Almost exactly two years ago, Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare burst onto the scene and delivered a bright, colorful, pun-filled third-person shooter based on the highly popular tower defense game franchise. It was surprisingly entertaining to play, and I ended up really enjoying what it had to offer. It turned out to be quite a hit, and within its first 18 months, more than eight million players sampled its charms.
Its secret sauce was its accessibility. Despite it being a fiercely competitive, high-body-count multiplayer shooter, Garden Warfare was designed to be easy enough to play so that gamers of all skill levels could enjoy it.
One of the design aspects that was key to Garden Warfare's success as an approachable shooter was the cadence of its action: It's slower and more forgiving than games like Call of Duty and Battlefront. Indeed, it's almost the antithesis of both those games that essentially reward the skilled and punish the inept. Garden Warfare's characters have bigger health pools than those in the likes of CoD and Battlefront, and offensive powers are relatively modest, ensuring that character survivability is reasonably high. Sure, you can still get wasted in short order if you run at the enemy without using cover, but assuming you have a modicum of good sense, it's possible for players with even poor skills to get into the thick of the action and make a contribution to their team's efforts before getting shot down.
Another factor that's intrinsic to keeping Garden Warfare's design simple is uncomplicated characters. There are four classes per team: A basic assault character, a healer, a close-quarter combat specialist, and a sniper. Each features a default weapon, and three special moves that are on cooldowns. These special moves vary from character to character, but include options like throwing a grenade, firing a limited-ammo power weapon, casting healing spells, fast traveling, and executing an extra high jump.
Finally, the game is also straightforward to play, and launched with just four multiplayer modes. The main headline mode, Gardens and Graveyards, takes its cues from the game's tower defense origins and pits teams of plants and zombies against one another in a battle over nodes. The zombies have to capture them by standing in their presence long enough to gain control of them, whereupon the action moves to the next node, and so on until the final objective is taken, winning them the game. The plants' aim is to prevent the zombies from capturing the nodes: Each node has a timer, and if the zombies can't capture a node by the time the countdown expires, the plants are declared the victors.
The other three original modes are Team Vanquish (a first-to-50 team deathmatch game), Vanquish Confirmed (a first-to-50 deathmatch variant that's similar to Call of Duty's Kill Confirmed, where you have to collect orbs from dispatched opponents to get credit for a kill), and Gnome Bomb (a version of Obliteration from Battlefield 4 where players attempt to detonate a bomb at one of their opponent's three bases). A capture the flag game called Taco Bandits, and Suburbination, a version of Domination, were added later as free updates.
There was one other mode: Garden Ops. This lets up to four players take control of plants with the objective of defending a garden from increasingly challenging attack waves of AI zombies. There are ten waves to tackle in all, with the fifth and final waves taking the form of bosses. Once all enemies are dispatched, players must rush to a landing zone to finish the level.
At this point, you might be wondering why I'm spending so much time talking about the original Garden Warfare. That's because Garden Warfare 2 features everything I've already talked about (apart from Taco Bandits), and builds on it with six new characters and all-new single-player content. The latter is something that was missing from the original game – there were co-op modes, but no real single-player aspect to the game at all. Garden Warfare 2 changes that up by adding single-player quests, and AI options for every game mode. Yes. You read that right – it's now possible to play whichever mode you want with just AI allies and opponents. That should be a welcome feature for new players, who now get the chance to practice against AI opponents before being thrust into multiplayer proper.
But the big new addition to Garden Warfare 2 is the Backyard Battleground. This hub is essentially the player's home, and it features three expansive areas – one for zombies and one for plants, and a large no-man's land that separates them. This is basically an area for the player to explore, have fun, and showcase their stats. The zombie and plant zones are basically the same in terms of what they offer – there's a portal that enables the player to set up or join existing multiplayer games, a stats room where unlocked characters and personal leaderboards are displayed, a daily quest board that awards stars for completing them, and vending machines where you can buy stickers with currency earned by doing… well… pretty much anything in the game.
There are single-player quest lines for both plants and zombies, and going through them is a good introduction to the game. Both lines of quests feature Garden Ops-style battles against waves of AI opponents, bosses to take out, and items to find. I spent the better part of a weekend working my way through them, and while I wasn't exactly blown away by their content – some of it felt rather repetitive – it was entertaining enough to keep me busy. Basically, it's a way of earning additional cash on your own time, as well as unlocking some cosmetic items for your characters to wear in multiplayer.
