Reviews

Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare Review – Planting CoD On Its Butt One Pun At A Time

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Platforms: Xbox One, Xbox 360. 
Reviewed On: Xbox 360
Developer: Popcap
Publisher: EA
Singleplayer: No
Multiplayer: Yes

Videogame logic is really, really weird, which is why is we have plants and zombies donning their gear and marching forth to war, hellbent on decimating each other for our perverse amusement. Why? Because God damn videogames, that’s why!

Indeed, the mere existence of Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare seemingly denies all logic. Popcap’s Plants vs Zombies tower-defense series has garnered itself quite the following and there’s plenty of little nods to that heritage to be found here, but creating a third-person shooter based on it seems an odd decision. I have no problem in openly admitting that like many other people I let out a hearty sigh when the announcement was made. Oh, look, it’s EA trying to turn something else into a pointless shooter.

As it turns out, the cynic in me is now trying to pen an apology letter to the optimist in me, begrudgingly admitting that, in this instance, at least, it was wrong.

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If you’re looking for some sort of explanation to provide context for this seemingly never-ending battle between plant and undead then you’re out of luck. Popcap waste no time, effort or resources in attempting to provide some justification, and that’s a good thing. Sure, I love a well told story to sink my teeth into, but game’s sometimes get too caught up in explaining the how and why at the expense of fun.  The upcoming Titanfall is a good example: yes, Respawn’s attempt to marry story with multiplayer action is an admirable one, but is it really needed? Can’t they just explain the backstory quickly and let us get on with it? Though I suppose with that attitude online games may never evolve. Plants vs Zombies clearly knows that there’s  no way to explain what’s going on, so why bother? All you need to know is that these plants are intelligent, the zombies clearly don’t like them, and therefore two teams of twelve players will do battle online, seeking to annihilate each other in the name of experience points.

Perhaps it’s the desire to somehow prove multiplayer only games have just as much right to charge normal price for their purchase as a title that only offers singleplayer which drives such decisions. With online only games becoming more common there’s a wide-held opinion that they can’t justify the same asking price, an argument which I personally can’t get on-board with. If a singleplayer only game like South Park: The Stick of Truth can offer up a short 10-hour campaign with little replay value, why can a multiplayer focused game which easily soak up 20 or 30 hours of your time ask the same? Furthermore if having a tacked on multiplayer is a valid criticism, why is having a tacked on singleplayer not?

Alas, Garden Warfare is not exactly going out of its way to reinforce my opinion. Despite the fact that no resources were poured into crafting what would have ultimately been a pointless singleplayer campaign, there’s no getting around the fact that Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare is lacking in pure content, offering up just three modes and a handful of maps for players to dig into, thus a strong sense of deja vu is unavoidable after just a few hours of play.

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It’s Gardens & Graveyards that is ultimately the star of the show, a mode that in many ways will feel familiar to anyone that has ever played Rush in the Battlefield series. The zombies need to assault a total of seven gardens, each defended by the opposing team of plants. In order to achieve overall victory the zombies must successfully capture all seven gardens from their leafy opposition, with the map opening up the next successive area whenever they meet with success. Meanwhile the plants must only defend one of their homes to claim the win. With two neatly balanced teams of players working well with each other this mode can become a tense tug of war, with last-second captures and epic final stands, while the nature of it encourages far more teamwork than the game’s other primary mode, Team Vanquish.

Each of the four classes available within each team have distinct roles on the battlefield, and while they do share some traits with their counterparts on the opposition’s side of the fence they’re all largely unique, sporting three abilities apiece that are unlocked quickly throughout a few matches. Take, for instance, the main frontline troop for both teams; the zombies have an undead soldier armed with a fairly accurate machine gun, making him a good mid-range choice. He also comes with a handy jump-pack so that he can gain access to high places, while a rocket launcher provides some offensive wallop and deadly gas can act as both weapon and smokescreen. Meanwhile the plants have the Peashooter, who, as the name sort of implies, fires large peas that do splash damage. His abilities include being able to go Hyper, which massively boosts speed and jump height, and turning into a stationary gatling gun, a particularly handy trick when combined with an elevated position. While both classes serve essentially the same role in their respective teams, they play very differently. This continues through all the available roles, and is further enhanced by the inclusion of sub-classes that have their own upgrades.

