The (unfair) narrative about Star Wars: Battlefront is that it’s a multiplayer-only shooter, like the Battlefield series by the same developer. Which is news to me. I’ve played plenty of single-player and plenty of local splitscreen with a friend. One of the hooks for me is that when I beat a map on the hard difficulty setting, I’m no longer limited to the designated loadouts. Now I can bring in whatever equipment I want to help me beat it on expert. Here I come with my choice of thermal detonators, jump packs, personal shields, and bowcasters. It’s a great incentive to play the higher difficulty levels and a perfectly cromulent single-player and splitscreen pursuit.
Wait. Hold on just a minute. I’ve beaten Hoth on hard. But before I can go charging back in with thermal detonators, jump packs, personal shields, and bowcasters, it turns out I have to unlock them first by leveling up. The thermal detonator is easy. I unlocked that so long ago maybe I didn’t even have to unlock it. But the bowcaster? I can’t use that until I’m level 32. And that will never — I repeat, never — happen until I’ve spent many hours playing online against random strangers.
Okay, maybe it’s multiplayer only, after all.
After the jump, hell and shooters are other people.
The conventional wisdom about shooters is that they need a progression system to pull me in and forward. They must hook me up to a drip feed of steady rewards. They must frequently reveal to me more toys. I must be tantalized by new goals. This conventional wisdom is mere psychology, learned from MMOs and action RPGs like Diablo. Game design has learned perhaps more than anything else that the grind is the path into and through gameplay. As a helpful side effect, the grind is also a groove to keep us from straying to other games. Equal parts psychology and good business sense, and it doesn’t even have to be a dirty word. If you like a game, grinding is just another word for playing. The only bad grind is the grind in a game you don’t enjoy.
This has been the thinking in shooters for many years. It’s been a long time since a shooter just dropped a bunch of guns into your lap and let you go to town. Games as diverse as Call of Duty, the Battlefield series, Team Fortress, Destiny, Titanfall, Killzone, Crysis, and Halo lean heavily on the concept of persistent advancement. The grind. Progression. Leveling up. Unlocking. Earning. Reward drip feeds. Even the blissfully pure Painkiller had an advancement system with unlockable powers and collectibles. Progression is the bedrock underneath moment-to-moment gameplay, at once foundation, and context. It is the sine qua non. That’s right, I just used Latin. It’s that big a deal.
But somewhere along the the line, this simple truth — one that I take no issue with, by the way — acquired a corollary. It had to be fair. All players must share the grind with each other, in the same official places, at the same basic rates (micropaid boosts excepted), online, and only in a competitive environment. The grind cannot stray too far or wide. The grind must be carefully controlled, open to monetization, balanced, tuned, unavoidable. You cannot go around the grind. You must work through the grind on their terms, because otherwise you might try to “get away with something”. You might get “an unfair advantage”, which is an advantage you didn’t pay for.
So if I want to bring a bowcaster to Hoth, which means getting to level 32, I can’t do it by simply playing with my friend, and I certainly can’t do it by playing against the AI. I can’t earn levels that way. I can’t even earn any meaningful ingame credits that way. That would be silly. Because Electronic Arts put the gameplay grind, the drip feed of rewards, the real hook to draw me in and hold me tight against the temptations of Destiny, Call of Duty, or Team Fortress in a very specific place: online, on their servers, mostly with people I don’t know.
Because if I were allowed to advance levels and unlock equipment and earn resources by playing offline, by just sitting alone or with another friend next to me on the couch, how would that be fair to the people playing online? How would it be fair if they had to play online matches to get that bowcaster, but all I had to do was fight bots or goof around with my friend? How would it be fair if I played a hundred games against easy bots and they had to play those same hundred games against online players who are mostly very good?
This thinking is a vestige of the gameplay model that inspired grinding. It is one of the many aspects of videogaming that has been harmed by MMOs. Because even if I don’t want to play World of Warcraft with other people — and it took the genre a while to figure out that some (most?) people want to solo their MMOs — I have to play on the same servers as other people. That’s the business model. I’m paying a monthly fee to log into those servers. I’m paying for the servers to be maintained. I’m paying so that new content will be added. The model would fall apart if I could just install the client on my own computer, give myself a million hit points, triple the loot drop in Molten Core, and them farm it all day. Why would I then bother paying a monthly fee just to do it on some official server?
At some point, for some reason, progression was intertwined with official online servers. That’s how it has been adopted by shooters, which used to be fantastic playgrounds for you to enjoy with your friends however you liked, on some weird server with the gravity turned off and the ammo infinite, on a LAN, splitscreen with your friends, as a compstomp against swarms of bots at the lowest AI level with nothing but pistols, as your choice of game mode regardless of the fact that most people online just play deathmatches because anything else is too complicated. Support for more options has been slowly making its way back into some shooters, but with limitations. The last few Calls of Duty have done a great job providing bot support and splitscreen multiplayer, but these features are entirely divorced from the advancement that makes the series so effective. Because how would it be fair if I unlocked the purple flame skin for my Steyr AUG by headshotting bots when someone else had to headshot other players? How would it be fair if I prestige ranked without spending hours upon hours playing alongside people who got really good by playing against the other people online, the people who call each other faggots and leave their mics open with the TV in the background; the people with names like JaptasticNigsniper and somethingsomething420 and schooledyan00b and DarthPWNage; the 12-year-olds who have nothing better to do than play Call of Duty because their parents couldn’t care less about whether they’re doing their homework since that’s the teacher’s job? It’s not much of a prestige rank if I didn’t prevail against — or at least endure — all of this online cruft. Leveling up doesn’t count when it’s against bots, or against a friends-only custom match, or — heaven forfend! — against someone on the same couch. I mean, c’mon, I might set up a 1v1 match against myself and let myself win every time. How would that be fair to everyone else if I get experience points for that? How would the prestige of a prestige rank ever retain its prestige? How would the level number next to a player’s name have any value if some players had to work harder or longer or actually be better at the game to get that number?
Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare 2 is a complete, uncompromising, and long overdue rejection of those ideas. It will let you participate in every facet of its progression in whatever way you want. It does not intend to drive you online. It will not be stingy if you only play with your friends. It will let you and a splitscreen buddy play however you want with every single reward, incentive, goal, unlockable, and leveling trick fully applied, with the full pull of persistence and progression intact. Alongside the usual online options, it will let you do whatever you want, however you want, with whomever you want, and it will fully recognize your progress the same way it recognizes everyone else’s progress. Anything you can do with other players you can do with bots, and no penalty will be applied. It is, among contemporary shooters published by big publishers, unprecedented. And it’s about damn time.
It even rejects the way the previous Garden Warfare worked. That game’s splitscreen support was so limited that it felt begrudging. It actually punished you by reducing substantially how much money you made playing, yet it still cost the same to plant seeds to help with your defenses. A splitscreen game was a money sink, a mode with a hefty disincentive tax. And of course it didn’t apply anything you did to the character progression because the character progression was for online play.
Something happened since then. It’s as if someone at Electronic Arts woke up one morning and realized there was no good reason to shunt people online. After all, he might have thought, the games are online only, so we’re covered on the whole piracy front. Why not let our customers play however they want to play? Why not let them tussle freely with friends or even bots? It’s as if that person hurlted into work, called a big meeting, and declared, “Hey, let’s make sure everything you can earn, unlock, or upgrade can be earned, unlocked, or upgraded no matter how you play!” And the greatness of Garden Warfare 2 was born.
Not that it didn’t already have its share of greatness, waiting to be even greater once it busted out of the limitations of those last-gen console systems. The first Garden Warfare laid a rock solid foundation for a great sequel. Gameplay, charm, variety, map design, gameplay modes, customization, humor, accessibility, a healthy playerbase. It had it all. Garden Warfare 2 has all that and then some. It opens in a hub you can explore and build up, almost like an arena-sized open world. The plants on one side, the zombies on the other, and an ongoing battle in the middle. Come on in, the warfare’s fine! Or let the single-player quests take you where they will. Suffice to say there are secrets and treasures out here.
Each side gets three new classes, although some of them flatten the asymmetry between the plants and zombies. The zombie pirate’s parrot does everything the cactus’ garlic did. The zombie superhero is their melee answer to the plants’ Chomper. But for whatever asymmetry is flattened, a little more is introduced. The imp, rose, and citron don’t have any counterparts on the other team.
Daily quests are a great way to guide the aimless through the game, especially when you appreciate its flexibility. There are tabs for plant quests, zombie quests, and multiplayer quests. Stuff like “kill five plants”, “play three rounds of garden op”, “kill ten zombie soldiers in a multiplayer match”. Oh great, you might think, I guess I have to go online if I want to do that multiplayer quest. Nope. When you go into the multiplayer portal, you can play multiplayer online, splitscreen, or singleplayer. Yep, singleplayer multiplayer. Or, as it’s been known ever since Unreal, a botmatch. So if you have a multiplayer quest to kill ten zombie soldiers, just play the singleplayer multiplayer. Just play against bots. Furthermore, if you’re keen to just knock out the daily quests — if that’s the grind you want to grind — set up your games accordingly. Start a singleplayer multiplayer game with all zombie soldiers on the zombie side. You’ll unlock the quest and all its rewards as surely as someone who spent all night playing online.
As with the previous games, the card packs feed into collectibles and consumables wonderfully, and to EA’s credit, there is still no realworld money involved. The coins you spend are the coins you earn while playing. And now that the coin economy is rebalanced to encourage you to play however you want, to be earned and spent no matter how you’re playing, you can use your seeds freely to plant defenses and grow attackers. One of the great pleasures is discovering how many ways the game wants to let you find more coins.
The new variety abounds. Now zombies can play defense and plants can attack. A set of single-player quests for each faction encourages exploration of the open-world hub (these quests are the one rare instance of a restrictive player count; you can only play these quests alone). Play against your friends. Play with them. Online and locally, alone or with strangers, with one friend or with a group of friends, there is no shooter as accommodating as Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare 2. This is my game. It does not belong to someone else’s conception of fair play, of narrow restrictive grinding, of recognizing skill or merit or enforcing something so ridiculous as fairness among people who want different things from their games. Here is a great shooter you can play the way you want, enjoying all its benefits in full alongside everyone else. Now that Electronic Arts has arrived here, it’s time for everyone else to catch up.