Hands on with Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare for Xbox One

The Xbox One launched in 13 countries last Friday, and early adopters (including much of the Windows Phone Central staff) have a fairly robust selection of launch titles to enjoy. That doesn’t mean we’re not already looking to the future, though. When you buy a console during the first month of its release, you’re investing in the games that will come later even more than the first wave of titles.

One of the most exciting early post-launch releases will be Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare from PopCap Games. Garden Warfare now has an official release date of February 18th, 2014 for both Xbox One and Xbox 360. I actually played the game during our visit to Electronic Arts headquarters last week and came away highly impressed. Head past the break for impressions, gameplay footage, and our video interview with Garden Warfare producer, Brian Lindley!

Spin-off or spin out?

Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare is a spin-off of the popular Plants vs. Zombies games. Whereas the two mainline entries have been 2-dimensional tower defense games, Garden Warfare is a multiplayer-focused third-person shooter with 3D graphics. It plays a lot different from the titles that spawned it. You could be forgiven for worrying that PopCap and/or EA were stretching the brand too far with this one. I had the same fear.

On a rainy day in San Francisco just before the Xbox One launched, Electronic Arts invited journalists to try Garden Warfare for themselves. Eight of us crowded into a room filled with networked Xbox One consoles equipped with Astro Gaming headsets. After a short presentation, we joined a 24-player online match of Team Vanquish (the Plants vs. Zombies version of Team Deathmatch) against PopCap’s playtesting staff. Any doubts about PopCap jumping the shark with Garden Warfare quickly disappeared after that.

An unnatural fit made natural

Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare for Xbox One

To successfully spin a series off into a new genre, you need two things: proper integration of the original games’ characters and universe, and the new game must actually meet the genre standards for quality.

Garden Warfare captures the feeling of Plants vs. Zombies so very well. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, the many varied plants and zombies all translate perfectly to three dimensions. Anyone who has seen the toys or plushes would already know that, but the PvZ characters look even better in full 3D action. They radiate with personality - far more than you’d see in a typical FPS or third-person shooter.

On the sound front, the music comes from Peter McConnell, who previously composed the soundtrack for Plants vs. Zombies 2 and many classic LucasArts games. I didn’t get to hear much of Garden Warfare’s music, but it promises to feature new iterations of classic themes from the first two games. The sound effects (which I could hear just fine) have the typical PopCap zing, and Crazy Dave still makes the unintelligible voice samples he’s known for.

Characters and teams

Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare for Xbox One

Garden Warfare is unique among competitive shooters in that its two factions are asymmetrical in nature. The plants and zombies each have unique abilities that the other doesn’t. Owing to its predecessors’ design, plants are more defensive in nature while the zombies favor offense.

The two teams consist of multiple characters for players to choose from. On the Plants side, we saw the Peashooter (the basic all-around soldier), Sunflower (medic), Chomper (stealth), and Cactus (long-range). The zombies have a Foot Soldier, All Star (football player), Scientist (healer), and Engineer. Players can unlock variants of each unit such as the Ice Cactus, whose shots can slow and eventually freeze opponents.

Every unit boasts three special abilities in addition to its standard attacks. The Peashooter, for instance, can set down roots and become a Gatling Pea, fire explosive Chili beans, or become Hyper and move at super speed. The plants' Cactus gets to fly around as a Garlic drone, while the zombies' Engineer has a flying drone of his own. These abilities take time to recharge, so players will still need to do some old-fashioned shooting as well.

Venus zombie trap

Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare for Xbox One

My favorite class to play during the event was the Venus flytrap-like Chomper. Unlike other classes, the Chomper doesn’t get a projectile weapon. He’s melee-only. This puts the guy at a disadvantage in frontal assaults, where it could take him several bites to vanquish a zombie. But sneak up from behind and the Chomper can eat an opponent, scoring a delightfully-animated 1-hit kill.

As if the Chomper’s focus on sneaking up from behind wasn’t ninja enough, he also has a burrowing ability. Tap the Y button and your Chomper digs underground, at which point he can move around for a short while without being hit. If the Chomper manages to sneak up under an opponent, he gets another satisfying instant kill. Naturally zombies can see the Chomper coming and get out of the way, and some of them have abilities that force the Chomper aboveground. Still! Sneaking up on a distracted zombie and devouring him from below is way too fun.

Game Modes

Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare for Xbox One

Garden Warfare runs on Dice’s Frostbite Engine, the same framework that powers Battlefield 4. And like the Battlefield games of old, large-scale competitive multiplayer is this title’s main draw. It supports two 12-versus-12 game types: “Team Vanquish” and “Gardens & Graveyards.” The latter (which we didn’t pay) is objective based, with one side defending their base from the other’s onslaught.

As for Team Vanquish, the goal is simply to help your team reach 50 kills (called Vanquishes here). Team deathmatch has been done to death in first- and third-person shooters, but Garden Warfare never feels too samey. The bright, cheerful visuals, sense of humor, and delightful on-screen characters all grabbed me in a way that few shooters do.

Non-competitive gamers won’t have quite as much to do in Garden Warfare, however. The game lacks a campaign mode. PopCap wanted to focus on polishing multiplayer as much as possible with this first outing, and given the game’s release schedule there wasn’t time to do a proper story mode. But they do see Garden Warfare as a strong new franchise contender. Should the game sell well enough to warrant a sequel, the follow-up would very likely have a campaign.

Ah, but Garden Warfare does have an online cooperative mode for up to 4-players! We didn’t get to try it out, but teaming up as plants against the AI zombies and gigantic bosses like the Goliath should be almost as addicting as the versus modes. The Xbox One version even supports 2-player split-screen co-op.

All progress made during offline and online co-op contributes towards the player’s overall profile. Each character type has numerous challenges to work through, such as scoring kills with a specific weapon. Complete enough and you’ll level up with that character. Players also have an overall level that leads to unlocking goodies.

Coming soon to Xbox consoles

If you love Plants vs. Zombies or a good multiplayer game, mark February 18, 2014 on your calendar. That’s when Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare arrives at retail.

The Xbox One version will cost $39.99 while the Xbox 360 version will ring up for $29.99. The Xbox One version's split-screen and SmartGlass features (not present on 360) make up for its higher price tag. PopCap and Electronic Arts also have a PC version of Garden Warfare in the works, but it doesn’t have a release date just yet. Preorder either console version to receive two in-game card packs that will unlock various customization options.

We'll have more exclusive Xbox One game footage from our Electronic Arts visit in December!

Paul Acevedo

Paul Acevedo is the Games Editor at Windows Central. A lifelong gamer, he has written about videogames for over 15 years and reviewed over 350 games for our site. Follow him on Twitter @PaulRAcevedo. Don’t hate. Appreciate!