The most rabid player of PopCap's Plants Vs. Zombies series I know sat down next to me as I loaded up Garden Warfare for the Xbox One. After watching me play for five minutes, she stood up, said "I'd be so lost playing this", and wandered off.
The rabid player in question is my wife-creature, Emily. She's played Plants Vs. Zombies on every platform imaginable -- PC, Xbox 360, iPad, iPhone, DS. She loves the free-to-play sequel. She spent months playing the Facebook spin-off, Plants Vs. Zombies Adventures. She collects the toys. She put a Plants Vs. Zombies bumper sticker on one of our cars.
When Emily first heard about Garden Warfare, she was excited. I told her it was a third-person shooter along the lines of Valve's Team Fortress 2, and it didn't faze her. In retrospect, I'm not sure she knows what Team Fortress 2 is. She simply understood that the people who made Plants Vs. Zombies, Peggle and Bookworm Adventures were making a new game.
Garden Warfare is not Peggle or Bookworm Adventures. It's certainly not the corridor-based tower defence game she fell in love with. It's an online-only multiplayer shooter. It's Battlefield or Call of Duty. It's the exact opposite of what she looks for in a video game.
If this game isn't for the series' biggest fans, then who is it for?
While Garden Warfare is indeed an online multiplayer shooter, I'm not sure how deeply the property resonates with the fanbase of series like Call of Duty or Battlefield. Despite Plants Vs. Zombies' roots as a PC title, I don't expect there's much overlap between the two player sets, especially with Plants Vs. Zombies 2 releasing exclusively on mobile as a free-to-play, microtransaction-based joint.
I fall in the middle of this Venn diagram, but I am a man of wildly diverse appetites (ok, a weirdo), a proud-but-small group that rarely gets marketed to directly. EA wouldn't make a game just for us.
So Garden Warfare is not for casual gamers, it's not for hardcore shooter fans and it definitely wasn't made for a select group of strange people -- who is this game for?
Plants Vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare is a game for everybody else.
Too action-packed for casuals and too bright, colourful and cutesy for hardcore, Plants Vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare is an online multiplayer third-person shooter that spreads its leafy green arms wide to welcome the shooter curious into the fold. The pressure is light, the stakes relatively low, and the atmosphere is competitive in the friendliest sort of way.
The game taps into the magical formula that Valve created years ago with the debut of Team Fortress 2, applying cartoon style and sensibilities to a generally serious genre in order to effectively render it harmless in the eyes of the casual observer. It's the Saturday morning cartoon to Battlefield's PBS war documentary.
That's a double-sided comparison, mind you. A Saturday morning cartoon may be brighter, lighter and more appealing to the average person, but it's nowhere near as deep, challenging and ultimately engaging as a well-made war documentary. There's a lot of style and personality to Garden Warfare, but it's not very deep, nor is it particularly smart.
For starters, there are four character classes for each side of the Plants Vs. Zombies battle (with five unlockable variants for each). The Plants have a pair of units -- the Sunflower and Peashooter -- who do the most damage while rooted in one place. They also have the game's only melee class in the Chomper, who can do absolutely nothing to the Zombies' roof-jumping Foot Soldiers when they are elevated. An all Chomper versus Foot Soldier battle would be over quite quickly.
There's not much balance to the classes, and while PopCap did attempt to even out some of one side's special abilities with counter-abilities on the other side, in the end it's just a bit of a goofy mess -- the sort of thing that might drive traditional shooter fans up the wall. For those who don't care or are blissfully unaware of terms like "balance", a good time is a good time, even if the Chomper just got you for the fifth time in a row.
In fact, being a fan of repetition is a plus when it comes to enjoying Garden Warfare, what with there only being three online game modes and a single offline split-screen multiplayer mode. There's good old Team Deathmatch, aka Team Vanquish because "Deathmatch" is scary and half the players are already dead anyway. Gardens & Graveyards is an objective-based mode in which the Zombie team must capture points from the Plant team, leading up to a final confrontation of some sort. Finally we've got Garden Ops, a mode for up to four players, who as plants must stave off 10 random waves of Zombie enemies before escaping in Crazy Dave's flying camper van.
The rule here seems to be that the Plants are always on the defensive, in keeping with the theme of the original games. In another nod to its ancestors, empty flower pots are scattered about the maps in Garden Ops and Gardens & Graveyards, allowing Plant players to grow supportive vegetation to act as additional healing or firepower during heavy assaults (Zombies can grow troops from bone piles in Gardens & Graveyards as well). It's a far cry from the methodical planting strategy of Plants Vs. Zombies proper, but it might help make players that do brave the new genre feel a bit more at home.
Mind you, in order to plant crops you must first obtain them, which is where the game's odd Sticker Shop comes in. As players battle through rounds, they're awarded coins -- winning a match, killing other players, and reviving dead teammates are just a few examples of coin-earning activities. Those coins can be spent between rounds in the Sticker Shop on largely random packs of random cards. Some cards are weapon upgrades or skins. Some are decorative accessories for character customisation. Some are plants to be potted, and the rarest of them all are pieces that come together to unlock variants of the game's eight playable classes.
The Sticker Shop is a fun idea, but earning coins is soooooo slow you guys. Seriously, I've been playing for some 15 hours now, and I've only unlocked one class variant, and it's a Cactus, which I hardly ever play. It's almost a shame EA decided not to allow players to purchase coins for real cash in the game, because I've have dropped some cash in a heartbeat.
But that would ruin a major element of progression in Garden Warfare. When a player breaks out an electrically-charged Power Cactus, you know they've been through some s**t.
The only other means of telling how good another player performs is their rank. Instead of having rank based on experience points or kills, rank in Garden Warfare is determined by the cumulative number of levels a player's Plants and Zombies have earned by completing class-specific challenges.
The rank system is actually a cleverly-disguised tutorial, meant to encourage players to play to the fullest of their abilities. For instance, one of the Zombie Engineer's challenges is to use his sonic grenade to stun burrowing Chomper plants. It's not an arbitrary task -- it's there to teach players that this is what they should be doing all the time. Other tasks might include reviving fallen teammates -- it's conditioning people to be better players. Maybe the game is a bit smart after all.
Ah yes, the review box. Note the hours played and rank achieved. I've played for two more hours and achieved rank 23 since I started writing this review early this morning. Despite the wonky class balance and lack of game mode variety, I have managed to sneak in two hours of play while I was supposed to be writing up this review. Even now I keep looking over at my Xbox One, which should probably be moved from my computer desk if I ever want to get work done again.
There's just something so compelling and hopeful about this colourful conflict. It's not just the collectible stickers -- ok, a lot of it's the collectible stickers. But it's also the bright and cheery atmosphere. As with Team Fortress 2, it fosters what I like to call "cartoon confidence" -- the feeling that I can succeed where I wouldn't in a more serious setting, and if I don't then who cares? I am an animated sunflower. You can't cuss out an animated sunflower. You'd just look silly.
So I play on, not worrying too much about the lack of variety -- surely there'll be more down the line. The only time I'm really bothered is when the game won't let me connect to its servers, which hasn't happened much since the servers came down for maintenance on launch day. Otherwise I am not only an animated sunflower, but an animated sunflower wearing sunglasses -- even my aloofness is adorable.
Some may call it Plants of Duty; others Battlefield Vs. Zombies. I like to think of Plants Vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare as Fisher Price's My First Online Multiplayer Shooter. It may not have all the functionality of the real thing, but it's vibrant, flashy, covered with stickers and gets the point across.
Emily still won't play, but she likes to watch it. See? Saturday morning cartoon.