Competitive shooters are serious business. They depict epic battles between modern-day soldiers and insurgents in war-torn cities, or conflicts between space marines and aliens on distant worlds, or skirmishes between battle-hardened men and subterranean creatures who try to slice each other to bits with rifle-mounted chainsaws. There's nothing wrong with any of that, but there's also no reason the broadly appealing mechanics of multiplayer shooters always need to be married to grim scenarios.
That's what makes Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare so enticing. Mechanically, it's solid, if unsurprising. It distinguishes itself from other shooters not through its gameplay, but by successfully couching familiar shooter action in the bright and playful world of the Plants vs. Zombies games. Still, the package is a bit thin, even at the $40 asking price that the game carries on the Xbox One.
Garden Warfare is primarily a team-based multiplayer game. (The Garden Ops mode can be played solo or split-screen locally with one other player, but all other modes require you to hop online.) Each mode has you siding with either the plants or the zombies as the age-old...er, four-year-old conflict between them rages on. As in so many competitive shooters, gameplay is class-based. There are four basic units on each side; among the plants, there's the well-rounded peashooter, whose pea cannon does splash damage, and the sunflower, whose heal beam can give allies the extra vitality they need to survive a shootout. The zombie army includes the engineer, who can call in a drone to attack enemies from the air and rain down explosive, traffic-cone-shaped death on those pesky plants. They've also got the all-star, a zombie in a football getup whose pigskin-shooting cannon takes a second to spin up but does lots of damage once it gets going.
The game does a good job of balancing out the abilities on each side. The chomper can burrow underground, get under an enemy, and burst forth to swallow him whole--a wonderfully satisfying move to pull off--but nearby zombie engineers can use their sonic grenades to stun all nearby plants, forcing burrowed chompers out of the ground in the process. And the game makes defensive abilities just as important as offensive ones. The cactus's potato mines can fortify a location against zombies who are too reckless to look where they're going, and the all-star's dummy shield can absorb enemy fire. In Garden Warfare, as in most of the better competitive shooters on the market these days, you're not always focused on killing members of the other team; you're trying to use the variety of abilities at your disposal to most effectively support your team.
In Team Vanquish games, the best way to support your team is, in fact, to kill members of the other team. This playlist pits teams of up to 12 against each other in a race to 50 kills (though the game never uses that violent word, opting for "vanquishes" instead), and encourages you to revive fallen teammates, which subtracts the point the opposing team earned for killing your buddy from its tally. More dynamic are the battles of the Gardens & Graveyards playlist, in which plants work together to prevent zombies from capturing key points on the map.
Only one point is contested at any time, so battles for those points are heated, and if the zombies succeed in pushing the plants back to the last battleground on a map, there's an enjoyable endgame goal the undead have to accomplish. On one map, zombies launch themselves through a cannon to an island to assault the megaflower, and on another, they have to assault Crazy Dave's mansion, which is defended by cannons that launch massive nuts that roll down the driveway like bowling balls.
There's also the cooperative Garden Ops game type, in which up to four players defend a garden from waves of AI-controlled zombies. If you survive all the waves, there's a Left 4 Dead-style escape attempt that some players may survive while others may not, making for some exciting and desperate final moments. But the AI zombie hordes aren't as clever, or as enjoyable to mow down, as player-controlled opponents, so Garden Ops lacks the liveliness of the competitive modes. Whatever mode you play, the maps give you plenty of opportunity to try using the terrain to your advantage. The zombie foot soldier can use his rocket jump to launch onto rooftops, and the cactus's long-range spike shot makes her a good choice when you'd rather try to stay back from the front lines and pick off enemies from afar.
There are tons of unlockables in Garden Warfare. Coins you earn as you play (and that, at least for now, cannot be purchased with real money) can be spent to purchase sticker packs that contain everything from accessories like sunglasses for your sunflower to character variations, like the dapper agent pea, who sacrifices the standard peashooter's splash damage for a damage bonus on critical hits. It's frustrating that you can't influence which class variant you work toward unlocking next, though. Even if you buy the 40,000-coin sticker pack that guarantees you a character unlock, it could be any character; you can't improve your chances of getting that specific class variant you've seen other players using and really want to try out.
While the unlockables fit right in with the whimsical spirit of the Plants vs. Zombies franchise, you're left feeling like Garden Warfare needed a little something more to make it a meal rather than a side salad. Still, it's that rare shooter whose world and characters might put a smile on your face, making it a refreshing entry in a genre that usually takes itself really seriously.