Perhaps the most surprising thing about Plants Vs Zombies: Garden Warfare – other than the fact that it exists at all – is how well the series’ horticultural tussle translates to the team shooter genre. The plants have bedded into their new roles especially well, and prove as effective in three dimensions as they did in two.
Each of the plants’ four available classes has its own projectiles and three special abilities. The Peashooter makes for a fine all-rounder, moving at speed and flinging seeds that inflict area-of-effect damage. The Sunflower is weaker, but can continue firing at zombies even as it heals other players via either a healing beam or by dropping potted satellite sunflowers that release health-giving sun drops. The Cactus can snipe with its needles, send a Garlic Drone into the sky to help you get into the thick of the action and order artillery strikes. And the Chomper, our early favourite, is more difficult to use, but capable of a one-munch kill if you can manage to get behind your quarry (or even underneath them by burrowing), helped along by the ability to fire gloop at targets that slows them down. The opposing undead, however, seem to have been trickier to reshape.
“It was a lot easier to [transpose] the plants than it was for the zombies,” producer Brian Lindley confirms. “The plants’ bodies are their weapons, right? We took a lot of the characters from PVZ and they just mapped perfectly into the roles we wanted them to play. The Sunflower makes sense as a healer. The Cactus makes sense as a sniper. But we spent a ton of time designing and redesigning the zombie characters to get them right, because in the original PVZ they’re all kind of one-dimensional – they only do one thing.”
Not any more. PopCap’s persistence has resulted in a roughly analogous – albeit rifle-wielding – undead opposition, with just enough asymmetry to make picking a side interesting. The Foot Soldier, for example, carries the rapid-fire Z1 Assault Blaster into battle, but can also fire zombie-propelled grenades from the bazooka on his back and release a zombie stink cloud to cover his movements. The Scientist, meanwhile, is the undead equivalent of the Sunflower; he can drop purple-goo-spurting healing stations, but he’s also capable of warping a short distance to confuse and outmanoeuvre foes. The zombie force is rounded out by both the fast-moving Engineer, who can counter burrowed Chompers with his pneumatic drill as well as launch his own drone, and the All-Star, a zombie in American football gear, which can shoulder-barge enemies and throw suicide bomber imps into the mix.
It’s all suitably chaotic at first glance. But like its source material, apparently disparate munitions work best in concert. And even though player abilities will be customisable in the finished game, we found PopCap’s fairly rigidly defined class structures encouraged team play from the off during a 24-player Team Vanquish match on a server populated entirely by strangers.
“A lot of action games out there now encourage that lone-wolf mentality,” Lindley says, “but the way we’ve designed our characters, you need to play with your team. You can lone wolf if you need, and survive on your own, but you’re going to be strongest if you’ve got a teammate or two next to you.”
Variants for each character will allow for greater specialisation within your team. For instance, the Ice Cactus can freeze enemies in place after landing a few consecutive shots, making it easier to mop up the rest of a health bar, while the Foot Soldier can become a Camo Ranger that does slightly less damage but is more effective at longer range. The plants also sport rooted abilities that increase the potency of their weapons – a Peashooter, for instance, becomes a Gatling gun – at the cost of being unable to move for a short time.
Garden Warfare’s rich colours, cartoonish art style and frenetic pace instantly bring to mind Team Fortress 2, but there are plenty of other touchstones here. The studio, formerly known as EA Black Box, has worked on a broad range of projects in the past and is more than happy to acknowledge its influences. Battlefield’s Commander mode, for example, inspired Garden Warfare’s Boss mode, in which players can use Kinect or SmartGlass to control a tactical map as either Crazy Dave or Dr Zomboss. You can drop supply crates, deploy NPC reinforcements and provide suppressing fire, but your craft (a modified RV or ominous blimp) can be spotted by, and is vulnerable to, ground forces. If you’re shot down, the role will be opened up to other players.
“We looked at all of the popular shooters out there that we love to play ourselves,” Lindley says. “Battlefield’s a huge inspiration for us – what they do is really a foundation that we mess around with to create the game we’re making. Obviously Call Of Duty, Halo: all of these games influenced Garden Warfare in different ways. We’ve taken ideas and mechanics from those and sprinkled them in among our own to give a familiar feel, but in a world that’s a bit more lighthearted and different from what saturates the market.”
It certainly feels different, but at this stage it’s difficult to assess whether it can surpass its contemporaries or merely ape them. While the audio design is hefty enough, we found ourselves losing track of what was happening as the screen filled with extravagant particle and lighting effects. Of more concern are the slightly loose-feeling controls, which work fine when navigating maps, but feel a touch too jittery when it comes to aiming. Much of the action takes place in close proximity, admittedly, but hopefully this aspect will be addressed before launch in February.
Even so, the map we try – a town centre with adjoining parkland – feels both well-populated and tightly designed, offering plenty of shortcuts and hiding places. It all looks fantastic, too, the chunky art style managing to evoke the series’ 2D visuals while allowing Garden Warfare its own flourishes. It won’t look quite so beautiful on 360, of course, but PopCap is aiming to retain the 24 player count for its Team Vanquish mode.
“That’s our goal, absolutely,” Lindley says. “We don’t want to make any compromises in the gameplay for 360. We’re still working on optimising and all that stuff, but right now we’re tracking towards being able to have the same number of players on both sides for both 360 and One.”
While Garden Warfare is launching exclusively on Xbox consoles, PopCap has no intention of limiting itself to a single brand. There is a PC version in the works, and the team is keeping its options open. Lindley: “We want to get this game into as many people’s hands as possible. Draw whatever conclusion from that statement that you will.”