Down at the bottom of the garden
Plants vs Zombies was a brilliant game on mobile devices that paved the way for high-quality casual games that could be taken seriously rather than scoffed out by real gamers. It might have been simple but between the excellent artwork, real strategic decisions and wealth of content there was a lot to like. Sadly Plants vs Zombies 2 overdid it on premium items and turned many fans off. Most people were likely expecting Garden Warfare to follow suit, so it might be surprising to hear there are no micro-transactions present and instead there’s just a highly entertaining third person multiplayer shooter.
In terms of gameplay Garden:Warfare is fairly standard. A team of Plants fights a team of zombies in either team deathmatch or objective ‘rush’ style modes. There’s also a horde mode that is most like the core Plants vs Zombies titles, where you need to protect a garden from increasing waves of zombie enemies before making your escape after the final wave. None of this is new, but Popcap have found plenty of ways to innovate within the formula.
This is a class-based game and while there are archetypes like a healer, a tank, damage dealers and snipers , there’s a little more nuance than that. The plants side has the chomper, a giant purple plant that can burrow under the ground and kill things in one hit at the expense of being able to attack of burrow for the next few seconds. Both sides have units that can create flying drones to take control of and assist in battle, one of the zombies can create poisonous clouds to cover large areas denying entry. All of these abilities are simply on cooldowns and they all feel genuinely useful in the right situation. It helps that they’re also entertaining characters in their own rights and you’ll be surprised at how much you recognise from the original iPad games. The healers for the plants side are sunflowers, the American Football playing zombies serve as tanks and there’s a variety of minions that can be spawned taking the form of many of the others items and characters. Even things like the potatoes appear as mines to be dropped by the cactus. That’s a sentence I didn’t expect to be writing this year.
Graphically on Xbox One it’s very accomplished with some excellent reflective effects giving a lifelike but cartoony feel to the textures on the characters and bright colourful towns and gardens providing the setting for most of the maps. On Xbox 360 everything is less defined and there are far fewer effects but the art style is still strong and unique within the genre. For what is a slightly cheaper game it certainly doesn’t feel cheap and battles can become fairly impressive the longer they go on, with some of the later stages of the ‘Gardens and Graveyards’ mode feature missiles raining down and giant flowers to capture.
More important than anything else for a multiplayer game is the flow, and this game gets it just right. Games are asymmetric for the most part, keeping it interesting but at no point does one sides feel too overpowering. There’s always something to do, whether it’s attacking, defending, building or healing and victory never feels impossible. Each character has different mobility options so getting around the maps is interesting in itself and finding new ways to combine the powers of different characters provides a surprising amount of depth.
Although there are no microtransactions there is a currency system in the game that provides a handful of coins at the end of each match. These coins can be spent on booster packs of cards and stickers that grant one off consumables, minions to summon or parts of entirely new skins for characters. There’s also a wide collection of cosmetic items. All of these could easily have been paid for content but instead they provide an easy and engaging form of progression that’s unlikely to offend anybody.
Overall Plants Vs Zombies feels like a slightly wasted opportunity just because it has been released so close to Titanfall. It’s a huge amount of fun, features a little bit of split-screen co-op in the horde mode, does a lot of interesting things with classes and is genuinely funny thanks in particular to the noises that each character makes. But sadly it is limited. Many games play out the same way and the same maps come up constantly. As each creature only really has three abilities you unlock all the gaming options immediately and are just left with the hunt for more cosmetic items in the booster packs. Whilst this is fine, it’s unlikely to draw people away from Titanfall for long if multiplayer shooting is their thing.