Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare is treading a fine line between action and tower defense

Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare is treading a fine line between action and tower defense

There's something magical about the Plants vs. Zombies brand that casts a spell on certain types of people. When I was sitting in the behind-closed-doors room inside EA's booth getting a closer look at the Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare gameplay shown at Microsoft's press conference, the woman sitting next to me was cackling wildly.

Zombie gets eaten by a Chomper? She chuckles. Crazy Dave talks some nonsense? Hearty belly laugh. Disco Zombie shows up in bellbottoms and a crew of back-up dancers? Full-blown hysterical laughter that reduces her to tears.

So that's the first bit of good news about Garden Warfare. It hasn't lost its touch in terms of communicating that special type of levity and humor.

Friendly violence

Just about everything else has changed though, and somewhat surprisingly it all seems like a good time, even if there's the feeling that you've seen this type of gameplay many times before.

It's straying away from its tower defense roots to take on the 3D action genre with a game style that is a lot like horde mode: you take control of one of the titular plants and use a collection of weapons and abilities to fight off the oncoming zombie packs. It's not being billed as a tower defense game, but it bears a lot in common with that genre.

It's also cooperative, so you can play with up to three other players, which is a nice touch. It's great to think that I might finally be able to play a cooperative action game with my nephew without either me being bored playing a LEGO game, or him being scarred for life by Gears of War.

Plants vs. Zombies is one of an exceedingly small group of games series that have a powerful cross-generational appeal. Garden Warfare is looking like it will take that even further with a game that can not only be enjoyed by multiple generations, but also played together cooperatively, which is something very few other games can boast.

The only potential trouble with the game is that the only level shown looks quite bland. You're mostly running around in the brown trenches in front of the house which doesn't quite mesh with PvZ's sense of over-the-top fun. It makes sense given that the original game's levels were nothing more than lawns and a roof, but level design is much more important in a 3D game and I'm hoping other levels bring more interesting visuals and mechanics into the fold.

Tower defense or action?

When I talked to an EA employee after viewing the Garden Warfare demonstration, he was adamant that this was not a tower defense game. Which was strange, because the demo had given me the impression that this was actually something like Sanctum: a tower defense game with shooter elements viewed from the perspective of an avatar. Even the game's Wikipedia page already describes it as a tower defense game.

There are pots placed throughout the level where you can place plants like pea shooters to help you deal with waves of enemies, a static defense unit typical of the genre.

“There are a lot of elements of tower defense we tried to retain from the original game,” said our demo presenter. “It's not tower defense in 3D, it's absolutely not. This is an action game with tower defense elements. Which is primarily what we're trying to do, is make sure to infuse the spirit of what the original tower defense game was, but in ways that make sense for an action game.”

It's definitely a fine line to tread. What's the difference between a tower defense game, and a horde mode action game where you can place defensive turrets? It's a small difference. It seems like EA is sort of running away from the term “tower defense.”

So sure, the game is funny and the characters are beautiful, but if the core horde mode/tower defense gameplay isn't significantly innovated upon then will it still be fun? Or will it be a horde mode reskin with some unique character abilities?

Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare is being developed for Xbox One and PlayStation 4, and is planned for release in Spring 2014.