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Plants Vs Zombies: Garden Warfare

19:0018/03/2014Posted by Tim Steele4 Comments

Having won over the world and his dog with the lovable tower-defence antics of Plants Vs Zombies (around 25 million copies sold across all manner of platforms), developer PopCap came a cropper last year when it took the freemium route for the long-awaited release of PvZ2. Given the game cost nothing, downloads quickly surpassed the life-time record set by its predecessor; but the developer, along with publisher EA, also reaped a whirlwind of internet fury, with long-term fans outraged that the original’s gentle learning curve and well-judged upgrade/unlock mechanism had been sacrificed on the altar of monetisation and ‘pay to win’. (The fact that PvZ2 also built upon the original’s core gameplay in some other more interesting ways was rather lost in the fracas.)

So will Garden Warfare, which takes a sharp right turn and relocates the quirky PvZ universe in the realm of the co-op third-person shooter, help restore Popcap’s slipped halo? It certainly should: drawing inspiration from – and occasionally plundering wholesale from – a number of successful AAA titles, the game retains all the off-beat charm and wit of its forebears while delivering a slick, visually arresting and surprisingly deep experience that will suck in younger and more mature gamers alike.

The basics then: the plants must defend their garden against the encroaching zombie hordes. Each team comprises four varieties of plant or zombie that are essentially a respin on Battlefield’s class system. Sunflowers and Scientists, for instance, are the medics, establishing health stations and healing teammates. Peashooters and Foot Soldiers are each side’s mobile troops, capable of laying down a high-rate of fire and possessing a jump ability to propel them to otherwise inaccessible vantage points. The Cactus can lay down potato mines, control an armed garlic drone and build barricades; while the Engineer can construct turrets and teleporters that speed the zombie advance. The burrowing Chomper and the All-Star (decked out in American football regalia) are the ‘heavies’ of the game.

There is also a ‘boss mode’, allowing one player on each team to take on the role of Crazy Eddie (the plants’ maniacally gabbling owner/guardian) or the Zomboss – a variation on Battlefield’s Commander mode that allows an additional player to provide strategic support to his or her team via a top-down overview of the map.

There are a number of game types on offer. Garden Ops – which can also be played in splitscreen for local couch co-op – is a Day-Glo variation on the ‘horde’ mode first popularised by Gears of War, and sees up to four players holding out against 10 waves of increasingly tough AI enemies. A couple of boss waves – generated via fruit-machine style ‘zomboss slots’ that call up a random combination of more formidable foes – are thrown in to ramp up the challenge further, and (like the upcoming Titanfall) there is a closing ‘get to the chopper’ evacuation sequence if players make it through all the waves.

In yet another nod to the Battlefield series, Gardens & Graveyards (G&G) is Rush mode by another name. The zombies must advance to take control of six or seven gardens in sequence; the last area of the map holds the final objective (a ‘tactical cuke’ rocket, a giant sunflower lighthouse or Crazy Eddie’s mansion owned), the fate of which determines the ultimate winners of the round. Rounding out the package is Team Vanquish: your basic team deathmatch (though with one eye on its 7+ PEGI rating, the game is scrupulous in never using the D-word). Finally, partly to enhance accessibility, Welcome Mat provides a basic training mode (anyone repeatedly ‘vanquished’ will receive a health boost upon respawning) intended to help ease new or younger players into the fray.

There’s no escaping one fact: Garden Warfare is super cute. Whether plants or zombies, the character classes are all wonderfully realised, animated and (last but not least) voiced. There is significant scope for customising your characters: hats, glasses and goggles, tattoos (a demented clown mouth looks particularly fetching on the Cactus, for instance) and other cosmetic add-ons for the plants; visors, helmets, facial hair, items of clothing and so on for the zombies. Each class has a main attack, usually ranged, which is complemented by three additional offensive or defensive abilities. The good news is these unlock very swiftly, although further boosts to your powers will take longer to acquire.