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Perhaps the greatest example comes in the form of each teams most unique classes. The zombies have the All Star, a lumbering brute decked out in hefty football gear who wields a deadly machine gun which needs to spin up, but once it does it can unleash a hail of fire. The All-Star can take quite a bit of punishment, while also boasting a powerful charge move which instantly kills any foe unlucky enough to be in its path, while explosive imps can be punted forth into crowds for big damage. If that wasn’t enough he can place dummies that provide a small degree of cover, The plant’s Chomper, though, is far more unusual. This large beast is the only character in the game that has a melee attack. In fact, that’s his only attack. Should a Chomper get behind a zombie he can literally eat it in a single gulp. But his most powerful tools are the snare traps he can lay, and his ability to burrow underground, coming up from below to instantly kill an unfortunate zombie. The catch is that munching a zombie leaves the Chomper unable to use abilities and with a much slower movement rate for a few seconds, thus careful play and team support are incredibly important.

Indeed, Garden Warfare has a pleasing amount of room for teamwork thanks to the different abilities and ways that each class can be countered. Different combinations of one on one battles between the various classes are a lot of fun, but the game’s at its best during skirmishes with several players, where combat becomes a manic scrum, part tactics but largely just carnage. Soldiers can lay down covering smoke, while the Zombie Scientist (complete with teleportation and shotgun) and Sunflower are on medic duties, offering up healing and faster revives for their respective teams. Chompers sneak behind the lines while All Stars lay down pummeling covering fire. The deadly cactus snipes from afar, picking off people who let themselves remain in the open for too long. The core shooting mechanics and control scheme are straightforward and fun, while lag or other connection problems were rarely ever an issue. Getting into a game was also very easy, the only caveat being a one-minute waiting time between rounds, which while handy for checking out new items can begin to drag.

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Aside from the Gardens & Graveyards mode all that Plants vs Zombies offer up is Team Vanquish, which is a straight deathmatch, and Garden Ops, which is where four players team up to tackle incoming waves of zombies, paying homage to the series tower defense roots. Classic versions of both Vanquish and Gardens & Graveyards are also presented to players, but all these mean is that customisation items and upgrades are disabled, leaving everyone on a balanced playing field, though it should be said that Popcap had done an admirable job in ensuring that nothing gives a player an unfair advantage, and thus to be perfectly honest I found myself wondering why I would ever would to step into Classic mode.

On a slightly uplifting note this lack of modes and maps will be somewhat nullified in the future as the developers revealed via the always trustworthy Twitter that all future DLC will be completely free, a surprising announcement given the EA logo plastered on the front of the box. Of course this does not negate the fact that in its current state there’s simply not enough meat, but free DLC is great news, as is the current lack of microtransactions.

But one area in which the game certainly is not lacking is unlockable customisation options, upgrades and new sub-classes for existing characters, such as a fiery variant of the long-range  cactus which can set foes alight or a commando variant of the Zombie Soldier who wields a crossbow. When it comes to getting one’s dirty mitts on these items, though, Plants vs Zombies takes what will likely end up being quite a divisive approach. Rather than simply taking your hard-earned in-game currency and purchasing whatever you want, you instead pick from a selection of booster packs which contain a random collection of stickers, with different packs focused on different things or offering a higher chance of getting certain things. New characters are the hardest thing to unlock as they require several stickers each, potentially leaving you to buy pack after pack in search of that illusive final piece.

