Sowing the seeds of fun

Whenever someone decides to do a spin-off—whether in movies, TV, or videogames—it’s a huge risk, since it’s rare to end up with a good one, and even rarer for it to actually be successful. So, when PopCap revealed that they had a small band of developers at the studio working on a title called Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare, most of us were intrigued, but we worried if this tower-defense franchise could survive the sudden transition into the world of third-person shooters.

Taking elements from both Battlefield and Call of Duty, Garden Warfare mixes in some strategy gameplay and PopCap’s own brand of offbeat humor to create a wholly unique experience that’s wildly fun to play. Eight total classes (four plants, four zombies) playable across seven different modes provided me probably as much, if not more, enjoyment as I get from the shooters this game takes its inspiration from.

The element that grabbed me right from the get-go? Garden Warfare has the most interesting customizable classes I’ve seen in quite some time. Though you only start with four on each side, each class also has six unlockabale options that do more than just provide a new skin. This means there’s over 50 playable characters, each with their own degrees of originality. For example, the Peashooter has a Commando alternative that does less damage per shot but has a higher rate of fire.

Their use on the battlefield isn’t where this uniqueness ends, though, as each gradation is fully customizable. Garden Warfare offers hundreds of different items to unlock to give your plants and zombies their own distinct look and style. Whether it’s sunflowers with top hats, Chompers with zebra stripes, or All-Star Zombies with 3D glasses, there’s no reason everyone’s characters should look the same.

And, thankfully—for once—you don’t have to worry about microtransations when it comes to getting items. Instead, you unlock them via a free, in-game card system. You get cards from packs you buy with silver coins, the traditional Plants vs. Zombies currency. You can earn coins by completing matches and doing well, or you can perform certain challenges in a match (revive three allies, kill two Sunflowers with one shot, and so on). It may be a bit of a grind, but it won’t cost you anything extra on top of the money you’re already paying, a welcome change away from the policy of most EA games.

The combination and balance of characters is also intriguing and requires a lot more to master than you might expect. The Zombie Scientist is both the healer and shotgunner class for the zombies, while the Cactus is both the sniper and the explosives expert for the plants. Having a balanced team when you go into battle is critical and requires pinpoint communication between everyone on your team, especially in more tactics-driven modes like Gardens & Gravestones (think Capture the Point). A nice touch is being able to change classes mid-battle, in case strategies need to change on the fly.

Not everything about Garden Warfare is sunshine and rainbows, however. Even though the game has the lowered price tag of $40 ($30 on Xbox 360) to make up for the absence of any single-player, I still found it lacking the content you’d expect from a multiplayer-exclusive experience at launch. While the game lists seven modes, there’s really only Garden Warfare’s take on three: Team Deathmatch, Capture the Point, and Horde Mode.

Team Deathmatch serves as the basis for three modes by itself with Team Vanquish (straight-up Team Deathmatch), Classic Team Vanquish (any customization features are wiped away), and Welcome Mat (beginner’s mode). Capture the Point is seen in Gardens & Gravestones, which also has a Classic variant. In Gardens & Gravestones, the zombies must try to capture six to seven different points in succession. If the plants stop the zombies just once, the match ends. Finally, there’s Garden Ops—which, obviously, is Call of Duty’s Spec Ops, which originally was their take on Horde Mode. This is the only mode to feature a local and online option (exclusive to the Xbox One version) and sees up to four players taking on the role of plants and facing off against 10 waves of increasingly difficult zombies.

Besides the lack of modes, the game also has a paltry list of maps to fight on. Some modes only have one map, while others have a maximum of five (some of these being day/night variants of a map), and although it’s great to see them all done in the same bright and cheery art style of the main series, it gets repetitive when you’re cycling through the same areas again and again. At the very least, though, the maps fit the modes. Team Vanquish only supports smaller maps to up the encounter rates, while Gardens & Gravestones has large, expanded maps to allow for more strategic maneuvering when looking to capture points.

Now, don’t get me wrong—even though there’s not really a lot here, the game is still tremendously fun, especially when you’ve got a full room playing 12-on-12. The gameplay’s fast and frantic, and each mode brings nuance to the tried-and-true formulas. Garden Ops allows you to grow friendly plants that were all featured in Plants vs. Zombies 2 to provide extra defenses, while Gardens & Gravestones actually makes you feel like you’re accomplishing something when you capture different areas and push the front lines forward. I just wish there were more modes to try, and while content packs are coming down the line, I can’t judge what doesn’t yet exist.

Even though there’s a bit of a bare-bones quality, content-wise, to Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare, it’s definitely one of the good spin-offs. No matter what genre they tackle, the developers at PopCap really care about this franchise, and they clearly put forth a great effort. From the deep class system to the solid controls to the tiny details like zombie-movie references in the graffiti scattered around the levels (my personal favorite was “You’ve got red on you” from Shaun of the Dead), there sure is a lot here to love.

Developer: PopCap Games • Publisher: EA • ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10 and up • Release Date: 02.25.14

Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare is a polished, tremendously fun time even without all the options or content of its multiplayer contemporaries.

The Good A surprising amount of depth and customization in the character classes.
The Bad A lack of maps and modes at launch.
The Ugly Here’s hoping the port-a-potty with a zombie inside was clean before the Chomper swallowed it whole.
Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare is available on Xbox One, Xbox 360, and is coming to PC at a later date. Primary version reviewed was an Xbox One retail copy provided by EA.