These customisations are unlocked via ‘sticker packs’ which are purchased with in-game coins (Garden Warfare’s version of experience points/XP) that are earned in each round. Coins can also purchase temporary plant or zombie AI allies, drawn from the wider roster of characters found in the original PvZ games. The former are planted in the many plant pots littered around the level, while the latter are resurrected from similarly distributed piles of earth. These bots serve to distract the enemy team in the heat of battle, a role that they generally fulfil pretty effectively – tough-as-nails coffin zombies are a particular irritation, for instance.

Sticker packs range in price from 1000 to 40,000 coins; a successful round of G&G, with all objective achieved, will typically yield in the range of 5000 to 8000 coins; those figures will be reduced for other modes. The top level packs include rare upgrades and items, notably actual stickers that are applied in your personal Stickerbook to unlock special variants of each class. Once a full set of five stickers is acquired, that specific character becomes available– an Astronaut Scientist, for instance, or a Chomper that deals electrical stun damage. Time will tell, but while the supremely well-balanced nature of its core classes and abilities is unquestionably one of the game’s key achievements, early impressions are that these special class variants can dominate proceedings to a degree.

Combat mechanics are tight, with solid and satisfying feedback from the various weapons; the action, unfolding in FPS-familiar style via a succession of one-on-one skirmishes and larger scale pitched battles, is fast-paced and often chaotic (in the best sense). Once ‘vanquished’ (which involves an exaggerated ragdoll somersault accompanied by a comedic sigh or grunt), respawning can be swiftly initiated by pushing the B button; but it will benefit your team to hold out for a revive from a nearby teammate whenever possible (auto-respawn kicks in within about 15 seconds).

The maps themselves are expertly designed, with plenty of choke points, cover and verticality while also offering scope for flanking and similar strategic plays. Visually, the game delivers in spades: it is akin to being thrown into a modern, post-Pixar animated film, with colourful and stylised environments filled with all manner of grin-inducing touches and minor details. On the Xbox One, the graphics are sharp and vibrant, and the game runs smoothly with no hitches or glitches.

Polished and assured as it is, Garden Warfare is not without some shortcomings. The game launched with a fairly limited number of maps, and staleness could prove a problem down the line; however, new maps and modes are expected to arrive as DLC, which PopCap’s Gary Clay confirmed will be free. While Garden Warfare’s RRP is set significantly below the typical ‘full price’ for One titles (£29.99 compared to £49.99), that decision should still be applauded.

More seriously, my own time with the game – as regrettably continues to be the case with two other EA titles, Battlefield 4 and FIFA 14 – was regularly interrupted by disconnections from the EA servers (despite an open NAT and a stable, 25MB+ connection). Unlike those other two games, however, such disconnections effectively lock the player out the game entirely – there is no option for offline play. Reconnecting was not usually a hassle, but being dumped from the final stages of a G&G game, and losing a significant stash of coins in the process, never fails to irritate profoundly. Prospective buyers should also be aware that the game requires an Xbox Live Gold account to play – not a criticism, per se, but a friendly word of warning nonetheless.

In making the transition from tower defence to shooter, Garden Warfare borrows heavily – but it borrows from the best. That said, such is the unique nature of the PvZ universe, it also succeeds in forging its own very distinct identity. The result is an engaging, refreshing and, yes, incredibly fun multiplayer experience that should appeal to all ages.

It is seems a shame the game didn’t launch before Christmas – on this evidence, with its kid-friendly content and rock-solid gameplay, it had the potential to have cleaned up, and help Microsoft move a bunch of additional Ones off the shelves in the process. Unfortunately, with Titanfall imminent, the concern must be that the game will in short order lose a hefty chunk of its user base and, for all their charms, these plants and zombies will see their moment in the sun prematurely curtailed. That would be undeserved, and a real shame.

Plants Vs Zombies: Garden Warfare was reviewed on Xbox One, with a review copy provided by EA

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