There wasn't much of a queue for Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare at E3 last year, which is not a big surprise when both Microsoft and Sony were showing off their new machines just around the corner. Pure Xbox took full advantage of the lull and had an early look at the game. We were instantly hooked by it's insane characters, bright colours and focus on fast, fun gameplay. On release, Garden Warfare has surpassed our expectations, delivering a deeply satisfying shooter with seemingly endless scope for customisation and progression.
Time to lay out the ridiculous premise for the uninitiated. Plants vs Zombies is about a group of plants protecting their human from the onslaught of evil zombies who are trying to eat his brains. Or, if you prefer, Plants vs Zombies is a game about a group of zombies idly going about their day, minding their own business and just trying to go out for a bite to eat when a bunch of jumped up little flowers try to ruin their lovely brunch date for no good reason. Your call.
Whichever faction you side with, you'll have plenty of opportunity to get to know them both well during Garden Warfare's various game modes. Playing alone or with friends will earn you coins which can be spent on sticker packs in the in-game store. Stickers are added to your collection and can be viewed at any time from the home screen. The packs also give you access to special character customisations, plants and zombies for you to plant to assist you (acting as turrets, heal stations or adding extra muscle to your zombie horde) and occasionally, rare new characters to use in game. Since you get tons of coins for pretty much everything in game, these never feel like a burden, instead adding an interesting element to levelling through the ranks.
The characters are refreshingly different and allow players to capitalise on their preferred style of gameplay. The Peashooter and Foot Soldier are highly mobile, the Sunflower offers superior healing and a devastating sunbeam attack, and the Chomper can dig underground and gobble up unsuspecting enemies from below (provided that enemy isn't an Engineer who's engaged his jackhammer ability.) The Cactus can snipe from behind defensive walls that he's built, waiting for zombies to walk into his potato mine, but the clever scientist could just warp past his defenses, clearing the way for a destructive "All Star" attack. The classes can be amended by unlocking variants through the purchase of sticker packs, for example, our Scientist is now a Marine Biologist who fires marine life from his dolphin gun!
Characters are levelled up by completing challenges relating to their class, from using specific weapons to get kills, to planting certain numbers of helpful plants. The challenges allow exploration of different tactics and approaches to gameplay and provide the 'just one more round' feeling that keeps gamers up till 2am.
"Boss mode" can be played using Kinect, the standard controller, or using Smartglass, and offers the player a top down view of the action and the ability to provide much needed support functions to the team. Sunshine or brain power-ups must be collected as they spawn on the screen to allow the boss to deploy helpful powers from a selection of spotting, healing, resurrection or airstrikes. Each of these can easily turn the tide of a battle and be the difference between a win and a loss.
The game modes offer a variety of different scenarios. Garden Ops allows up to four plant players to play co-operatively, fighting off wave after wave of normal and boss zombies before escaping with Crazy Dave. Using a well rounded team is the key to success, as is the careful deployment of various plant turrets collected from sticker packs, as things can quickly fall apart for a poorly prepared group. Team Vanquish is where many players will spend most of their time. This is a straightforward Team Deathmatch style mode where the first team to get 50 kills takes the win. Reviving players in this mode nullifies a kill, so teamwork is encouraged and rewarded.
Finally, there is Gardens & Graveyards, a kind of mash up between the Battlefield series' Conquest and Rush modes. Zombies are tasked with capturing a succession of Plant bases by overpowering the Plants and hanging out near their point long enough to claim it as their own within a given time limit. If the Plants stop the Zombies from capturing the base before the time runs out, the Plants win and the game is over. If the Zombies take the point, they move on to the next one until they take the final base and win the game. This is by far the most complex of PvZ's modes as it makes use of Plant turrets as well as the Zombie ability to grow their own zombie hordes from characters collected in sticker packs.
With its cartoon graphics and unobtrusive soundtrack, the game is a breath of fresh air when compared to other shooters. It borrows some of the better gameplay ideas from other classics and infuses them with tongue-in-cheek fun. Sure, you'll get killed by the same guy over and over again, or you'll think certain powers are unfair. But at the end of the day, it's pretty hard to stay angry when you just got killed by a cactus with ice cream cones for hands...
Addictive tower defence game turned third person shooter, Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare offers a bright, colourful and incredibly competitive addition to the Xbox One's gaming roster. Inevitably, the release of Titanfall will mean that this little gem doesn't get played as much as it deserves. We would have liked to see some traditional PvZ gameplay thrown into the mix to allow players to earn extra sticker packs or coins, but as this isn't a full price title, the omission of this feature is entirely forgiveable. Less acceptable is the infuriating matchmaking system which means that, like many Xbox One games, playing with members of your party or friends happens more by luck than design. Although it isn't perfect, the well thought out player progression, multiplayer modes and well balanced gameplay make this an essential game for lovers of the franchise and fans of shooters alike.