It's difficult to pinpoint what sort of arcane alchemy lead to the birth of Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare. It's a popular name in the mobile space, but aimed at a console-oriented, shooter-friendly crowd. It's also a handsomely dressed competitive shooter sent to swim with sharks like Titanfall, Battlefield, and Call of Duty. It's even silly proof that a motivated party can turn almost anything into a shooter. The twist in all of this is Garden Warfare - a name so simple and yet so perfect it's bound to crack a smile - isn't interested in any labels. It accepts a skeleton of borrowed ideas, but wraps its bones in a body of earnest tomfoolery and relentless positivity. Considering its peers, few games feel as damn happy to be alive and enjoyed.
In Garden Warfare's suite of game modes, silly names serve as masks for familiar rules. Team Vanquish is your standard team-based deathmatch. Garden Ops has roots in Gears of War's Horde Mode and other wave-based, four-person cooperative survival modes. Gardens & Graveyards is the most interesting of the bunch, combing familiar Conquest and Rush modes from other popular shooters. The latter isn't just about territory, but rather the progressive and timed capture of said territory. Zombies rush and plants defend until all the territory is gobbled up in one fantastic finale.
A model exists and Garden Warfare confirms to it. It barely tries to hide it. You can either look at this with cynicism and charge Garden Warfare with a lack of originality, or view it as solid bet in an established landscape. Competitive shooters have, more or less, been solved over the last generation of hardware. We know what works and we know what doesn't. Titanfall, also an EA release, is poised to finally 2.0 our understanding of the genre next month, but in the meantime Garden Warfare embraces the success of its peers. You've seen the show, but not with these actors as peculiar as these.
Just look at the ridiculous load-out of its class-based plants and zombies. The zombie crew boasts a hulked up football player, a chunky engineer with a visible butt-crack, and a scientist that looks like he was electrocuted ten times over. Meanwhile the plants side boasts a sunflower with a never-ending smile, a cactus with its two arms permanently pointing up because it's a cactus, and a giant chomping-mouth melee specialist plant called a chomper. The wealth of customization options do well to extend their goofy assembly, including an option to replace the zombie scientist's glasses with busted-up 3.5'' floppy disks. Any way you literally look at it, Garden Warfare's visual presentation is loaded with delightfully senseless detail.
Each side boasts four distinct classes, each with three separate abilities. How they work in tandem is paramount to Garden Warfare's intended balance. The plants feel built toward a defensive mindset, while the zombies cater to an offense-heavy play style. This assortment makes sense in the scheme of Garden Warfare’s offense and defense-minded game modes, but spill over into casual deathmatch too. With the best offense being a good defense and so forth, Garden Warfare leaves room for nuance inside its otherwise surface level combat.
Another interesting facet; neither side has a true equivalent, meaning there's always room for a particular advantage (or disadvantage). The plants’ sunflower, for example, arrives with a healing beam and can sprout pots to heal others. The zombies’ scientist can plop down a more generous healing station, but lacks any sort of direct-healing move. Instead, the scientist has more offensive options, including a timed grenade and a brief teleport move in case he needs to get the hell out of Dodge. Both can revive downed allies quicker than other classes, but diverge from that point.
The same goes for the other classes in Garden Warfare. The plants’ chomper is a pure melee specialist that relies exclusively on close attacks, while the engineer zombie is closer to a traditional heavy with his sluggish and damaging attacks. Same goes for the cactus plant, (inexplicably the sniper class because hey why not?), and the down-and dirty zombie all-star, whose speed is essential to his game. Even the standard solider, literally foot soldier for zombies and peashooter for plants, is distinguished through aerial specialty and mobility, respectively. They're close without being clones and distant without upsetting balance, which is precisely what they need to be.
At Garden Warfare’s launch, each class can reach a maximum level of ten. Levels are reached through achieving certain in-game goals. The zombie foot soldier, for example, needs to either get 25 hits with his main weapon or three direct hits with his ZPG (read: rocket launcher) while the scientist zombie might need to revive three allies and successfully warp and vanquish three foes. It's relatively simple, though one would hope for PopCap to eventually raise the level cap given the relative speed at which these levels can be reached.
All of Garden Warfare is tied together through its coins and sticker system. Completing in-game actions -vanquishing foes, reviving allies, completing games, and practically everything else - earns coins. Coins can be spent on different random arrangements of stickers. The cheaper sticker packs arrive with expendable items, mostly in the form either sentries or deployable helpers. More expensive packs doll out aesthetic upgrades, while the most expensive unlock pieces to construct one of four true variants for each class. It took me nearly four hours of steady play to earn the highest-priced pack at 50,000 coins. This renders classes easy to max but completion more difficult to obtain, and a compromise between time spent and time invested.
It's tough to say whether or not Garden Warfare's currency system is going to throw the entire package off balance. On one hand it seems like a lot of work for what essentially amounts to cosmetic upgrades and consumables. The instant-revive card, for example, is invaluable in Garden Ops when a nasty wave might take out your whole crew. On the other, at present neither PopCap nor EA are committed to trading real money for sticker packs. In fact, they're actually projecting Garden Warfare as a service complete with monthly content updates. This is in stark contrast to other business models, and frankly an all-out win for gamers. Again, at present it seems harmless, and we'll have to see how Garden Warfare evolves down the road.
The most important aspect of Garden Warfare is its unyielding commitment to its goofy premise. Notice, for example, that foes are never killed but instead vanquished. This is akin to Mickey Mouse's NES contract which dictated he couldn't be killed. Instead of lives he had tries. Call it what you want, it will be what it is, but Garden Warfare makes a habit out of taking something mundane and making it goofy fun. You're not simply defending your territory, but rather taking cover inside a zucchini-shaped tube slide nestled inside a playground. You're not erecting a shield, but rather growing googly-eyed tallnuts. The level doesn't blow up at the end of Gardens & Graveyard's, but rather a giant cucumber blows out the top of a building and looks depressed. In Garden Warfare's case, it's more about how the message is being delivered than the actual message.
The remainder of this review may be a reach, but it's accurate to how I felt after mainlining five straight hours of Garden Warfare; the game feels like an answer to the testosterone-fueled dominance and senseless immaturity spawned through modern competitive shooters. Seeing an anthropomorphic cactus with flowers coming out of its head passed-out on the ground with its googly eyes spinning like an insane cartoon doesn't evoke tea-bagging or other puerile behavior, but rather a hearty chuckle or simple smile. There's no screaming announcer dictating your kills, but rather a help-bell that zings every time you vanquish someone else. Garden Warfare sugarcoats everything in profound absurdity, fostering a positive attitude with every step.
In some alternate universe Garden Warfare would be used as a bandage to help mend disenfranchised shooter players. Ignoring its weird conception, the game is a perfect way to erase negativity incurred over the last half-decade of shooters. It’s like some videogame sanctuary where it's okay to be weird and goofy and, basically, enjoy what you used to love doing. Most importantly, it's actually funny without feeling juvenile or tacky. With few exceptions, shooters don't often strive to evoke this particular sentiment. This allows Garden Warfare to define itself through the absurd happenstance generated by its ridiculous context, and, depending on what you're looking for these days, that may be enough to give it a chance.