Let’s get the most important talking point out of the way early: “Garden Warfare” is an online only game. Users must be connected to EA’s servers in order to play Garden Ops modes (the equivalent of Horde mode), or competitive multiplayer. If the servers go down – and they did a couple times while I reviewed the game – you will not be able to play.
Another important point to note is that the game is multiplayer only. There is no single player mode. Sure, you can play Garden Ops by yourself in a private lobby, but it won’t be very fun, and you won’t live very long.
Now that you’re fully aware of what you will, or won’t be buying, let’s talk gameplay. PopCap somehow managed to perfectly translate its tower defense series to the world of shooters. Now it should be recognized as a natural progression; both are manic, both require planning, and both call to act on your toes. Shooters just happen to be multiplayer. The progression is actually quite brilliant.
Garden Ops mode is almost identical to its tower defense roots (pun intended). Waves of zombies spawn with their lifeless gazes set on destroying the plants’ garden. The squad of up to four plants must fend off the zombie horde for ten waves before Crazy Dave evacuates them from the battlefield in his flying mobile home.
“Garden Warfare” has four main classes of plant: pea shooter, sunflower, cactus, and chomper. Each of these classes plays a specific role on the battlefield. The pea shooter is the foot soldier with the most firepower. The sunflower is the medic. The cactus is the sniper. The chomper round out the group with its expertise in close-quarters combat.
Each character can plant helper plants in pots that are scattered around the garden. These helpers are all familiar flora from the tower defense game like mushrooms, sunflower healers, Gatling gun pea shooters, and fire breathing plants just to name a few.
This mode is as fun as any wave-based survival mode that came before it, which means it’s a lot of fun. It shines brightest when played with friends. Garden Ops doesn’t add anything new to the formula and basically copies successful Horde Modes from other games, like “Mass Effect 3,” but it executes those basics well.
These four classes carry over to “Garden Warfare’s” competitive arena as well. The difference is that now the zombies are also controlled by humans. The zombie team has its own set of four classes that fill the basic roles that are found on the plant side, but each character behaves differently from its plant counterpart. For instance, the zombie soldier has a faster rate of fire but weaker bullets, and its secondary abilities are completely different from the pea shooter. These different abilities add variety to the game while keeping the action well balanced in the process.
Matches are 24-player battlegrounds with 12 players per team. Team Vanquish, the standard deathmatch game type, is a race to 50 kills. Downed players can be revived by teammates, which takes a point away from the opposing team.
The second competitive mode is Gardens and Graveyards. This is identical to “Battlefield’s” Team Rush mode. One team is offense, while the other is defense. The offensive team must try to capture zones throughout a map before the timer runs out. The team on defense has to stop them.
The Xbox One version has a split-screen mode, but it’s only the Garden Ops mode, and it can’t be joined by other online players. Two people won’t last long in this mode, so I question why they added it at all.
These are all the modes that “Garden Warfare” has to offer: Garden Ops, Team Vanquish, and Gardens and Graveyards. None of them are particularly original, but together they manage to muster up the charm that comes with any PopCap game. Is that worth the $40 price tag? That depends if you have a band of friends who are willing to join the fight with you.
There is clear room for improvement here. There could’ve been a single player campaign that introduced each character and increased the difficulty with each mission. There could’ve been a robust private multiplayer offering with options to tweak the gameplay. There could’ve even been a map builder. There could’ve been a lot of things added to the experience, which makes this a sort of bare-boned package.
“Garden Warfare’s” replay value comes in the form of coins. Performing well in any mode grants coins. Coins can then be spent on sticker packs, which unlock new forms of each character, new skins, or helper plants that can be planted in Garden Ops. You can’t buy these packs with real money yet, but that option will be coming soon.
When a game forces the player to be online, problems seem to be inevitable. “Garden Warfare” was no exception. The servers went down for maintenance on the evening of release day. I’ve been unexpectedly booted from a few matches. One session led to a full game crash that booted me back to the Xbox One’s dashboard. The game had to be reset. Then there are the Xbox One’s party issues that struggle to add party members to a game session. Calling “Garden Warfare” stable would be too generous. About 80 percent of my matches completed without issue.
Put all of this together and you have a game that is overflowing with grin-inducing charm. But once you peel back the bright and gaudy layers of decaying skin and leafy greens, it’s a semi-stable shooter that has plenty of room to grow.
7.0 out of 10
Loaded with comedic charm
Great variety and balance in classes
Only three modes of play
All three modes are strictly multiplayer
Matches can be unstable