From the earliest days of Spacewar and Pong, local multiplayer has been a videogame staple. When I was growing up, I played Mario with my friends; and later, Goldeneye, Street Fighter, and Smash Bros. But whether due to the rise of online play or increased technical hurdles, local multiplayer has suffered of late, especially among shooters.
Plants vs. Zombies Garden Warfare is thankfully an exception to that rule... so long as you play it on the Xbox One. As it turns out, one of the key differences between the previous generation and next-generation versions -- aside from a higher framerate -- is decidedly old school. Garden Warfare offers splitscreen local co-op for its version of Horde Mode, which proves to be an entertaining alternative to the standard deathmatch and rush modes available online.
If you've ever played another Horde Mode before, the formula should be familiar -- successive waves of CPU-controlled zombies attack a fortified garden, which is defended by player-controlled plants. From time to time, a slot machine will appear, which can either reward players with coins or inflict powerful boss zombies on them. More often than not, it's the slot machine that will end a run, since it can be quite difficult for two players to handle multiple super zombies who can destroy a garden in a couple shots.
The plants have a few advantages of their own though. Garden Warfare has its own "Commander Mode" of sorts -- a smartglass-enabled feature that lets a third players influence the action using a tablet. Operating from a birds-eye view of the map, they can drop bombs on attacking zombies, plant healing stations, revive fallen comrades on the battlefield, and place signal stations to keep track of incoming zombies. Though not essential, it certainly makes it easier to get Wave 15 or so, which is when things start to get really hairy. And if nothing else, it's a fun way to get a third person involved.
Interestingly, Garden Warfare's Horde Mode is probably the closest to capturing the spirit of the original tower defense game. The other modes are enjoyable in their own right, but the side of plants running around battling zombies never ceases to be weird; after all, the point of the original game was that plants were immobile and thus made great towers. In the Horde Mode, zombies attack and plants defend with the help of various emplacements like flamethrowers and repeaters, which is much more in keeping with the PvZ universe.
In the end, I actually expect it will be the mode that I play least, because I prefer more traditional competitive multiplayer. However, I'm still glad to see PopCap investing in local multiplayer for people who do enjoy playing together -- couples, friends, college roommates, siblings... the list goes on. It feels strange to say this, but even with the rise of social features and online multiplayer, gaming has become an oddly solitary experience in the world of AAA games. Technical issues and limited resources have combined to make a former staple expendable, which is a shame.
That it has been included in Garden Warfare is a commendable decision on PopCap's part, since it would have been just as easy to leave it out and cut the price by $10 or so (Garden Warfare will be $40 when it launches). Worse, they could have split it out of the game and made it an optional piece of downloadable content. So far though, PopCap has refrained from larding up Garden Warfare with microtransactions -- even with an obvious avenue for monetization target in the form of unlockable card packs. Future updates will also be free, which ought to keep the playerbase relatively unified, potentially extending Garden Warfare's lifespan well beyond the usuall sell by date of a multiplayer-only downloadable shooter.
For a company known more for casual games like Peggle, PopCap seems to know exactly what they need to make a shooter a long-term success. With plenty of modes, an emphasis on free ongoing content, and large amount of unlockable content, it appears that Garden Warfare is well on its way to being a winner. Local multiplayer is the cherry on top of the sundae -- the feature that will get roommates booting up their Xbox One at 3 AM to play Horde Mode while swapping a bottle of vodka.
It's the sort of feature that's been sorely missed in AAA shooters of late, so it's good to see it in a game like Garden Warfare. Here's hoping it's the beginning of a trend.