For all of gaming’s designs on greater reach, bigger audiences, and more diverse experiences, the industry loves shooters more than any other genre. There’s no escaping shooter fans, festering and Xbox-green like a shambling horde of brain-dead zombies eager, to gobble up the living and now… now, they've nibbled on the folks at PopCap. Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare takes the developer's characters and shoves machine guns into their hands.
The plants, as fans know, are well-armed as it is. In this third-person shooter, you won’t be chainsawing monstrous enemies to death, but you will gobble zombies whole. You won’t throw explosives across the map, unless you're actually tossing a chili bean or an impish zombie with excited foam fingers and dynamite strapped to his cap. Garden Warfare’s best moments uproot the inherently stale shooter genre.
Sure, you could spend your entire time shooting at both living and dead, but the best gameplay comes from varied and mechanically diverse controllable characters. You don't ever have to shoot if you don't want to. In co-op, you and three others choose from the Plant team, while versus modes pit teams of up to 12 plants and 12 zombies against each other. No matter what mode you’re playing, you’ll get a quick grasp of the controls and each character’s moves, unlocking each power, leveling up, and earning card packs for the first time.
If you are looking to shoot stuff, Peashooter will do the trick. His peas have a slow firing rate and slight splash damage with every round, while Sunflower acts as the healer laying down pots of marigold and tethering teammates with a beam of pure next-gen shine. Plants also have Cactus for sniper and drone support, but my favorite character, Chomper, can dish out plenty of damage by getting in close and gobbling up zombies, all without firing a shot.
Chomper is one of the better characters in Garden Warfare given how highly specialized he is between offense and defense. If the enemy team never sees your Chomper, it'll be back to death with them one bite at a time. Each plant is satisfying to play as, with great feedback, sound design, and balance for each character, but Chomper’s big gulp feels just like your first backstab all over again.
I love both the satisfaction and the frustration of that moment, having been on both sides of the one-hit kill. You know how infuriating it can be to get stabbed by an enemy spy on your way to the control point. This is Chomper’s game too. Cactus can hang back and send his Garlic drone up into the sky to call down a corn-cob airstrike, but play the purple monstrosity right and Chomper class will consistently run six-feet-deep circles around the zombies.
Garden Ops will give you the time to dig into all plant mechanics on defending a garden against waves of zombies, not unlike the mobile game with set counts of enemies but with a random draw of bosses (or bonus cash). If the zombies flood your garden, they’ll damage it and replace a lovely flower with a grotesque gravestone. If you can clear them out and end the wave, you’ll have a brief respite.
During downtime or before picking one of three gardens on each map, pots around the battlefield can be used to place defensive plants just like those you’d find in the mobile games. Bonk-choy, Puff Shrooms, and even Snap Dragon can give your team the added edge to clear ridiculous boss waves, like three electric-pole wielding gargantuars. Teamwork can only hold out so long and soon plants have to dash to the finish line and escape in Crazy Dave’s RV.
Online Garden Ops limits a session to ten rounds, but split-screen co-op will allow two plants an unlimited string of enemy waves to defend against. Garden Ops is by far the best way to build up cash to spend on unlock packs in the flower shop. While co-op-minded gamers will love it, Team Vanquish and Gardens and Graveyards competition between two teams of player Plants and Zombies will invariably entertain more over time.
Team Vanquish is literally team deathmatch, except that you “vanquish” plants and zombies with nothing in the way of objectives. At first seemingly barebones, Team Vanquish doesn't fail to direct plants and zombies into combat, furthered by tablet-optional Boss Mode.
You can use an Apple or Android tablet on the same wifi network as your Xbox One, or Boss Mode can also be played with a controller on your TV. Online, anyone can switch in and out of the role just as they would classes, making the second-screen feature less of a tack-on and more a meaningful way of aiding your team. Garden Warfare doesn’t offer up an overhead map like most popular shooters, so you’ll have to keep your big, necrotized eyeballs out for enemy HUD markers tracked by someone in Boss Mode.
In addition to marking enemies, Boss Mode lets you drop healing stations, revive a teammate, or call in an airstrike to devastate retreating foes. Overall, it's not the waste you might think whether you’re handing the iPad off to someone less confident in his or her green thumbs or if you’re playing yourself to help the undead stay alive. Unfortunately for plant fans, the zombies feel like they received quite a lot of love and attention from inventive artists and designers.
Zombies feel much more entertaining and powerful to play with than plants, at least in competitive modes where you get control of the undead team. Plants are satisfying in all modes and the game is very polished and balanced, but it just seems like the developers at EA Canada simply had more freedom in designing zombies.
The plant team is made up of archetypal characters, essentially the first Plants you get in any PvZ game. The zombies are an entirely different breed. There’s the All-Star, a brutish zombie equipped with a football-launching minigun, a vicious charge-down attack, the aforementioned exploding fan imp, and deployable cover in the form of foam practice dummies. All-Star could lock down an entire area by himself, but variants cater to more specialized play styles as well.
Zombies also have Foot Soldier, a stable mid-range character not unlike the Peashooter except without splash damage. To balance against the drone-wielding Cactus, zombies get Engineer whose extremely visible butt crack will make it hard to focus on the reticle.
And then there’s Mad Scientist, who counterbalances Sunflower with healing stations of his own. The scuba diver variant comes complete with a dolphin gun that blasts deadly (and probably very smelly) fish guts. Mad Scientist can close distance with a teleport move, but ultimately your favorite character will come down to preferences. If you like hanging back, there’s a character for that. If you like diving into the thick of action (and probably not living very long at that) you’ll have an option as well.
Plants Vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare simply doesn’t give you an excuse to put the controller down or to keep from picking it up in the first place. While the brand is wildly popular, so is the shooter genre. Is this the second coming of peanut butter and chocolate? Probably not, but why are women and kids so ignored when it comes to online competition? Why do I have to have some grasp of military jargon to be engaged with a shooter?
Now, I don’t. EA Canada and PopCap have paid great attention to the most attractive parts of the Plants vs. Zombies brand, and none of that has been abandoned in the genre switch. The characters are immediately recognizable (a must for online competition) and each have unique skills that help bond the player to their avatar.
The best part of finishing a few hours of play time is going to the shop to spend every last cent you have on booster packs and character packs. As the unlocks chime and line up, you take note of hundreds of taunts, weapon modifiers, and stickers that will eventually add up to an entirely new character variant, tweaking your play style to excellence. Each of the eight playable characters have dozens of unlocks and without an outright experience system, you’ll have to complete challenges to level up. The coins you spend in the shop come from every in-game kill, from bosses to brown coats.
Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare launches at $40 without microtransactions, despite the very obvious opportunity to employ the controversial business model. The title will receive free map and game mode DLC starting in March. It takes beloved characters and tosses them into an entirely different dimension. I’m both a shooter and a PvZ fan, but no matter which side you come down on, win, lose, or draw, someone’s gotta eat those brains.
Copy provided by publisher. Review based on Xbox One version. Also available on Xbox 360.
Check out our tips for every character. We rounded up fast tactics for Sunflower, Peashooter, Cactus, Chomper, or any of the zombies like Foot Soldier, Scientist, All-Star, and Engineer.