Foliage and carcasses. Thorns and fangs. Sparkly floating flowers and caped Elvis Presleys. This is the Plants vs Zombies series in a nutshell, a game franchise that taking the world by storm on console after it wasted so many working hours on mobile. I know, because I was one of the latter, nonchalantly blowing up zombies with potato mines when I should’ve been working.
The latest game, subtitled Garden Warfare 2, is perhaps the best title in the series so far, and a testament to what the AAA games industry can do when it gets its shit together. For those not familiar with the series, the premise is neatly outlined in the game’s title, but I’ll delve a little deeper.
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The Zombies have wrought all kinds of havoc over the Plants’ previous domain, Suburbia, and subsequently renamed it Zomburbia, changing the zip code, and electing a working government in the undead’s first democratic election. As they should be, the Plants are pissed, and now plan to retake Zomburbia back from the undead and reclaim their rightful land. But the problem is, the two sides are locked in a pretty epic stalemate. So effectively, the cities of Suburbia and Zomburbia are more like Johannesburg and Pretoria.
It’s up to your character to bring a swing in momentum and stop the rot, or… the blossoming?
From the outset, it’s clear that PopCap is taking this title seriously by not taking anything seriously. It’s better for it — the last thing the world needs is another serious shooter. The game never once dons the hardcore shooter helmet, and if anything, it subverts those tropes using cute tongue-in-cheek homages throughout the game.
The title’s one, along with a number of game modes like Gardens and Graveyards, gently kicking dirt in Battlefield‘s Conquest and Rush mode’s face.
Some users will undoubtedly get the inside jokes and shed a chuckle or two. Taking gaming modes from familiar franchises and reworking them might seem lazy, but it makes for great marketing and playing material.
Beyond this though, it’s a tad unfair that the game’s spoiled by a cops versus robbers feeling. For one, I think it’s unfair that the Zombies are earmarked immediately as the antagonists — from the tone of the character’s voices, to the uneasy feeling you get when shooting down roses. PopCap would’ve done well to allow the gamer to judge for themselves who are really the antagonists here, because I must admit, I have a bias towards the plants now. But generally, the combat system is easier to learn on the greener side.
The medic Sunflower for one, shoots bouts of lazer beams, spawns health giving potplants and can heal nearby players. The Peashooter specialises in long distance combat with its Gatling gun, and close range bean bomb — both are hilarious fun. There’s also the mage-like rose, the military general trope corn, and a Steven Seagal-doppelgänger orange peel dubbed Citron. I couldn’t care less about the dopey cactus but for fairness’ sake, there’s also a cactus with defence-focued attacks.
On the rotting side, the character classes tend to mirror the Plants’, while differing ever so slightly in terms of special attack types and movement physics. The crazy thing is that this is just the tip of the iceberg: PopCap claims that there’s over 100 characters if you count all the variations, and classes I haven’t mentioned here, so there’s a lot of content. It’s a great set of characters, and I found myself instantly drawn to the Pea and the Super Brainz class (read: Elvis’ hair).
There’s a number of different game modes too to compliment the hefty wealth of character content. Its slightly erroneous to call this title a raw tower defence game though. Yes, that’s part of its charm, but it’s first and foremost a shooter in its 2016 guise. Think Splatoon-cum-third-person-Halo and you’re halfway there.
The campaign consists of tower defense set pieces, where you and three other helpers (AI, local or online in certain cases) are tasked with defending a specific fortress. This was fun for about an hour, but it generally got stale as its not the most fluid game mode. It’s part of the tower defence game’s charm, and curse. It’s more or less the same set of campaigns over and over on both sides, just the inverse. You can do these campaigns to level up your characters, but after I completed it with Sunflower, I didn’t care to touch the other characters on the plant side. I’d rather level them up shooting people online.
Think Splatoon-cum-third-person-Halo and you’re halfway there
With this fresh in mind, I turned to the multiplayer lobby. The game lets you choose the server closest to you and one that suits your ping, with the resultant wait to find a preferable game lasting never more than a minute. Thrust into the multiplayer world, I took a moment to gander at the graphics.
Keeping in mind that its a silly shooter (or a Splatooter), PopCap did wonders with the visual style. It’s not texture heavy, but the worlds are laden with colour and character akin to a light CGI movie and fairly steady 60fps rates thanks to DICE’s Frostbite 3 engine.
There are a vast number of maps available, ranging from snowy Alaskan scapes to sandy Saharas to period Japanese gardens, and my personal favourite Roman Colozeum. All maps have their distinct quirks, but all are enjoyable both in terms of visuals and tactical options.
