How do you make a sequel? You do what Garden Warfare 2 does.
Developer: Popcap Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One
Released: February 23, 2016
UPDATE: Contains microtransactions as of March 3, 2016
Plants Vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare was a cute concept that had a ton of potential going for it, but a lack of content and a design smacking of free-to-play inspirations undermined the entire thing. Something that could have been brilliant was instead a disappointing effort, and I expected that’s where the experiment would end.
Two years later, and Popcap Games has returned with Garden Warfare 2, a sequel that surprises not just by existing, but by being vastly superior to its predecessor in every conceivable way.
The core premise remains the same – Garden Warfare 2 is a third-person shooter in which the titular plants and zombies square off with an eclectic variety of weapons and classes. The roster of available classes has been expanded from four to ten, and each class has variant characters with unique skills – providing they’re found in the randomized unlock system.
Joining the Peashooter, Sunflower, Chomper and Cactus is the Rose, Citron, and Kernal Corn.
The Rose boasts homing attacks, backed up by the ability to slow down enemies or transform them into goats. The Citron is a heavy hitter, able to curl into a ball, erect a shield, and fire off a devastating laser beam. Kernal is more vulnerable but highly damaging, firing rapid shots of corn, energy blasts, and sweeping air strikes.
On the zombie side, we have some fresh and exotic characters to add flavor to what once was a fairly pedestrian set of classes.
Superbrainz is a heroic front-liner, predominantly using punches and super kicks, but able to fire off energy weapons should the need arise. The Imp has a tiny amount of HP but makes up for it with maneuverability, blanket fire, and the power to summon a large mech after a certain period of time.
Perhaps the weirdest new character is Captain Deadbeard, a pirate who boasts a turret mode, can become a walking bomb by wearing a TNT barrel, and is able to summon a parrot to do his fighting for him from the air.
The existing classes get a few new tricks as well, with some of the weaker characters boasting overhauled skills and a better sense of specialization.
GW2‘s new classes bolster the existing roster to give a huge amount of choice. As someone who never cared for a single zombie character in the original game, I’ve found something to enjoy with all three of the new, more bizarre choices.
Each class has variant characters to be unlocked, and each character is individually leveled, upgraded, and customized. Maxed-out characters can be promoted, resetting their levels but opening more opportunities for upgrades.
The returning sticker system has been overhauled to make unlocks more fun and feel less like an introductory system for microtransactions. The coins used to buy sticker packs are liberally given out and it takes only a few matches to be able to afford the most expensive pack – the one guaranteeing a new unlocked character.
Other packs provide character and weapon skins or consumable items such as AI-controlled minions and turrets, each with their own degrees of rarity.
In Garden Warfare, the sticker system was a slog to get through, and later turned out to be designed for future premium currencies. Here, unlocking stuff is actually fun thanks to the regularity of one’s ability to purchase packs. There’s a lot of fun to be had simply in buying up stickers to see what strange new bits of kit one could uncover.
Gameplay itself has been considerably upgraded. An all-new story mode exists, housed in a small open-world map called the Backyard Battleground. Here, players can undertake missions for either the plants or zombies, and while the single-player content is a little shallow, there’s plenty of it and it’s enjoyable to explore the Backyard with its constant scraps between AI-controlled combatants.
Garden Ops returns from the previous installment, joined by a zombie alternative in Graveyard Ops. Whichever side you choose, the core is the same – it’s a cooperative wave-based mode as up to four players defend a central location from attack by the undead or the flora. It’s a nice little mode and it can get utterly brutal on harder difficulties. Here’s where consumable items are most used, since using stickers to generate plant or robot buddies will help thin out the waves.
Naturally, PvP is the main event, with a host of standard battle modes that support up to 24 players. Here’s where the game’s improvements really take shape, as what once was a fairly repetitive and mundane shooter has become a knock-down drag-out scrum of chaos.
With bizarre ammunition flying everywhere, weird special skills firing off, and a hectic mess of both ranged and melee fighters, large online fights have become total anarchy – and it works.
What could have been a sloppy and confusing mess is instead a hugely entertaining and confusing mess. Each character feels overpowered to the point where none of them seem broken. With the exception of the Rose, which is looking set to eat a debuff, each class is balanced by simply being unique and ridiculously imbalanced in the right situation.
It’s difficult to do chaos without looking slapdash, and Garden Warfare 2 nails it. The first game wasn’t polished or fluid enough to make its turbulent combat work, but with bigger maps, a significant amount of extra polish, and a speed that the last game lacked, this sequel does with style what Popcap never quite managed last time.
In addition to all this, players can undertake daily challenges, bring friends along for almost every mode, and play everything solo should they so desire.
With its colorful environments and cartoon aesthetic, Garden Warfare 2 is a gorgeous game. Character designs are as detailed as they are darling, each one lovingly animated and constantly making its own silly sounds. Though I find the garbled speech of NPC characters utterly annoying, the player character noises are highly amusing, backed by a fantastic and catchy soundtrack.
In a world where “AAA” videogames offer less content at launch for the same amount of money, push season passes and microtransactions, and generally stick to the safest creative premises, Garden Warfare 2 is a surprising breath of fresh air from Electronic Arts’ camp. It’s bursting at the seams with stuff to do, and the way in which players can seamless jump from one mode to another and instantly transition from plant stuff to zombie stuff makes it all fantastically convenient to enjoy.
Most importantly, it’s complete. This is a game that easily offers hours of well-crafted enjoyment for its entry price, with nothing but incentives to keep playing, uncovering secrets, and securing rewards.
Plants Vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare 2 is a masterclass in sequel creation, an example of what happens when you listen to criticism and strive to create a fun game more than an addictive business model, something people want to spend time and money on as opposed to something they feel compelled to do.
Fast becoming my favorite online shooter of choice, Garden Warfare 2 is lovable, preposterous, and completely rampageous. Never thought I’d say this about an EA game, but it’s everything a modern premium experience should be.