Monday, March 10, 2014

Reviewed by: Jamaal Ryan

As I dance down the playfully colored suburban town as a Sunflower with a peddle to peddle grin on her face, I encounter a band of fowl looking zombies that emerge from a purple plume of miasma. Two more equally happy looking Sunflowers then join my side.

One rooted themselves in the ground, laying down a devastating sunbeam while the other offered cover fire just as they attached a heal beam to the other to sustain their health. I drop a sunflower pot in front of us that spat up handfuls of healing sun drops with my heal beam attached to it, firing upon all hostile zombies alongside my sunflower sister-en.

We were an unstoppable force of sunshine.

Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare is one of the most interesting titles EA has allowed since the likes of Brutal Legend and Bulletstorm. PopCap has taken their beloved mobile tower defense hit and turned it into a gorgeous, well executed class based shooter.

All the charm and quirkiness that PVZ is known for is well presented in Garden Warfare. Crazy Dave's CRAAAZY giber-jabber is still perfectly nonsensical, and all the adorable little plants and zombie sprites are now rendered in crisp full 3D models. From the furled individual peddles on the sunflower's always smiling face to grumpy frown under the Ice-shroom's ice crystal crown, though available on 360, next to Killzone: Shadow Fall, Garden Warfare is arguably the best looking next gen release to date if you have an Xbox One.

Garden Warfare is a pleasant surprise in many ways; among its pleasantries is seeing how capable PopCap is as a competitive shooter studio. There is a different type of satisfaction that comes from hitting targets from just painting your enemies with the cursor to ensure ballistic contact; many of the class's weapons have a Ratchet and Clank like nuance to them that encourage you to point and shoot in different ways. Classes like the Foot Soldier and the Scientist hold more traditional assault rifle and shotgun weapon types. Others require a different understanding however. The Peashooter's Pea Cannon is slow, but rewards reduced splash damage, and the Engineer's explosive Concrete Gun fires at an arch making him adaptable in firefights in various distances, elevations, and engagement around and over cover.

Hardly anyone's safe from the Engineer.

Garden Warfare is also one of the few games that give console players a taste of a back-to-basics class driven third person shooter. Think of it as Team Fortress meets Loadout skinned as PVZ. It's one that's free from the stop and pop pacing of cover based shooters that populated consoles for the entirety of this most recent generation since the dawn of Gears of War. Garden Warfare is as familiar as it is new, with inspirations of old that's re-evaluated for a new era of hardware.

Garden Warfare's biggest accomplishment comes from its complex design that couldn't be easier to understand. It doesn't take long to get a handle on how each of the 8 classes work thanks to brief video tutorials introduced early on after a few short sessions. While the Foot Soldier functions much like your traditional Battlefield assault class with its automatic Assault Blaster and explosive "ZPG", playing as the Chomper feels most like a stealth game where its deadly attacks from behind and below make up for its lack of ranged capabilities.

Taking on the role of each of these endearing characters is quite simple: you wield one primary weapon with unlimited ammo alongside three rechargeable abilities. But how they interact is effectively adaptable so long as you play as a team. A party of Sunflowers is a formidable organization, but up against All-Stars who can erect Dummy Shields and offer heavy suppressive fire, and Scientists that can drop Heal Stations, there's no "A-Team" in Garden Warfare, just several highly efficient ones.

Happiness likes company.

Garden Warfare's modes are few in quantity. But Garden Ops, Team Vanquish, and Gardens and Graveyards smartly cover its bases by offering co-op, TDM, and objective based match types. Garden Ops is what you imagined Plants vs Zombies would be as a shooter. Four plants face off against 10 waves of increasingly challenging zombies while defending a precious garden. Planting potted helpers around the maps akin to the original games and beefing up defensive strategies against zombie boss rounds is a well-designed, and surprisingly difficult-at-times affair.

Though Garden Ops makes the most sense for the Plants vs Zombies franchise, it’s only after playing Gardens and Graveyards where Garden Warfare makes the most sense. In this competitive match type, plants maintain their defensive role while zombies attempt to make their way and gain control of seven progressively plant defended locations across the entire map. Think of it as a tighter, more focused version of Battlefield's Rush mode.

Every class is at their prime in Gardens and Graveyards, but this mode lives and dies by the Zombie's Engineer. As zombies continue on the offense, it’s the Engineer's job to build preset portals -- which can be guarded by protective turrets -- that allow their efforts to be streamlined as they can then teleport closer to the plants' guarded garden. The plants can prevent this however by attacking the portals or ensuring that the Engineers don't get to it.

These two center pieces, fighting over portals and gardens, exist in a battle on a much larger scale. Just as plants can place their defensive horticulture, zombies can summon lower grade undead to advance upon defended gardens. These massive battles are then bookended in epic conclusions if the zombies manage to push all the way to the end. The objectives shift from defend and occupy to much more intense standoffs. Bringing down light houses and planting explosive charges in a reactor are among these finales. My favorite pushes the zombies up an elongated courtyard as they dodge giant tumbling almonds as they roll downhill with intent to enter a mansion to claim victory. The payoff is only in favor of one side, but it's a rewarding way to end a match nonetheless.

At all costs.

While Gardens & Graveyards, and even Garden Ops to a degree, is as defining to Garden Warfare as Conquest is to Battlefield, I found little value in playing Team Vanquish outside of using it as a testing ground for new character acquisitions as well as a platform to complete challenges. Team Vanquish just doesn't seem to fit the roles and the balancing of the two factions as well as the other two modes. It's here where the Plants' advantages become more apparent. The Cactus is the most powerful at long range, the Chomper is the deadliest up close, the Sunflower is the most efficient medic, and the Peashooter holds the most devastating explosive. A well-coordinated team of plants can easily have an edge on a team of zombies, which might explain why nearly 80% of the Team Vanquish matches I played ended up with Plants coming out on top. They weren't all landslides; in fact many of them were close games, however the disproportionate ratios can't be a coincidence.

EA's micro-transaction inspired booster pack model finds its way into Garden Warfare. Skins, cosmetic accessories, parts for unlockable class variants, and consumables are hidden in sticker packs whose contents won't be revealed until you purchase them with coins that are directly tied to your score. And while I've been very much against this gambler's-chance model, it fits reasonably well within the context of Garden Warfare's design. PZV doesn't fall into the pits of gating away game changing unlockables in these sticker packs. For example, you'll never have to worry about waiting to find the Engineer's Zombot Drone and the Cactus's Garlic Drone in a sticker pack. All character abilities and most of the action you see on screen are available shortly after only leveling up each character a few times.

What you will have to hold out for in sticker packs are various weapon types that come from alternate costumes, and weapon customizables that do things like that alter firing rate and ammo capacity. Waiting for these can be a nuisance, but sticker unlocks almost never give any player the edge, allowing even the most stripped down character to be capable against all class variants.


Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare simultaneously elicits the question "Who is this for?" while allowing anyone that plays it to respond to it in a "I’m glad this was made" manner. Don't let the pleasingly bold, bright, and expressive visuals fool you; PVZ Garden Warfare is a highly sophisticated shooter. Had this game been released last year, it would have been my favorite shooter of 2013. 

+ Enriching visuals
+ Strong and simple class based dynamics
+ Gardens and Graveyards
- Some annoyances with the sticker pack model
- Team Vanquish the weakest of the three modes


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