Single-player quests aren't the only activities on offer in the Backyard Battleground. There are hidden items to find, chests and a shooting gallery to unlock with the stars you win from completing daily quests, and there's also an endless fight mode that's activated in the center of no-man's land. I set this off a few times to see what happens, but it seems that it just summons a stream of enemies to dispatch, which become increasingly more challenging to take down over time. I don't think it has an end point – it's just another way of earning money and experience, and indeed slowly leveling up characters without having to delve into the multiplayer aspect of the game.
While tooling around in the single-player mode was reasonably entertaining, I think that the multiplayer side of the game is still very much Garden Warfare 2's main draw. This time out, three new characters have been added to each team. On the plant side, Citron, Rose and Kernel Corn are the new archetypes. Citron is a maneuverable long-range specialist that has a beam weapon, Kernel Corn has strong burst fire, and Rose adds crowd control spells to the plant repertoire. For the zombies, there's the Imp, Captain Deadbeard, and Super Brainz. The Imp is a fast-moving character who's quite weak… until he transforms into the powerful Z-Mech, Captain Deadbeard has both long and short-range shooting capabilities, and Super Brainz is a melee class character.
All the new characters feel well thought through, and each offers their own unique playstyle. I particularly like Captain Deadbeard's long and short-range combo weapon. It has a slow rate of fire, but delivers quite substantial damage, meaning that if you aim well, it can take out enemies quite quickly. Citron is also an interesting character. He can roll up into a ball and move rapidly, which makes him invaluable in games when you want to get back into the action quickly – or put pressure on capturing a node.
Like in the original Garden Warfare, all new characters have variants, complete with tweaked special moves and abilities, and they're unlocked in the same way that they were before – by buying packs of stickers from vending machines. Some sticker packs contain parts of characters, and when you collect a complete set, that character is unlocked. Additionally, you're able to import your original Garden Warfare sticker collection into Garden Warfare 2, assuming you have one, meaning any characters you unlocked before will appear in the new game. That's definitely a neat feature, and one that I really appreciated, because I have a fairly decent collection of characters from the original game.
In some respects, porting across your original save from Garden Warfare makes Garden Warfare 2 feel almost like an expansion to the original game. As I've already explained, it features a lot of the same core content as the first Garden Warfare, and builds on it with the Backyard Battleground, new single-player options, and a handful of new multiplayer modes, namely Suburbination, and Herbal Assault – a 12 vs.12 reversal of Gardens and Graveyards, where the plants do the attacking, and the zombies defend the nodes.
To me, that lack of new multiplayer content is a little disappointing. Garden Warfare 2's focus on building out the single-player aspect of the game is laudable, and I'm sure there are plenty of gamers who'll enjoy playing around with the Backyard Battleground, but I didn't find it particularly compelling. Sure, it's enjoyable enough and it passes the time, but it basically feels like reasonably good filler content, rather than a really substantial single-player campaign.
Ultimately, Garden Warfare 2 suffers a little from what has plagued several other franchise sequels recently – a sense of familiarity, and new launch content that feels a little lean, but will be expanded over time via free downloadable updates. That's not to say Garden Warfare 2's overall launch content is insubstantial – it's just that a large chunk of it is a repeat of what was in the prior game. I guess I should have expected that – it's what games like Call of Duty have been doing for years. But I was just hoping for more.
Having said that, Garden Warfare 2's core gameplay, particularly the multiplayer side of the game, remains hugely fun to play and I love it. Its winning formula is still there for all to enjoy, and it's as polished as it's ever been. It's just that it's lost the sense of surprise it had the first time around.
The original interface has been largely replaced by the new Backyard Battleground hub. It works very well.
Although there's a sense of familiarity about many of the modes, Garden Warfare 2 is still thoroughly enjoyable to play - and accessible to gamers of all skill levels.
The music is terrific, with riffs on a variety of recognizable PvZ themes and ditties.
Bright, colorful, and exceptionally well rendered. From the characters to the backdrops, Garden Warfare 2 looks great.
Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare 2 brings back pretty much everything from the original game, and builds on it with decent single-player content, six new characters, and a handful of new multiplayer additions. At its core, the game is still hugely fun to play, and it remains open and accessible to gamers of all skill levels. It's just that the new content feels somewhat lean.