Think of Plants vs. Zombies, and the chances are the first thing that'll spring to mind is of arranging your finest greenery in the confines of a strict grid, as you plant your sunflowers, set up your wall-nuts and bury your pea shooters in an effort to delay never-ending zombie hordes. But while the past two instalments were rather slow paced, strategic affairs, the Xbox One and Xbox 360 exclusive, Garden Warfare, aims to tear up the horticultural rulebook and rewrite everything you thought you knew about the series. Gone is the strategy, gone is the grid, and gone is (almost) any form of single player altogether, as in its place is a team-based, online-oriented third person shooter. Because remember - as far as "next-gen" goes, if it isn't a shooter, it isn't a real game.
Sarcasm aside, Garden Warfare is probably best described as an admirable, yet ill-fated attempt at making an "accessible" third person shooter for a crowd (like us) who might be turned off by the more military themed shooters of recent years. More colourful than almost any shooter that's gone before it, the game at least starts out in the right way, with blue skies and green grass as far as the eye can see, not to mention a familiar jingle playing over the main menu - it's just what happens next that lets the game down.
You see, much like EA's other heavily hyped shooter, Titanfall (which we also aren't massive fans of), Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare is a game aimed at those who want to play online, and those who want to play online only. While there is support for single player, in that there's a total of one game mode that it's possible to play on your own, it's only enough to keep you occupied for about a single match. If you don't have a group of friends you regularly play online with - and they aren't all willing to cough up the money to buy a copy of the game each - you should forget about buying this, as there's nothing for the discerning single player to do.
If you prefer to play in co-op with someone in the same house, the news isn't much better. While there is a co-op mode (although inexplicably, it's an Xbox One exclusive mode), it's almost completely useless. Despite being promoted as a huge reason to buy the Xbox One version over the Xbox 360 instalment, the much vaunted split-screen mode only lets you play in a single game type, with a single friend, against a team of AI opponents. Unbelievably, for a game that focuses so heavily on online play, you can't take a friend online with you to play against, or with, your more distant friends - and it only supports two-player split-screen. First person shooters on the PS2 had support for four player split screen. Shooters on the N64 supported four player split screen. With consoles now being infinitely more powerful, and with games like this focusing on multiplayer exclusively, you'd think the least they could have done is make a functional four-player split-screen mode - but instead, we're left with a mode that's been bolted on to tick a box, and little else. To add insult to inexplicable injury, it's also impossible to play the split-screen mode offline - for reasons known only to EA (or perhaps Microsoft), the game requires an Xbox Live Gold subscription to play offline, against computer players, with someone in the same house.
And all this is even more disappointing when you consider that what there is here isn't actually all that bad. There just isn't anywhere near enough of it. With a pretty disappointing four game modes on offer (six if you count the "classic" varieties, which prevent any character customisation, or seven if you include the mixed mode), there's little room for any real variety - what you have is a standard team deathmatch style affair, a "horde morde" defend-your-base-from-neverending-zombies mode, and a more inventive mode which sees a team of plants trying to defend a series of checkpoints against the zombies, falling back to safer territory every time the undead army overwhelms them.
Divided into two teams (both plants and zombies are playable here), Garden Warfare offers you a choice of characters classes to play as, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. If you've played the original games, there's plenty of familiar faces you'll recognise here - the standard Pea Shooter is the all rounder for the plants, the Sunflower can heal, and the Chomper can burrow underground, before popping up under enemies to devour them in a single bite. On the zombies team, meanwhile, you have a "heavy" in the form of the "All-Star" American Football zombie, who can smash through plants with his tackle, a weak-yet-powerful-up-close Scientist, who comes complete with a sort of zombie shotgun, and the moustachioed Engineer, who rides around on a drill while exposing his backside to the world. Lovely.
Coming from other shooters, Garden Warfare is something of a change of pace, as it's very much a team based affair. While your instinct may be to go it alone, you'll soon discover that grouping up with the rest of your team to defend an area is the best strategy, with each of the character classes complimenting the other. While some are stronger at attacking but have less HP, others have more health at the expense of their speed, with a trade off for every advantage, and a character to suit every playing style.
There is a sort of incentive to keep playing, too - the more you play, the more abilities you'll unlock for your character, with additional abilities on the Y button, and the left and right bumpers. Whether it's the ability to plant your sunflower in the ground and let out an almighty beam of destruction, or send off a flying robot sentry turret as the Engineer, which can pick off enemies that have barricaded themselves in a bit too well, the unlockable moves make a huge difference to your characters - which is handy, as you only have to level that character up three times in order to unlock them all.
Whether you win or not, completing a match will earn you several thousand coins, which can be spent in the in-game shop on packs of cards. These packs of cards, which range in price from 1,000 to 40,000 coins (you'll average around 2-3,000 coins per match) contain a number of boosts, unlocks, and customisation options for your characters, chosen at random - whether it's a pair of pineapple sunglasses, a helicopter hat, or a fetching new bucket. As your sole incentive to pour hours into the game, however, we're not convinced that this actually works all that well. With too much of a chance of getting duplicate items, and the packs themselves being pretty pricey, a straight levelling system, where you unlocked new things every time you ranked up would have worked better - although at least there's no micro-transactions.
But with just six maps, and four modes on offer, the chances are you'll have seen and done almost everything Garden Warfare has to offer within a few hours. While the lack of a single player mode should have been seen as an opportunity to flesh the game out in every other direction, it seems to have only cut away at the features you'd expect. There's no way to have a private lobby in anything other than the Garden Warfare mode. There's no way to play in split-screen online. There's no way to play anything other than the Garden Warfare mode offline. And the split-screen mode that has been included is a poor excuse for a co-op mode to say the least.
As a downloadable game for a tenner, we'd still have reservations about this. Add in the fact that it's an online only EA game, which means the servers can be turned off at any time, with only a few week's notice, rendering 90% of the game unplayable, at £30, this can't be recommended.