Tuesday, March 11

Plants Vs Zombies: Garden Warfare Review (XB1): All's fair in love and war

I have this terrible feeling that Plants Vs Zombies: Garden Warfare will fade into obscurity following the release of Titanfall this week. For those who don't know:
  • Plants Vs Zombies: Garden Warfare is a team-based third person shooter based on the wildly-successful tower defense franchise.
  • Titanfall is a first person shooter developed by Respawn Entertainment: a studio headed by Vince Zampella and Jason West, the fathers of the dudebro juggernaut Call of Duty series. 
Don't get me wrong, the hype behind Titanfall is, based on my time with the beta trial, entirely justified. Twitch shooting plus parkour plus mechs is a winning formula and, even with a paltry two maps available for the duration, my time with it felt more dynamic and enjoyable than any match of Call of Duty: Ghosts or Battlefield 4 I've played over the last few months. 

The problem here is that Plants Vs Zombies: Garden Warfare is also thoroughly enjoyable, it also features a relatively paltry selection of maps and modes and it also feels like a better game than the latest installments of the entrenched competition. 

The action is spread across three different modes of play:
  • Garden Ops - This is your garden variety (lolololololol) Horde Mode, playable solo or co-operatively with up to four players. This is about as close to the original Plants Vs Zombies  as you're going to get in this package, with players defending a strategically-placed garden from ten waves of zombie attackers. 
  • Team Vanquish - Read: Team Deathmatch. It's worth mentioning though that you can revive your teammates to reduce the opposing teams score. Cool scoring mechanic in my humble opinion. 
  • Gardens and Graveyards - Similar to Rush mode in the Battlefield series: the attacking team (zombies) needs to capture control points with the ultimate objective of destroying gigantic pieces of plant military hardware. Plants have the obvious objective of halting the zombies' progress in preventing them from capturing the next control point.  
There are "Classic" playlists available for both Team Vanquish and Gardens and Graveyards that forbid the use of unlockable class variants (more on that later), but I could never find a match on these with more than a handful of players connected. There's also the "Welcome Mat" variant of Team Vanquish to acquaint new players with the classes and mechanics that afford you a little bit of extra health on each spawn if you find yourself on the end of a drubbing. 

Team Vanquish is a good starting point as you can switch between classes on each spawn and get a feel for the action. Regular spawning also allows for abilities to unlock as you complete sets of class-specific challenges. Challenges range from the relatively easy "Use X ability Y amount of times" to "Kill X class with Y ability Z amount of times". These kind of secondary objectives are nothing new to the competitive multiplayer scene, but it does help develop a sense of identity for each class - particularly as you reach the higher levels and unlock packs of cosmetic items for your (read: my) dearest Sunflower. 

Smile, you're dead!

As fun as it is, Team Vanquish rarely feels as involved or exciting as Gardens and Graveyards. The scale and variety of this mode manages to rival DICE at their structure-destroying best, even without tanks, helicopters and buzzwords like "levelution". The final control point in each map also throws in a unique challenge like setting charges at strategic points or the good, old-fashioned bum-rushing of the stage (or mansion doors in this particular case). The average match is over in roughly five minutes, but with a skilled team, you'll experience some tense firefights in elegantly-designed spaces for as long as thirty. 

Garden Ops for mine was literally and figuratively the most rewarding mode available. Literally rewarding in that surviving until the halfway point gave me a good chance of netting upwards of 5000 coins. Otherwise, judicious placement of potted plants and use of class abilities had me defending my garden from dozens of zombies at any one time. Boss waves are brutally difficult, particularly if you suffer the misfortune of "winning" big at the Zomboss Slots. Victory is always hard fought and often well rewarded. 

Classes are sufficiently varied and, in most cases, fill multiple roles required for a successful team. The Sunflower, for example, is a healer, but can also plant itself and lay suppressing fire to cover teammates. The Cactus is your sniper that can plant potato mines -- an adorable claymore, if you will -- and erect battlements to block incoming fire. On the other side you have the classes like the All-Star that have a minigun-esque football cannon and the ability to charge at and kill or otherwise damage groups of enemies. The zombie Foot Soldier is able to use its rocket pack to reach high places, and the Peashooter's Hyper ability performs a similar function. Each plant class has a zombie counter, but that's not to say that they handle in a similar way. I never felt that any class offered either side an insurmountable advantage, but I have read complaints of balance issues.  


Some traditional trappings of the genre have been reconfigured to ease the learning curve for, what the mic chatter reveals to be, younger players and those that are new to the competitive multiplayer arena. The most obvious example is that headshots don't make for one shot kills -- even with a sniper class -- but there are other skillful tweaks that slow down the action to a pace more conducive to learning, including the lack of a persistent sprint ability and melee attacks for most classes.

Class variants (which come equipped with different primary weapons), cosmetic upgrades and consumable items are unlocked by purchasing packs of cards. Packs are priced, and priced highly, depending on the likelihood of them containing rare items. At yet there's no option to use real money to buy packs and in-game currency is earned at a painstakingly slow rate, so the economy does impact on the game. Across twenty hours of play, I only unlocked one class variant and that was care of a pre-order bonus pack. Unlocking class variants isn't essential to success or even enjoyment of the game, and I'm not saying that I'd want to spend any more money on it, but it does feel like an awful lot is withheld from those unwilling to invest an inordinate amount of time in play. 

Consumable items such as potted plants (sentries) and zombie spawns are used in Garden Ops and Gardens and Graveyards to add an extra layer of strategy to proceedings. This AI support is never going to sway a battle if left unaccompanied, but they can prove a vital distraction on both attack and defense. As this support comes with a not insubstantial cost, I've not seen them exploited in a way that felt cheap or grating and it's also a cute nod to the series' tower defence origins.  

With a charming aesthetic and a budget price tag, Plants Vs Zombies: Garden Warfare would normally be an easy game to recommend. The only issue is that in just under a week's time, I predict an incoming drought in player numbers thanks to the release of what is arguably the most anticipated shooter since Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Even considering the relative dearth of maps and modes in addition to the odd connection failure, Garden Warfare may not enjoy the success it deserves on account of poor timing. 

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