Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare is the perfect antidote to Call of Duty and Battlefield fatigue, replacing the grim, decrepit, gray-and-brown battle zone with vibrantly colorful gardens and crypts, where unlikely nemeses face off in hilarious, and strategic, skirmishes. The game takes Plants vs. Zombies in an engaging new direction as a third-person online multiplayer action game, one that’s accessible for both casual fans of the series and die-hard deathmatch gamers alike.
Variety is key here, as each playable character on both the plant and zombie side is entirely unique and somehow balanced against the surrounding troops. While both factions feature recognizable deathmatch tropes, like basic infantry and healers, every character has unique abilities that fundamentally change how they’re played. Chomper, for example, is a melee-only plant that resembles Little Shop of Horror’s Audrey II and can burrow under the ground and swallow enemies whole. Playing as this plant takes a whole set of unique strategies distinct from the artillerymen, and working in tandem with other character classes creates a force to be reckoned with. This variety is what keeps the game from seeming like Call of Duty for children; the depth of its strategic diversity is such that, with time and experimentation, players will become profoundly skilled with the different play types and discover entirely new methods of shrub- and corpse-maiming.
The game controls superbly, and features several modes that put a neat spin on the franchise’s familiar tropes. The first, “Team Vanquish,” is essentially “Team Deathmatch” played across many uniquely suitable environments, featuring outdoor and indoor arenas such as estates and parks, some confined and others open and multi-leveled. “Gardens and Graveyards” is a twist on “Capture the Flag” that plays like a variant of Team Fortress 2’s “Gold Rush,” wherein points are defended from zombies in sequence by plants, leading up to an epic finale where the plants try to protect this game’s flora equivalent of the Aliens Queen from harm. “Garden Ops” meshes Gears of War’s popular Horde Mode with the addictive tower-defense gameplay that made Plants vs. Zombies a known brand, where plants cooperatively protect gardens from hordes of zombies, as well as unique events like comically oversized and overpowered bosses, and with a neat timed-escape sequence like the multiplayer from Mass Effect 3. It’s slightly to its detriment that Garden Warfare lacks a single-player campaign, but there’s merit in the game’s dedication to its singular focus: Rather than squandering development on a tacked-on single-player campaign like the recent Battlefield 3 and 4, the focus has been clearly, and smartly, placed on finely polishing and balancing the multiplayer gameplay.
Micro-transactions are thankfully absent from Garden Warfare, replaced with a system that gives players in-game currency for pretty much any action, which can then be used to purchase sticker packs that offer everything from new characters to single-use items to cosmetic objects like mustaches for your plants. These fill a wonderful virtual sticker book, which is tremendous fun to browse while also detailing the progress one is making while leveling up. The game is consistently rewarding to play, without arduous grinding or a high barrier to entry. The game also entices with its use of local split screen, so that it can be played cooperatively on one console, and clever use of the SmartGlass feature, allowing tablet owners to insert and control boss characters in an Xbox One-exclusive gameplay mode. Although it doesn’t dramatically subvert genre tropes, Garden Warfare features enough unique elements and clever twists to stand out, breathing joy into a stagnating genre.