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Bringing local co-op play to Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare

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Two modes of Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare, the upcoming third-person shooter from PopCap Games, are exclusive to its Xbox One version: the tablet-based Boss Mode, which works via SmartGlass, and split-screen co-op. The latter mode, according to PopCap, was a relatively late addition. But based on our hands-on time with split-screen co-op, and it could end up being the standout mode in the game.

"Split-screen [co-op] was never in our original plan," said Gary Clay, senior franchise marketing manager for Plants vs. Zombies, in an interview with Polygon this week. "And honestly, we got halfway into the dev cycle and we went, 'You know, we want a mode like this. We miss this type of gaming, and we really need to get it in.' And so the team really cranked on it, and got it up and running."

It wasn't that simple, though. Clay told Polygon that local co-op isn't exclusive to the Xbox One version of Garden Warfare because of some arrangement with Microsoft. Instead, he explained, PopCap is a relatively small team for a game of this scope — about 40 developers are working on Garden Warfare — and it was the studio's first experience with EA DICE's Frostbite 3 engine, which powers games like Battlefield 4 and Need for Speed Rivals.

"We had to really crank to work with DICE to get Frostbite 3 to work in split-screen, and maintain the visual fidelity we wanted from the game," said Clay. "But unfortunately, in our dev cycle, it wasn't possible to get it to the frame rate that we wanted on Xbox 360."

Garden Warfare runs at 60 frames per second on Xbox One, while the split-screen mode runs at 30 frames per second. Clay didn't dismiss the possibility of eventually adding local co-op to the Xbox 360 version of the game, especially since PopCap managed to implement it on Xbox One when it wasn't originally in the cards.

"Nothing is impossible. It would take our engineers a significant amount of time to make it work, but we're always listening to the community," said Clay.

Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare, which launches Feb. 25 on Xbox 360 and Xbox One, and on Windows PC at some point afterward, has something for players who prefer to take their cooperative play online.

The four-player online version of the co-op Garden Ops mode is a finite experience: It throws 10 increasingly difficult groups of zombies at you, followed by a unique final wave. In split-screen play, the zombie waves are unlimited; you keep playing until you and your teammate die, or until the zombies destroy the garden you're trying to protect.

PopCap has equipped Garden Warfare with a deep character customization and upgrade system offering a breadth of content. You earn coins for everything you do, whether it's basic competitive actions like killing zombies or cooperative activities such as healing a friend, and then you spend those coins on sticker packs in the in-game store. As the cost of a pack increases, so too do your chances of finding rare stickers within.

Stickers unlock a wide variety of items, such as weapon upgrades and cosmetic accessories for characters, as well as the characters themselves — or rather, the five parts that are needed to unlock each new character variant. All the customizations fit with the Plants vs. Zombies series' typical goofy, absurd tone. For example, we were able to put twin snakes on our Chomper. You'll also find replenishment for your stable of reinforcements, the plants you put down in Garden Ops to help defend your garden.

Currently, sticker packs range from 1,500 coins (a pack containing only reinforcements) to 50,000 coins (a pack containing nothing but character parts), although we were told that those prices may change. According to PopCap, players can expect to rack up 15,000 to 18,000 coins, on average, per hour of gameplay, and those numbers don't include jackpots and other bonuses. PopCap will be selling coin packs for real money, but they're completely optional, and Clay told us that nothing about Garden Warfare's microtransactions is pay-to-win.

"This is pretty much identical to how the Mass Effect 3 multiplayer works"

"Everything is unlockable through gameplay. In fact, some of the things are only unlockable through gameplay," said Clay, referring to certain upgrades that are tied to ranks in the game's progression system. "This is pretty much identical to how the Mass Effect 3 multiplayer works."

We entered a two-player Garden Ops match and first had to select a plant to play as. Because Clay was providing support in Boss Mode to us and the other person we were playing with, we chose an offensive class, the standard Chomper.

Once we appeared on Sharkbite Shores, a seaside map with a pier leading to our garden, we began to run around and lay down reinforcement plants. Each map offers set locations where you'll find glowing golden pots in which to plant your reinforcements, and the options available to you come down to the stickers you've collected. There are basic choices like the Pea Cannon (and its stronger brethren, the Repeater and Gatling Pea, which fire more peas at once), and more exotic plants such as the Snap Dragon, which breathes fire that does damage over time.

Since there's such variety in what the reinforcement plants can do, it's important to arrange them strategically. The Scaredy Shroom has the best ranged attack of all the plants, but when zombies get close, it turns away in fear and stops firing, so you wouldn't want to put that one near the garden. On the other hand, Bonk Choy doesn't have a lot of health but is deadly at close range, so it works best by the garden.

Meanwhile, Clay helped us out in Boss Mode. The person in Boss Mode plays a resource management game: They collect sun by tapping on the device's touchscreen, and spend sun on four different support actions. In the game world, the Boss takes the form of Crazy Dave flying above the map in his RV.

The Coconut Spotting Station works like a stationary version of the UAV from Call of Duty — it'll alert the co-op players to the locations of zombies. The Twin Heal Flower is twice as effective as the regular Heal Flower. The Boss can deliver death from above with the Cherry Bomb Strike. And the assist that costs the most sun is the Revive Rainbow, which revives a downed player when their teammate can't get to them in time.

Crazy Dave's RV can be shot down in the competitive team games

"If you've played any PvZ game before now, you're going to be able to jump into Boss Mode very, very easily," said Clay. It seems like a great way for people who love Plants vs. Zombies games but aren't good at shooters to play Garden Warfare. The Boss can play in any of the game's three modes, and when it's used in the 24-player competitive team matches, it can be shot down.

We were able to make it through multiple waves of zombies in our relatively brief time with Garden Warfare, and Clay's Boss Mode assists certainly made a big difference. It's nice that the split-screen mode isn't just a two-player local version of the four-player online mode; it's actually a different experience because the waves are unlimited. When you have a third person helping out and you're all working together, spotting zombies and suggesting the best choices for potted plants, Garden Warfare can be as fun as any local co-op game.