Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare 2 Review
I believe we should be balanced and well-rounded in all things, including our hobbies. That's why I always like to have simple pick-up-and-play games to go alongside the longer, occasionally downright epic productions. It's why there are some days when I simply don't want to get involved in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt or Assassin's Creed Syndicate and why I'd rather play a bit of Super Mega Baseball or Rock Band Blitz. Now, I've come across another great game that falls into the latter lighthearted category, and it's called Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare 2. I was encouraged by what I saw in the beta test and the final product is exactly what I wanted: Reliable, diverse, and endlessly entertaining.
Perhaps surprisingly, the graphics on display in PopCap's latest vibrant shooter are a definite highlight. Not only are they solid and reliable - nary a hitch, pop-in, or frame rate stutter to be found - but they're also wonderfully attractive in every conceivable way. From the hugely imaginative and wildly diverse character designs that will bring a smile to your face to the brilliant special effects, Garden Warfare 2 is a visually stunning tour de force. The backdrops have a lot of detail and originality, although I still think we could've had a few more battlegrounds. You'll undoubtedly be impressed by the sheer graphical variety in the effects and characters, and with a good TV, this game really shines.
The sound is pretty darn great, too. Once again, we're treated to a diverse array of combat effects, which allow every match to really explode with dynamic audio. Depending on your chosen character, you'll hear a completely different set of sounds, many of which are just plain comical. The soundtrack can be a tad repetitive and often takes a back seat to the effects but that's normal with these types of games. Overall, I'd say the technical merits of GW2 are great; there's a solidarity and general appeal that you don't often find in video games these days. There's nothing offensive, the word "grit" is nowhere to be found, and the bright colors and fantastic effects - both visual and audio - keep you coming back for more. If you're wondering whether or not the game looks and sounds like a $60 product, it does.
If you played the first Garden Warfare, you know what to expect: A bunch of zany plants and zombie characters running around trying to kill each other. It's the "how" that will get your attention, because getting kills in this game is about understanding your chosen character and his or her corresponding abilities. In this way, it's less about exact precision and dexterous shooter-centric skill, and more about utilizing a unique method of elimination. In short, the character-specific strengths and weaknesses, along with the obvious difference in how you approach battle, is at the core of this enjoyable experience. It really just builds on the rock-solid foundation of the first game and as a result, we get a bigger, better, deeper version that relies on gleeful, carefree fun.
Yes, it's basically a third-person shooter at heart but there are also significant elements of tower defense strategy. In addition to running around trying to wreak havoc with your favorite fighter, you must also take advantage of your environment: You will find flowerpots placed around each level, where seeds can be planted that will result in turrets, healing, or particularly dangerous plants. In this way, you can create perimeters and boundaries, which often grant indirect kills and other bonuses, and turn the game into a fantastic combination of action and strategy. The wide assortment of options in regards to offensive and defensive approaches is actually mind-boggling; there are ranged and melee-oriented characters, the ability to inflict status ailments and other issues on your opponents, and the constant urge to experiment.
With support for up to 24 players online and a bevy of new classes and game modes, this sequel is brimming with great content and immense versatility. I said it before in my preview based on the beta and I'll say it again— with such a diverse roster, you can enjoy this game any number of ways. As one character often demands a completely different style of play than another, it's almost as if the game gets a new infusion of freshness whenever you switch fighters. At the same time, if you wish to focus on one particular character and build up that way, this will also result in success and satisfaction. The amount of freedom, combined with the very different game modes, results in a game that never feels the same. One gaming session really won't be like the last and this is a very difficult - but much appreciated - accomplishment.
Cards are a big part of the game, and I haven't decided if I like this yet. I know this is getting big these days (I heard Halo 5: Guardians used cards in some capacity, too) but I've never liked the randomness of the cards. You buy card packs from the store and they grant character skins and other goodies, but pulling cards is a random process. Hey, I was a big baseball card collector as a kid and I well remember the excitement that comes from an unopened pack; it's the mystery that makes it so much fun. "What will I get this time?" But when it comes to seeking certain cards to build up my character, I feel I should simply be able to purchase what I need with my hard-earned in-game currency. I don't want to have to keep buying packs in the hope that I'll eventually get what I need. Feels too much like gambling and gambling is rarely fair.
Still, you can earn plenty of money via quests and challenges, and performing well on the battlefield. It's not really that hard to rack up a bunch of money and in turn, it's not too difficult to buy these card packs. That's a good thing. I'm not about to back off on my previous stance, though, because I've just never liked randomness in any strategy-based situation. There's a reason I hated Cait Sith, you know? Anyway, getting back to the gameplay, it stands to reason that there isn't much in the way of story. There is some comedic narrative but it's mostly limited to the tutorial section and aside from that, it's just about plants battling zombies for ultimate supremacy. I'm forever a proponent of great interactive narratives but there are some games that just don't need it. This is one such example.
And besides, you can play the entire game cooperatively! That alone makes this a fantastic option for those who want to throw down with friends and family. Fellow players can join you in just about any activity, be it daily quests or boss events, and yes, split-screen co-op is available. And as everyone of a certain age already knows, playing with someone sitting next to you can be - and often is - a lot more fun than playing with someone through a screen. On top of all this, don't forget that you can indeed play the game solo and while not as entertaining as playing with others, it's also not a total flop. So many games that "recommend" you do multiplayer basically suck on the single-player side but it'd be a stretch to say that about GW2. No, you can have yourself a blast if you wish to be all by your lonesome, and that's another feather in this game's cap.
Of course, multiplayer really is where it's at. From Team Vanquish to Turf Takeover to Gnome Bomb, there's plenty to keep you occupied for many, many hours. Although a few of the modes aren't especially inventive (long-time shooter fans will easily recognize modes like Suburbination, where you essentially fight to control locations, and Vanquished Confirmed is familiar to CoD fans, I'm sure), there's lots of variety here. And if you really want to stay on your toes, you should try Mixed Mode, where the game cycles through all available modes so everything stays fresh and interesting. Perhaps the developers will add more gameplay modes over time but don't forget that with over 100 character variations, there's lots to sample. Lastly, the core control is about as sound as it can be, which is another notable feat given the drastic mechanical differences between the characters.
Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare 2 is a rock-‘em-sock-‘em blast and a half, a colorful and always entertaining game that keeps you playing, hour after hour. The super solid gameplay and expansive variety is really what makes it so great, because such merits greatly increase longevity. I have my reservations about the card system, the balancing isn't quite right (I imagine the devs will have to make some character tweaks as time goes on), and yes, the multiplayer experience is clearly better than the single-player one. But the latter is still functional and fun and in the end, GW2 offers a wonderfully engaging multiplayer experience that is never dull and rarely irksome in any way. As I said in the intro, if you're looking for an excellent pick-up-and-play title that will keep you occupied for hours and puts a smile on your face, it's right here.
The Good: Bright, vivid visual display and beautifully designed characters. Great graphical and audio effects. Huge roster with tons of creativity. Wildly diverse and versatile throughout. Encourages experimentation with multiple characters and gameplay styles. Really solid control.
The Bad: Card Packs feels sorta cheap; don't like the random aspect. Could use a few more modes. Balancing might be a tad off.
The Ugly: "Aw, no ‘ugly' here. Just colorful fun!"
2/22/2016 Ben Dutka