There are some well-established rules when it comes to making a successful online shooter – character progression, unlockables, and a stable multiplayer component are all big pluses – but converting a cartoony tower defense game into an online frag fest isn't exactly a common starting point. But that's exactly how Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare was born, and somewhere within the smoke of an exploding Chili Bean Bomb, a layer of purple goop from a Chomper preparing to consume its next victim, and the toxic haze of a Zombie Stink Cloud, the relentless charm of the franchise has managed to fuse brilliantly with an unlikely genre.
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Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare (Gamescom 2013)

If you're new to the Plants vs. Zombies universe, the premise is as follows: Zombies, under the guidance of their leader, Dr. Zomboss, are taking over the world the best way they know how, which just happens to be by consuming brains. The remaining humans would be doomed if not for the plants, who act as their last line of defense. The plot has always been very tongue-in-cheek, and PopCap was wise to avoid fleshing it out further.

In Garden Warfare, skirmishes between the undead and their green adversaries play out in three main modes: Vanquish is essentially team deathmatch between two 12-player teams. Gardens & Graveyards is objective-based, with zombies and plants fighting over a shifting control point. Garden Ops, meanwhile, is a wave-based defensive struggle between four human-controlled plants and hordes of AI zombies. The number of modes pales in comparison to what most expect out of shooters these days, but everything that's here is very well executed. There's no filler.

Garden Ops is the mode that most closely resembles PvZ's tower defense roots, with the ability to spawn automated plant defenses around your garden base. Waves of enemies come in all shapes and sizes, including massive boss zombies that require a concentrated effort to dispatch. The action is hectic, but not confusingly so. The more insane the shootouts, the more amusing the battle becomes, and at any one time there can be bean bombs, Peashooter turrets (yes, they shoot actual peas), Sunflower laser beams and Coconut Cannons working in harmony against the shuffling undead. It's moments like this where Garden Warfare feels more like Battlefield than anything else, but the goofy grins on the plants and the dumb gibberish spewing from the zombies will elicit a giggle instead of making you grind your teeth.


It's this combination of intense throwdowns and comic relief that makes Garden Warfare such a bewitching experience. Nailing a zombie in the head with a pea causes it to fly off comically, and when a plant meets its doom, it lays on the ground with half-shut eyes still darting back and forth as though it's just been leveled by Mike Tyson. It's colorful, absurd and blissful.

What's most surprising about Garden Warfare is how well the characters and world lend themselves to the structure of a team-based shooter. The Peashooter seems tailor-made to be a quick and nimble foot soldier, while the Cactus fits the role of sniper perfectly. The Sunflower – which now sports an offensive seed machine gun – is an adorable field medic with a contagious smirk that never fails to make you smile, even after you've been killed by one.

Likewise, the zombie team's counterparts are dim-witted but capable, and even as you see a group of zombie scientists, engineers, and soldiers lumbering toward you, it's hard not to be charmed by how silly it all is. If you're the kind of person who avoids traditional online shooters because of how stressful it can be to live up to other players' standards, you'll find that expectation absent from Garden Warfare. Even the results screen at the end of the match solely shows how many enemies you took out, only revealing death counts to each player individually.

That's not to say there's no room to shine, however, and skilled players will be rewarded with both match-specific trophies and huge amounts of in-game currency which can be spent on upgrade packs. These packs contain virtual stickers which unlock everything from character customization options like tattoos, skins, and accessories, to rare character variants that can change both your appearance and abilities. This is what will keep you playing long into the night.

The standard Peashooter, for example, can turn into Agent Pea, a 007-style skin with a silenced snout that deals extra critical damage. There are a handful of these variants for each zombie and plant character, and each one takes a good deal of work to unlock. You can chip away at these bonus characters by purchasing cheaper sticker packs with the hopes of getting lucky, or you can save up and blow your entire stash on unlocking a single random character variant. You're never able to work at one specific unlock, which can be frustrating when you just have to have a particularly hilarious accessory, but any customization progress you make is useful and helps give you an individual identity on the battlefield.

It's a much deeper experience than the happy-go-lucky gameplay would lead you to believe, and as soon as you unlock the one specific item you've been lusting after, you'll spot a new hat, tattoo, or pair of sunglasses on an enemy and the cycle is renewed. Garden Warfare manages to be addictive in the same way that PopCap's more casual games are, which is quite an achievement given the dramatic change in venue.

That insistence on stress-free fun, however, can sometimes come at the expense of long-standing shooter conventions. That's fine when the end result still works, but not so much when it leads to unbalanced matchups. It hasn't evolved to the point of game-breaking, but some character classes have already emerged as being more easily exploitable than others. A group of Sunflowers, for example, can all heal each other simultaneously, and when they travel in packs the only answer is a lucky zombie RPG shot, which is extremely difficult to pull off. On the flip side, the Chomper can be a hard class to use against even novice players. Its primary weapon is its gaping maw, but you need to be positioned perfectly to pull off a swallow. The Chomper's slow trot and clunky underground burrow attack, which can easily cause you to overshoot your target and leave you vulnerable, don't help much either. There's still some tweaking that needs to be done, and until it is, online matches will be filled with Peashooters and Sunflowers on the plant side and Foot Soldiers and Scientists for the zombies.

The much-ballyhooed second-screen functionality, called "Boss Mode," provides an overhead view of the battlefield in which a single player can attempt to affect the outcome of the battle by dropping healing and destructive items. It can be played using Kinect or via Xbox SmartGlass, but the tools at your disposal are so meaningless that it's almost impossible to shift the tide in either direction. It doesn't hamper the in-game experience, but it doesn't enhance it either.

Garden Warfare also suffers a bit from textures that pop in and out randomly, though this seems to come and go at completely random times. I've often spawned into an online match floating in mid air until the world loads around me, while other times the game appears flawless from the very beginning. The issue is more pronounced on the Xbox 360 version than Xbox One, but it's not perfect on either platform. That said, the Xbox One version is clearly superior, with much more character detail, a consistently smooth frame rate, and shorter load times.

PopCap's plan to turn a 2D tower defense game into a third person shooter had no business working, but somehow it has. Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare oozes charm, mixing hardcore battles with a cartoony aesthetic to produce an experience that both adopts and lampoons established shooter ideas. It's not perfect from a balance or technical standpoint, but these shortcomings shouldn't keep you from giving it a chance to win you over. The first time you're taken out by a Sunflower's devastating laser, only to watch it skip away into a hail of peas and flaming footballs – and you find yourself laughing instead of pouting – you'll be hooked.


This review is based on an Xbox Live download of the Xbox One version of Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare, purchased by the reviewer. The Xbox 360 version was also tested. A PC version will be released at a later date. Images: Electronic Arts.

Mike Wehner is a gaming and technology writer with a passion for anything with a power button. His work has appeared on a wide array of publications from USA Today to The Escapist, and just about everywhere in between. He currently calls TUAW.com his home and can be found on Twitter @MikeWehner.

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