All maps have their distinct quirks, but all are enjoyable both in terms of visuals and tactical options
Back to the shooty business: I began my multiplayer journey with the Team Vanquish mode, and was almost instantaneously destroyed by Elvis’ glowing hair and purple lightning. But attack minded characters are only fun occassionally. Playing as the Sunflower or Scientist does allow you to act as useful support, backing your team through healing while protecting their flanks with weaponised sunshine or mortars. That was my gameplan, and while it worked occasionally, the real trick to winning the Team Vanquish mode is to keep your team alive, and to not die yourself.
That’s easier said than done.
Attacking players is also not quite as easy as it seems. Close-combat characters like Corn and Super Brainz will get a ridiculous number of kills, and will likely always lead the roster, but long-range weapon classes require a definite grasp of the game’s twitchy shooting mechanics.
Its easy enough for anyone to play, but its difficult enough to keep perfectionists on the edge: a precarious yet ideal balance that not too many shooters get right.
Other modes, like Vanquish Confirmed!, are also extremely fun. Instead of simply shooting each others’ heads off, the objective is to save orbs dropped by fallen comrades before the opponents obtain them. The first team to 50 orbs wins, so there’s another brilliant, more fluid side dynamic coming into play here.
For the most part, most modes (bar one) returns to Garden Warfare 2 from its predecessor, so legacy players should have no qualms adjusting. There are upwards of 11 modes available (if you count the lobby and its hidden secrets, 12), so PopCap really did shove everything and the garden shed into this game.
There’s the option for private online multiplayer too, but overall, there are more than enough online modes and characters with varying strengths to keep the game entertaining.
Other facets of the game’s predecessor has been reworked this time around too.
Its easy enough for anyone to play, but its difficult enough to keep perfectionists on the edge: a precarious yet ideal balance that not too many shooters get right
The sticker shop system is now an integral part of the character levelling and upgrading experience. By grabbing said stickers using coins earned in game, users can gain unique character mods, snazzy fashionable kits and even entirely new variants of characters themselves. You’re able to purchase support minions too. For instance, the Sunflower can plant a healing minion which will automatically provide healing spores to nearby compatriots. Characters can also be promoted, which gains snazzy kill plaques and visual credibility, while abilities and custom outfits and decals are also available. And there’s a lot of the latter.
You can also earn stars by taking part in daily quests dished out by the servers. I didn’t really fancy this mode though, as it felt extremely tedious trudging through a shopping list of things to shoot. You’ll largely feel this way too, levelling up every, single, character in your arsenal.
And on that note, let’s talk about its problems. While Garden Warfare 2 is bursting at the seams with content, there are the usual annoyances.
Number one: its online only, and thus takes a large chunk of the prospective gaming populace out of the equation from the onset. It’s a shame. The servers also enjoy spitting me out, even when my line is stable. Granted, I have a typical underdeveloped world line which drops like a stone occasionally, but other multiplayer titles run just fine, including Trackmaia Turbo and EA’s very own Star Wars Battlefront. Perhaps my ISP just hates the game, I’m not sure, but generally, I’ve experienced more drops with Garden Warfare 2 than other titles.
And finally, I can’t help but feel the multiplayer arenas suffer from balancing issues. Some characters are obnoxiously OP. Imp for instance has a goddamn mech armour, which provides a large surface area for shell fire, but also dishes out a crap load of damage. When five Zombies play as Imp, and they all get the mech suit at the same time, the match is pretty much over. It’s that bullshit that made me want to crack the disc over my knee a number of times.
Also, the game isn’t brimming with counter-measures either. Coming up against Rose and Chomper or Super Brainz are three great examples. Once the former slows down time, or the latter deploys its goop attack, or Elvis whips out his whirlwind attack, running away or defending is damn near impossible. So the game does beckon users to play as a select few character classes.
Still, that’s something that can be fixed with a few patches. On the whole, there’s nothing deal-breaking about this game if you have the required internet connection.
It has five-times the content of 2K’s Evolve, and makes many AAA titles look like overpriced turds. But the most astonishing thing about this console title? It’s an EA game I actually enjoyed playing.
Release Date: 25 February 2016
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Genre: Tower defence, silly online shooter
Engine: EA DICE Frostbite 3
Platform(s): Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4 (review platform), Xbox One
Launch Price (RRP): R899
Industry average score: 83/100
Verdict: There’s a good reason why this game gave Far Cry Primal a run for its money in their first week of launch. Stocked full of content, character and hilarious gameplay, Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare 2 is the closest shooter fun you’ll get to Splatoon on non-Nintendo platforms. It’s a shame that EA didn’t drop the online requirements of the first game, but nevertheless, if you can stay connected, it’s a game the casual and serious player can definitely appreciate together.