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Naturally there’s some good and bad elements to using a system like this. On the one hand it evokes a nostalgic and fun experience for anyone like myself who ever opened up a pack of trading cards like Magic: The Gathering, Pokemon or Yu-gi-oh! There’s a sense of excitement created by the prospect of never quite knowing what you’ll find. There’s a sense of triumph to be gained from finally getting that one item you’ve been wanting, and a sense of surprise when something even better that you didn’t know about comes along. Every new pack is a moment of excitement, a moment that I frankly enjoy more than just buying something outright. However, on the flipside for many people the frustrations of never knowing what they’re getting may just be enough to put them off Plants vs Zombies entirely, though I sincerely hope that this is not the case as it’s a game worth playing.

For the most part the prices of the packs seem to be well-balanced, and you can earn bonus packs by ranking up, and character specific ones by completing challenges. Low-level offerings tend to be filled with consumables for use in Gardens & Graveyards and Garden Ops, while mid-range packs focus on customisation and possibly a character piece or weapon upgrade. There’s also a zombie plant specific packs available if you favor one team more than the other The must expensive set currently weighs in at 40,000 and will take a fair few well-played games to earn but is well worth it as it guarantees a new character to play with. For those with concerns over the EA label on the box there is, almost shockingly, no microstransactions present, and no plans have thus far been announced to bring any into the game. There is, of course, always the chance it will happen, but let’s hope that does not prove to be the case.

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While much of the focus is naturally aimed toward the Xbox One edition, I’m here reviewing the Xbox 360 version, and thus it’s important to talk about differences, so you can try and make an informed purchase. As one would expect the Xbox One edition is noticeably better looking, running at 900p, while the 360 variant has some problems with textures taking a while to pop-in and runs at half the frame rate, namely 30fps. Standard stuff for the Xbox 360, then. Perhaps the strangest difference is the loss of split-screen on Garden Ops. While it’s not very well executed on the Xbox One anyway, it’s still baffling that the 360 doesn’t get this feature. Furthermore the Xbox 360 is also lacking Boss Mode, which is essentially Battlefield’s Commander mode, allowing you to hover above the match. However, balancing all of this out is the fact that the Xbox 360 edition of the game is cheaper to purchase, currently available on Amazon for £23 with the Xbox One version sitting at £30.

For all of the fun I had playing Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare, and good grief did I ever, the lack of pure content works in tandem with the fact that after a few hours of play you’ve experienced everything the game has to offer on the gameplay front. While there’s certainly more depth to the game that one would expect from such a cutesy shooter, an accomplishment that deserves praise, it’s still not enough to hold you for great  lengths of time. Each battle feels the same, and no matter how much you try there’s no new strategies or tricks to uncover. The game’s ten maps is not exactly a brimming roster to begin with, and it’s a problem further exacerbated by the fact that they’re split between the three modes, thus Vanquish and Garden Ops share a total of just six maps, with Gardens & Graveyards limited to a measly four. That forthcoming free DLC better be coming quickly, otherwise Popcap could potentially find their playerbase dwindling with alarming speed. To put it bluntly Garden Warfare feels like a game that would normally be up for digital download on Steam or the Xbox store due to its skimpy weight.

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But though it lacks content Garden Warfare the perfect light, fun and refreshing shooter that’s best played in short stints to break up the monotony of more generic, grey military FPSs. I’m happy to say that Garden Warfare has become a staple of my days. I usually sit down to play about an hour at the moment, finding it a welcome change of pace. I’m slowly building up a collection of barmy customisation items and looking forward to finally getting the last piece to a new character to try out.

In a truly pleasant turn of events Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare is not just a competent shooter, it’s a relatively accomplished one, offering up a chunk of satisfying, fun online action that hides behind its cute visuals a pleasing degree of depth. It’s not going to replace the Battlefields and Call of Dutys of this world, but accept it for what it is and you’ll have plenty of fun.

The Good:
+  Gardens & Graveyards is a blast!
+ A solid shooter disguised.
+ Plenty of cool customisation.

The Bad:
– Needs more maps.
– Needs more modes.

The Verdict: 3.5/5 – Good, bordering on being great.
Who would have thought that EA and Popcap could turn the Plants vs Zombies license into such an enjoyable shooter?

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