PvZ_GW

The oddly uncute sunflower, looking like a starlet after the rigors of bad plastic surgery, scuds along the cluttered street of this boxy cartoon suburbia. She unfurls and releases a pee yellow stream of laser death. A rocket sails past her.

“Man, they fuckin’ rocket launcher can’t aim for shit,” someone observes, courtesy of Xbox Live’s $60 a year ingame voice support. He has a point. Normally, the rockets are the perfect counter against sunflowers using their pee yellow laser. Oh, here comes a linebacker zombie, either using his rush ability or lag warping into the waiting mouth of a purple chomper.

“What up, nigga!”

The color commentary is accompanied by someone else’s mic that has been open the entire match. I can hear his TV. Sometimes I hear his dog. Sometimes I hear someone — his mom? — doing dishes or something in the background. Sometimes she yells something at him and he ignores her.

After the jump, did we really need a Plants vs Zombie shooter?

I can’t really blame Electronic Arts for the people who play this game. The “Garden Warfare” moniker is a not very sly acknowledgement that, yes, these are the people they want playing alongside fans of the insufferably cute Plants vs Zombies, itself once a subversive experiment in splicing casual gameplay with core genres. This is simply what happens when you ship on a console system that gives every player an open mic. Playing Titanfall on a PC will really spoil a fellow.

From this match, I will get about 3000 PvZbux towards one of the expensive “sticker packets” I’m saving up for. It’s not much. I could do way better. But now I have to decide whether to drop my lucre on the 20,000 PvZbux packet or to go the distance for the 40,000 PvZbux packet with the greater assurance of unlocking one of the variations on the eight basic character classes. Wait, do I really want any of these class upgrades, or am I just projecting from my days with Mass Effect 3’s excellent co-op, when I desperately wanted to unlock new guns and characters? And why aren’t I playing that instead? Is it still online? Has Electronic Arts pulled the plug on Mass Effect 3’s co-op yet? It’s been over a year, so I can’t assume it’s still live. Right? Isn’t that the shelf life for one of EA’s online games? Does SSX still work? Please don’t shut SSX down yet, EA. So how much life is in this cute and possibly misguided experiment before EA relegates it to the compost heap?

PvZ_GW_3

But here I am, this side yet again of those horrible four words: “connecting to EA servers”. Here I am, enjoying a perfectly decent multiplayer shooter with an unlikely aesthetic and even more unlikely IP, unfortunately crammed into an engine that can’t quite handle it. The middle distance dissolves into indeterminate detail so I’m just firing and peering at the jumble to see if any damage numbers float up, at which point I’ll keep firing. Sometimes I get a lovely position down a long line of fire and I can sort of make out what I’m shooting at by the floating icons. Ooh, I just got a headshot, as I can tell by the icon behind the number! A lot of time I’m just wildly firing into purple clouds of zombie smoke grenades. Sometimes it gets up close. It’s always a little embarrassing to find myself toe-to-toe with an enemy player, doing that awkward circle strafing thing in close quarters because neither of us has a melee attack. Plants and zombies don’t punch. Pardon me. No, pardon me.

To its considerable credit, this is a calculated design, obviously intended to be an actual game with long-term viability. The horde mode is disappointingly one-sided — plants only, please — but otherwise it has the depth of a Gears of War, with your choice of defensible positions, defensive emplacements, teamwork, and crazy boss waves. The full-on multiplayer can really sing, either as a team deathmatch or a zombie incursion across a sequence of plant defenses. These eight classes, divided among two impressively asymmetrical sides, have their own style, their own gameplay, their own exhaustive store of cosmetic and not-so-cosmetic upgrades. Rather than getting some in-your-face player tag onscreen when you get killed, you get someone’s customized monstrosity. An electric blue cactus. A paint-spattered rainbow mottled zombie with a crossbow. Hey, how’d he get a crossbow? Why is that pea shooter wearing a diving mask? I guess if that’s all I got from the sticker packets for my pea shooter, I’d equip it too. How many of these are intentional choices and how many are the tyranny of the sticker packet random number generator?

PvZ_GW_2

Technically, there are, uh, issues. I’ve gotten several hard locks on my 360, as well as weird issues where the screen shake effect kicks in permanently. Which is pretty inconvenient on the eighth wave of a ten-wave survival mode. The textures take far too long to load when I spawn. Hasn’t the Xbox 360 solved these problems by now, particularly in a game this visually modest? The bigger problem is that the framerate is godawful, which seems like a networking issue, since it’s much more pronounced during games with more players. I suspect I’m being dropped into servers with terrible pings. I’ve even joined games where I literally can’t move because the warping is so bad. Here’s me, connected to EA servers.

But it’s a testament to Garden Warfare’s solid shootering that I’m willing to tolerate these issues. Maybe it’s smoother and more stable on a next-gen system. Maybe I should have held out for a PC version. Maybe I should be playing Titanfall instead. Or maybe I’ll just play a few more matches and then see what’s in the next sticker packet. Who am I kidding? I don’t care about the sticker packets. Plants vs Zombies Garden Warfare is good enough that I’m playing for the actual game.