Competitive shooters can be a grim business. It's not unusual in these games to send bullets flying through the skulls of enemy soldiers, or to slice opponents into chunks of meat with a chainsaw. But it doesn't always need to be this bloody. Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare hopes to demonstrate that sound shooter mechanics can shine even when they're dressed up in silliness, and based on my time with it yesterday, the game seems like it's shaping up to be a refreshing departure from the stern and serious norm.
Garden Warfare will ship with three modes, though I only got to try one of them. One mode likened to Rush in Battlefield, with zombies on attack and plants on defense, and another four-player cooperative mode that was compared to Gears of War's Horde mode, were described briefly, but it was the straight-up team deathmatch-style shenanigans of Team Vanquish that I got a chance to play. This 12-vs.-12 mode gave me a chance to put the four customizable classes on each side through their paces. But before I jumped into the action, I made sure to take care of the really important stuff: decking out my peashooter with a spiffy top hat and my sunflower with a pair of pixel glasses. The final game will tons of collectible personalization items, I was told, and I was charmed by the sights of chompers sporting shark fins and cacti inexplicably carrying soft serve ice cream cones.
But it was the diversity of characters on the field of battle that made my brief time with the game enjoyable. I'm often intimidated by team-based multiplayer shooters, but here, I felt like I was able to jump right in, grasp the abilities of the different classes, and make a positive contribution to my team. As the peashooter, you can switch from a mobile gunner into a stationary turret that deals heavy damage for a limited amount of time. As the chomper, you can burrow underground, make your way right under an unsuspecting zombie, burst out of the ground and swallow him whole. The zombie scientist, meanwhile, can set up stations that spurt purple goo to heal his cadaverous comrades, and the engineer can pilot a drone--a flying, severed head--that can attack enemies from above and call in a powerful airstrike. (I especially enjoyed piloting drones, both the engineer's and, on the plant side, the cactus' garlic drone.)
There are class variants, too--agent pea, looking suave in a bow tie, has a more powerful gun than the traditional peashooter but doesn't deal splash damage, while the rage chomper has less health than the regular chomper but moves more quickly. The variety in weapon types and abilities among classes and class variants kept the game feeling dynamic throughout the six-or-so matches that I played, and the presence of 12 players on each side kept the battlefield lively.
I didn't get to delve deeply into the challenges that are present for each class ("Get 100 critical hits on players with your primary weapon") but I got the sense that there will be plenty of stuff that's rewarding to unlock without the game falling into the trap of making you feel like you're at a disadvantage at the start. Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare will be out on February 18th for the Xbox One at a price of $40, and on the Xbox 360 for $30. You may want to start cultivating your wall-nuts now.