Plants vs. Zombies became a phenomenon, in part, because it blossomed so neatly, even for people who don’t play video games. Simple opening stages, logical point-and-tap controls, and a slow unfurling of its most complicated parts made it a perfect, humorous way to dip toes into the world of tower-defense gaming without compromising anything in the way of balance or depth.
Such subtleties can sometimes get lost after a company has an opportunity to crowd store shelves with plushies, T-shirts, and cone hats—not to mention experiments to open fans’ wallets a little bit wider. And, it seems that the longer a series exists, the more likely it is that the game will reach a moment where its most visible elements land in a completely different gaming scenario that completely misses the greater point of the original game’s success.To PvZ’s credit, the series lasted a long time without seeing a complete licensing-driven misstep à la Pac-Man or Street Fighter.
Sadly, with this week’s Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare, the potted plant has been dropped. A giant, online-only battle between zombies and plants isn’t entirely illogical for the series, and Popcap and EA have teamed up to make a highly polished, kinda-budget-priced shooting game. But Garden Warfare‘s makers have done away with all the best parts of the license, instead leaving fans with a wholly obtuse battle that lacks the grace and humor of its namesake.
Unlike PvZ, which gives you god-like control over a giant field of plants to micro-manage their battle against zombies, Garden Warfare asks you to control either a single plant or a single zombie running around a giant battlefield from an over-the-shoulder perspective. You pick from different characters (four plants, four zombies), shoot guns, and use character-specific super powers to claim garden victory.
In short, you need to be fluent in twin-stick online shooting, or you’re toast. The game makes no bones about that, so if you’ve come here hoping to lure your iPad-toting aunt and uncle to the darker corners of Xbox Live combat, think again. (The game’s optional “boss mode,” which uses Xbox Smartglass, is too thin and awkward to entice an aunt or uncle, by the way.)
There are two gameplay modes on offer. The first, Garden Ops, is a take on “active” tower defense similar to Monday Night Combat or Sanctum. You and up to three plant teammates must cooperate to defend a single point on a battlefield while a range of puny and powerful zombies controlled by the computer try to attack it. In some ways, this is as solid a take on active tower defense as any out there, thanks to the substantial enemy variety (including many “boss” baddies) and optional objectives that force players out of their hiding holes.
Even though this is obviously the “introductory” mode, it does a lousy job of teaching players, even those that are relatively experienced gamers. For starters, there’s no tutorial, nor is there a “this is your first time” walkthrough (with the exception of brief video clips when you unlock a super power), as the game is built solely for online play. You better hope you understand every new on-screen element the moment it pops up in frantic combat.
When players pick a new character, its full range of super powers is locked until you complete a few tiny objectives (“slime three enemies,” etc.). While this can be accomplished quickly, the game won’t let you try your new powers (which you often need to use to knock out your next set of objectives), until your current Garden Ops match ends. Get ready to disappoint your new teammates with your lack of powers for roughly 25 minutes, in that case.
If you ignore that issue, you’ll still keep busy with your basic arsenal. Eventually, though, you’ll probably realize there’s no map to help you track the zillions of zombies that flood your garden. Instead, icons pop up in the distance, sometimes to indicate where a new wave of baddies is coming from, and other times to remind you that a particularly nasty one is looming. These icons tend to pop up at random, and often briefly, so it’s very easy to miss any notice of impending doom if you’re looking in the wrong direction at the wrong time.
You might miss such a warning because you’re so busy managing the game’s “planting” mechanic, which has you placing automated turrets, healing stations, and other helpful doo-dads around the battlefield. This is where things get a little weird. You start Garden Warfare with a limited supply of plantable items, and if you run out, there’s no way to get more within the game; no item pick-ups or timed regeneration or anything.
Instead, you must wait until the end of a match to buy a “sticker pack” using in-game coins, which, as of now, can only be earned by finishing online matches. That sticker pack doles out more plantable items, but they are given out randomly, and better items cost more coins. Why must I manage a store system just to make sure I can plant a little healing station so my friends and I don’t die? It’s a painfully needless complication, and the entire game runs on a sticker economy.
Grab your calculators, because as it turns out, each of the four characters has five alternate versions, with super-power tweaks, like ongoing fire damage or close-range electric shocks. To unlock all of them, players must get the correct five-sticker set from the sticker shop. Remember, unless players pony up for the 40,000 coin sticker pack, these stickers are doled out randomly. (Oh, and extra power-ups per character version require a whole different set of stickers, as well.) As of press time, an average 25-minute Garden Ops session yields about 3,000 coins. It’s not a pretty equation for those hoping to unlock everything.
On the plus side, there’s no way to spend real money in the game’s sticker shop… yet. When asked pointedly about whether that would ever change, Popcap producers’ response was “not at this time.”
The game’s other half pits plants against zombies in 12-on-12 online team combat, either in a straight-up team death match or in a “Gardens and Graveyards” twist, which sees the zombie side trying to take over a series of plant strongholds.
These modes expose the game’s biggest issue: the lack of balance of its asymmetrical classes. You can see the Team Fortress 2 influence on each side’s characters: the sunflower is the Medic, the “all-star” football zombie is the Heavy, the cactus is the Sniper, and so on. But zombies get a half-healer in their shotgun-wielding scientist, while plants can’t really call their melee-loving chomper a “tank,” considering how easily it gets chewed up in combat.
In the end, certain characters, particularly the engineer, are mostly useful in a “paper beats rock” support situation, rather than feeling more generally powerful or fun on the battlefield. You’ll find yourself picking a class, not because you enjoy how it feels, but because everybody else on your team is a foot soldier, and, dangit, someone around here has to protect against those chomper melee strikes!
Worse, nothing in the game really encourages new players to team up and bounce their class strengths off each other, aside from very, very small coin bonuses for choosing to, say, heal or revive teammates. Again, some sort of PvZ touch would have been appreciated in guiding players toward teamwork, as the asymmetrical classes and super powers do appear to have been thoughtfully crafted.
Speaking of crafting, while the game looks beautiful by way of EA’s Frostbite 3 engine, it’s hard to appreciate a lot of its animation details, not to mention custom outfits, when combat is frantic and full of super-quick kills. Really, it’s hard to shake that feeling when considering the game as a whole. Garden Warfare has some amazing content, but players have to dig, endure, or grind far too much to cleanly appreciate it, whether from a newbie or hardcore perspective. War is hell, but in the Plants Vs. Zombies universe, it shouldn’t feel that way.
- Frostbite powers a beautiful, colorful world of online combat.
- Some welcome twists on the “active” tower defense formula.
- Surprising lack of gentle or fun introductions to online combat from a PvZ game.
- Asymmetrical character classes.
- The most enjoyable powers feel like they’ve been muted for the sake of balance.
- The sticker shop is already bad enough as an overlong grind to much of the game’s content, and it may only get worse if EA adds micro transactions in the future.
Verdict: The budget price and team combat twists will probably delight tweens, but if you’ve heard of Team Fortress 2, then you’ve already played a much better game.