These days, big-budget shooting games like Call of Duty and Battlefield are designed to be objects of obsession. They feature incredibly tight feedback loops: nearly every time you kill a enemy or achieve an objective, you get points towards new weapons that kill more efficiently and spectacularly the next time around. In 2009, Plants vs. Zombies hit upon a similarly addictive formula for 2D puzzle games: each time you successfully fend off the waves of zombies trying to reach your house — by placing, say, piranha plants and exploding chili peppers in their path — you unlock new plants and face new zombies which invite you to change up your defenses. It’s arguably that stickiness, playing “just one more round” than you intended to play, that made these games so popular.
Unfortunately, that stickiness isn’t fully present in EA’s attempt to bridge the two genres: Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare. Though EA has successfully managed to turn PVZ into a bonafide online shooter while retaining much of the series’ charm, it’s not an obsession so much as a casual diversion. But if you can keep your expectations in check, Garden Warfare is still loads of fun.
Don't bother tending your own garden
There are three distinct game modes in Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare, and I actually found the first rather boring. "Garden Ops" pits you and up to three other players against wave after wave of zombies attacking your garden — a clear attempt to mimic the original two-dimensional PVZ games. It falls almost completely flat, because the 3D version doesn’t let you carefully cultivate a strategic blend of plants to deal with the oncoming horde: you are the plants, and you’ll be mindlessly gunning down zombies with little strategy to speak of. You can drop little minion plants into prearranged planters, but they’re quickly overwhelmed. Garden Ops is also surprisingly long and rather hard, particularly for new players, so it’s odd that Electronic Arts lists it as the first game mode.
But I soon forgot all about "Garden Ops" when I dove into the real meat of the game: 24-player online skirmishes and capture-the-base turf wars where actual players also control the zombies. The 12-on-12 matches are wonderfully hectic and delightfully diverse, partially because the huge environments (including cartoony towns, suburban neighborhoods, and a castle) are well laid out, and partly because each of the four different plant and zombie heroes have distinct, satisfying playstyles. How far do you want to be from the fray? If you like getting close and personal, the Zombie Scientist’s goo shotgun will do the trick. Meanwhile, the plant team’s Cactus can snipe from a distance. There’s also the Sunflower, a support class that heals with focused beams of light, and the Foot Zoldier Zombie, which can rocket jump up to the tops of buildings and deal death from above.
If it sounds like I’m describing Valve's famous cartoony action shooter Team Fortress 2, that’s no accident: Garden Warfare producer Brian Lindley readily admits that a mix of PVZ and TF2 was one of the game’s original goals. Where TF2 is a mirror match of identical character classes, though, the plants and zombie teams each feel unique. As you might expect, the plants are at their most powerful dug into the ground, and not just figuratively. The zombies don’t have a sniper like the Cactus, and the other three plants can burrow into the earth to turn into powerful stationary turrets — or in the case of the Chomper, a giant purple piranha plant that swallows enemies whole, to avoid detection by tunneling through the ground. The zombies, meanwhile, have abilities that give them enhanced mobility and devasting single use attacks, like a jackhammer that the Engineer can ride into battle like a motorized pogo stick, or the All-Star Zombie’s dash tackle which sends enemies flying through the air. The plants and zombies make excellent foils for one another, both individually and as a team.
If you ask the development team, the zombies were the biggest hurdle to turning PVZ into a online shooter. From the beginning, it was clear that PVZ’s plants made sense. "People were very shocked that we went from a tower defense game to a 3D shooter… but the plants were always shooting," remarks franchise manager Gary Clay. But to make the formerly one-dimensional zombies suitable for a player to control, Lindley says the team spent months designing and redesigning characters to be the right blend of comical and useful. It shows: not only do the undead feel distinct from their leafy counterparts, they’re just as likable, from the pitiful way they rapidly shamble about the stages to the inventive weaponry they wield. The Engineer’s concrete gun, complete with a miniature concrete mixer slowly spinning on the character's back, is one of my personal favorites.
The best part is that the abilities really complement each character’s playstyle. While the Cactus is sniping, it can protect its flanks by dropping exploding Potato Mines and Wall-nut barricades, or even pilot a flying hunk of garlic that can drop exploding ears of corn on enemy positions. (Don't ask how.) The Scientist can close the distance to enemies with a short-range teleporter, drop a sticky grenade, then warp out once again. Some of the abilities can also be devastating when used cooperatively, such as a pair of Sunflowers healing one another while laying down cover fire, or an Engineer dropping an airstrike into the midst of a Zoldier’s smoke grenade, where foes are unlikely to notice the marker beacons soon enough to react. Particularly in the Gardens and Graveyards mode, where the zombies have to capture a series of plant gardens and can summon additional computer-controlled zombies to their aid, there’s plenty of room for clever co-op tactics.
As I alluded to earlier, though, Garden Warfare isn't quite as sticky a game as its peers. There isn't a ton of content, and the progression system that works so well in Call of Duty and the original Plants vs. Zombies isn’t in full force here.
While the abilities are fun and work quite well, each of the game’s eight characters only has three to work with, and you can unlock them all within a few hours of play. Afterwards, there isn’t much else to obtain that isn’t cosmetic. You can save up coins to buy packs of stickers which unlock a few permanent weapon upgrades (three per character), and some character variants with different weapons (like the Fire Flower which shoots flames instead of sunbeams), but it’s slow going even if you play fairly well. A ten-minute match might net you 2,000-3,000 coins, but buying a new character costs 40,000 coins, so that’s easily a few solid hours of your time for a single character even if you’re laser-focused on that goal. On the flip side, though, you’re also guaranteed at least 750 coins per match whether you win or lose, so you’re making at least a little progress every time you play a round.
With my goal of unlocking more content in Garden Warfare a distant inevitability, I didn’t really feel the urge to stay up late playing. I’m sure that often, over the days and weeks to come, I’ll get the itch to swallow zombies with a giant piranha plant, and return for a few more rounds. But I look forward to a sequel — or maybe some DLC — that makes the game a little less limited in scope. Team Fortress 2 built an entire business out of selling items for a game like this one, and there’s no way that microtransaction-happy EA isn’t thinking about that pot of gold.
In the meanwhile, Garden Warfare gets my vote for the best kid-friendly shooter on consoles.
Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare is now available for $39.99 on Xbox One and $29.99 on Xbox 360. Requires Xbox LIVE Gold subscription to play. A Windows PC version will arrive this spring.