packs of 'stickers,' which contain randomised collections of customisation options, character variants, upgrades and consumables.
We love this system for so many reasons. There's nary a microtransaction in sight, while the 1:1 relationship between points and coins makes you feel like you're genuinely rewarded for each kill, assist or capture. Consumables and fun cosmetic items are fantastic fun to collect, gradually filling out an enormous sticker book that will keep casual players locked in for the long haul.
It'd be utterly brilliant, at least, if it wasn't absolutely terrible for more experienced shooter veterans.
The problem is that advanced character classes and weapon upgrades are also doled out randomly, and require a huge time investment to unlock. There's no way to actively work towards improving a specific playstyle, rather you'll just have to hope and pray that you eventually stumble into a new class variant that happens to suit your tastes over many, many hours. Earning coins may be easy and fun, but there's nothing to shoot for in the long term. Worse, class-specific challenges often reward player behaviour that doesn't directly benefit their team, such as hunting down specific enemies with support classes, demonstrating PopCap's fumbling inexperience with team-based shooters.
I can't believe that I'm about to write this, but Garden Warfare might have actually worked better as a free-to-play title or inexpensive XBLA download with microtransactions. This would have allowed players to choose their level of investment... and probably would been more appropriate considering the amount of meaningful content on offer.
Which is a diplomatic way of saying that, no matter how you slice it, Garden Warfare is probably too expensive. Even at a budget £35 RRP, its two multiplayer game modes, uneven progression and lip service to solo or local players is matched (if not exceeded) by any number of F2P games and £10-15 downloads.
Regardless, there's still plenty to enjoy here, and a fun new take on the genre that'll appeal to newcomers and war-weary veterans alike. Just keep an eye out for a deal, since £15-£25 would be an appropriate price point in my personal estimation.
- Brilliantly (un)balanced classes promote team play
- Surprisingly intricate and vertical maps suit varied play styles
- Fun, charming, accessible and stress-free multiplayer environment
- Encourages real teamwork and communication
- Questionable value at RRP; might have worked better as a F2P/XBLA download
- Annoying randomised progression for class variants and weapon upgrades
- Some hit detection, hit feedback and occasional lag issues
- Woeful lack of singleplayer and local co-op content
The Short Version: Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare is a fun, fresh and friendly new take on the tired old multiplayer shooter. Newbies will enjoy a safe and relaxing environment to learn the ropes, while the superbly imbalanced classes provide surprising depth for more experienced players. PopCap's genre inexperience shows in the half-baked progression system and unsatisfying hit feedback, but their bumbling and charming personality ultimately wins out.
Definitely try to secure a decent deal, though.