Maybe it’s because the holidays are here and all of the peace, love, and goodwill is rubbing off, but I’ve found myself having a lot more fun with Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare than any of the other, bloodier games I’ve been playing lately. This surprised me because, well, PopCap Games’ take on the multiplayer shooter didn’t initially seem like a very good idea. As great as the original versions of Plants vs. Zombies are, learning that the series was going to branch out from the tower defence genre to a foray in online third-person shooting wasn’t very exciting. It all seemed, at first, like a bit of a cash grab: develop a quick, lightweight multiplayer combat game, slap Plants vs. Zombies visuals on it, and hope to make some money from brand recognition.
But Garden Warfare is actually pretty great! The characters’ unique combat abilities complement each other well, making for balanced matches where playing any of the roles is enjoyable and worthwhile; the visuals are refreshingly colourful; the music is bouncy and the sound effects are appropriately slapstick and cartoon-y. And, most importantly, the lack of “realistic” gun violence in its battles make for a welcome change of pace.
Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare’s name is an obvious play on Call of Duty’s massively popular Modern Warfare series. The joke, of course, comes from PopCap’s take on the competitive shooter substituting battle-hardened soldiers and accurately rendered assault rifles for anthropomorphized plants and cartoon zombies who attack one another with toilet plungers, weaponized peas, and beams of sunlight. Rather than fight over control of a warhead, one mode sees the two sides rushing to secure an enormous green cucumber: the “tactical cuke.” There’s nothing especially remarkable about this light-hearted tone when taken on its own merits. It’s only in contrast to the kind of multiplayer shooters we’re used to playing that Garden Warfare stands out.
The repetitive cycle of gunning down opponents in Call of Duty, Battlefield, or any of the shooters inspired by them can feel a bit disconcerting if you allow yourself time to reflect. Those are virtual humans who take virtual wounds, after all. Even though we abstract the violence of these games, aware that digital representations of people aren’t actual people, there’s still something slightly uncomfortable about turning war into a sport. Single-player campaigns in titles like Advanced Warfare may take steps toward coupling the gameplay with attempts at discussing what war means to our society, but in multiplayer, where the narrative is replaced with never-ending firefights, any level of commentary disappears. This is a problem that will probably get a lot worse before it improves. The Last of Us, for example, is a game that uses violence not to provide vicarious thrills, but as a key thematic element of its story. Outside of its (great) story, though, players can purchase extra gory kill animations to use in its multiplayer mode. This is troubling. Despite there being action games that display some level of thought about how violence is portrayed in their single-player stories, multiplayer slaughter is presented free of context.
Developers dissatisfied with the status quo will have to find new ways to tackle this problem. For now, though, players who want an alternative to the typical online shooter’s bloodshed have few options. This is what makes Garden Warfare an interesting game. What PopCap has done is dull the edge of the senseless violence that characterizes multiplayer shooters by replacing bullets with plant matter. Sure, the military style objectives common to the genre may remain—the plant and zombie teams still engage in territory control, bomb planting/defusing, and team death match modes—but each fight is between silly-looking cartoons. Rather than take a competitor out with a brain-exploding headshot, a zombie will tackle a plant until it lies motionless. The game is still violent in that it focuses on combat, but that violence is portrayed in a manner that’s hard to find disturbing.
Garden Warfare isn’t going to revolutionize multiplayer shooters—the silliness of its tone and inherent absurdity of its character designs likely puts off players looking for a more “serious” game. All the same, it’s a nice change of pace that shows that the genre can still work without having to feature the kind of violence that can make the 100
round of Battlefield feel slightly uncomfortable. PopCap has created a game that is as satisfying to play as many of the biggest, bloodiest shooters around and it’s done it without simplifying the gameplay systems that make those games fun. For a medium seemingly unable to provide action experiences not soaked in gore, Garden Warfare is an example worth paying attention to.
Make sure to check out CGM Plays: Plants Vs, Zombies: Garden Warfare.