++Review – Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare

This is the age of the FPS. Whether you like it or not, it has become the staple genre in our humble hobby, and I can understand why. All stories require conflict, good stories require meaningful conflict, and good interactive stories require meaningful physical conflict. It’s just the way this industry has been molded.

There’s certainly debate to be had on the necessity of player violence as a staple. Phoenix Wright, among others, proves it isn’t the only way, but it is certainly the most immediate way to get your character motivations across. “This guy wants to kill you, here’s a gun.” Understandably, there’s a subset of people in our culture that prefer non-violent gameplay opportunities, and shun the FPS wholly (with few exceptions – Portal, Unfinished Swan, etc.), based on those preferences.

Even if you’re not one of those people, chances are high that, as a gaming enthusiast, you shun Call of Duty and its ilk. This has become a membership card of sorts (one I do not carry); to roll our collective eyes at yet another franchise embarking on that dumbed-down road of vacuous first-person shooting. Especially such an intelligent property as Plants vs. Zombies.

Don’t do it. If Pop Cap has taught you anything through their design philosophy, it’s that they prize fun, easy interface, and a highly polished end product above all else, and it shows very blatantly in Garden Warfare. Ignore it at your own peril. Or if you hate fun.

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Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare [XBOX One, XBOX 360 (reviewed), PC]
Developer: Pop Cap Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release: 02/25/2014 (Spring 2014 – PC)
MSRP: $29.99
Words: James Bacon

Garden Warfare is a simple multiplayer class-based FPS. There is no single-player campaign. There is no plot to speak of other than what can be found in the original tower defense/puzzle game (zombies want to eat brains, plants don’t want them to eat brains, because then who would water them). There are a mere four classes per team, and you take turns switching between plants and zombies. There are a handful of maps, and three different modes. That’s it.

But it’s the simplicity that makes it work.

Thankfully, the eight different classes aren’t just a bunch of diverse loadouts strapped to bodies. Much like any other class-based shooter, gameplay diversity is achieved through class-specific weapons, items, specials, and actions (with a bit of overlap to make things fair – only one team having access to a flying drone that drops bombs wouldn’t have been fair by any means). That’s standard. Unlike other class-based shooters, you can unlock different outfits by purchasing packs of cards in the shop with the coins you earn by playing (winning, obviously, earns you more spondoolies), and these outfits can make drastic changes to the class in question. For example, the Zombie Footsoldier uses a mid-range sub-machine gun, but collecting and using the Tank Commander skin changes his standard weapon to a long-range blast that nearly kills on a direct hit. Same basic concept, same playstyle, completely different utility to suit your personal preference.

To allay any fear that might well up at the mention of Electronic Arts and an in-game purchasing system, I’ll tell you right now that there aren’t any microtransactions to speak of. When I first heard about the “card collecting” to unlock costumes, I was instantly wary. Thankfully, there’s none of that nonsense.

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Furthermore, the characters have character. None of them speak, but all of them have a unique voice, and the detailed animations overflow with personality. And, man, those animations are excellent. The game was built entirely using the Frostbite 3 engine, and it shows. The Sunflower, in particular, demonstrates just how much attention was paid to detail – her entire mane of petals shakes back and forth with every step. Sometimes I choose her just to watch her walk around. The people at Pop Cap really love this franchise, and it shows in the care and precision they employ to craft these characters.

Balance is, of course, key. No class-based shooter succeeds without a fine-tuned equilibrium, and since all classes have a hard counter on the opposing side, and you can switch between them upon death, it makes each team perfectly suited to win the match. Again, simplicity itself.

The game has three modes of play (there are actually five, but two of them are “classic” versions of other modes, meaning you can’t use those purchased skins or weapon upgrades, but who wants to do that? Not me!): Garden Ops, which is Horde Mode for up to four players, and is the only mode you can get any sort of single-player action out of; Team Vanquish, which is Team Deatmatch; and Gardens and Graveyards, which is the real meat and potatoes of the game, just like Conquest and Rush modes are from the Battlefield franchise… which this mode emulates to a T, but with the added benefit of consumables. In those card packs you can buy at the shop, you’ll receive a wide variety of zombie summons, and potted plants, which you can use to help defend (plants) or attack (zombies) the objectives. They aren’t too threatening to players, and they’re all easily dispatched, but they can sometimes tip the scales in a firefight. Use them at every available opportunity.

You can level your profile up by leveling up the separate classes, but it’s handled uniquely: instead of acquiring XP for kills and victories (those net you coins to spend in the shop), each class has a series of “quests” to complete, and each level threshold has a certain amount of quests that need to be completed in order to level up. The quests can consist of anything from “as the Engineer, deploy your drone 5 times,” to “kill 2 enemies with one Chili Bean Bomb (a Pea Shooter ability) three separate times.” There is a wide range of difficulty among the different tasks, but it adds a level of flavor I’m not quite used to in a multiplayer FPS setting. I rather enjoy the frenetic feel it lends to the battlefield, since I’m not only trying to win the game with my team, but I’m keeping an eye out for opportunities to capitalize on my quest objectives. Only three are ever active at a time, so it never gets overwhelming, and there’s a satisfying “POP!” when you complete one. I like it.

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Right now, that’s all there is to this half-priced ($29.99 on 360… I can hardly believe this is an EA product) oddball entry in an extremely successful series. Pop Cap Games has recently confirmed that all DLC for Garden Warfare will be free for the life of the game (seriously, is that a misprint? This CAN’T be an EA game…), which means the game will be rounded out with additional maps, modes, and classes in the near future (first DLC pack should hit soon), and the level cap will be expanded to 80. Hot damn!

Now, if it can only survive the Titanfall release…

Verdict: +Good (8.5) – The lack of a campaign mode doesn’t hurt this game at all, but the lack of maps, and a measly four classes per team does. Ultimately, not much damage is done by this lack of options, as Garden Warfare is incredibly fun, provides mechanics that are fresh to the genre, is easy to pick up and play, and looks absolutely gorgeous. Add FREE DLC for the life of the game (that’s every single last shred of DLC created will be free for everyone, forever), and you’re left with nothing to complain about. It’s almost like EA has successfully done this before (you know, minus the free DLC thing).