Garden Warfare was a revelatory shift for the Plants vs. Zombies franchise, not only showing that PopCap could go toe to toe with some of the big boys of console game development, but also that their quirky little world had the legs to sustain a wholesale genre and platform shift. Two years on, and they’re looking to do it again, while looking to overcome the familiarity that many players will have had with the original.
So it’s important that the first thing that players see when they load up the game is something new. After a brief tutorial to set up the world’s new ruling order, with the Zombies having canonically won the war from the first game, you’re dropped into the Backyard Battleground, a new hub world that you can explore and play in, both on your own and with your friends. A Zombie base on one side, a Plant base on the other and a war-torn no man’s land between them, it’s so simple and accessible to simply be able to walk out of a gate and start shooting the other team.
Slap bang in the middle is flag pole, which you can try and capture by holding off wave after wave of enemies. It’s an ideal testing ground for the latest character variant that you’ve got, to see how you get on with their slightly altered weapons and abilities, and it’s also great for other players to be able to hop into your game on either side and kill a little time before heading off to the meat of the game. However, there’s more to the Backyard than just this, with plenty of secrets to uncover, whether finding a use for the stars you earn to open up chests with cosmetic items, and the secret firing range in the sewers, or just looking around the environment.
Garden Warfare 2 also makes much more of an effort to let you play on your own – you do, unfortunately, still always need to be online though. Both the Plant and Zombie bases have quest giving versions of the new characters who will hand you bespoke missions and weave a suitably nonsensical story that ties them together. Some will have you head out to a specific location in the Backyard Battleground, others are shorter and sharper versions of the cooperative Garden and Graveyard Ops modes, with just a few rounds to battle through before their conclusion. There’s plenty of subtle winks, the odd outright homage to videogame classics, and a truly ridiculous twist at the end of both stories.
A godsend for the solo player is the ability to play with AI characters by your side. During a fight for the Backyard’s flag pole, the game will drop in reinforcement crates to give you a hand, you can summon some decent buddy AI to fight alongside you in Garden and Graveyard Ops, and even hop between the characters at will and there’s the ability to play bot matches for all the game modes. All the way through, you’re earning XP and coins, just as you would with human players by your side.
The problem is that the solo quests often feel disjointed. The character movement speed isn’t high enough for Rose, for example, to be able to send you from the back corner of the Plant base to the other side of the map and not have it be a tedious trudge. So the game warps you back and forth quite a lot, which can be quite jarring when a mission lasts just a few minutes. At the same time, it’s something quick to enjoy and introduces you to each of the new characters.
Having those extra characters really serves to flesh out the two sides, and helps to facilitate having the Zombies on the defensive side of things in the Graveyard Ops and Herbal Assault modes, with waves of Plants and their weeds coming at you. Citron is great for soaking up damage with his forward facing shield, and can roll into his naturally spherical shape to get around quickly, while Rose’s magical abilities are perfect for slowing down and frustrating onrushing enemies. Turning enemies to goats is a delight.
Kernel Corn is visually very distinctive, but in truth, he’s just one ability away from being the basic Zombie Foot Soldier. That’s fascinating to me, and you see it elsewhere as the Zombie characters have had their abilities shifted about to balance them better for a more defensive role, bringing them much closer to the Plants’ line up. The engineer now has a gun emplacement mode, to make up for losing the remote control flying Zombot, so that Captain Deadbeard’s parrot wouldn’t duplicate its role and purpose.
It’s not exactly the same, but there are more direct match ups and parallels across this more diverse cast, but there’s still room for unique characters like the Imp. Diminutive and weak when he spawns in, he’s got tricks up his sleeve, from the spinning attack that sprays bullets and damage all around, to the ability to – after a long, long wait for it to charge up – call in a mech, Titanfall style. Suddenly, he’s the most powerful thing around, and when several Imps do this together, it can be devastating, especailly with the sheer variety on offer, from standard mech suits to robotic traffic cones, giant shrimp-like robots, and more. It’s an excellent example of the many variations that each character has, with tweaked and altered abilities to suit.
And yet throughout, there’s a big sense of familiarity. There’s new bosses, new minions and new bonus challenge rounds to contend with in Garden Ops, but it’s more of the same from the original, and Graveyard Ops is effectively just reskinning the oncoming Zombies to be Plants and their Weeds.
Competitively, Turf Takeover is the amalgamation of Gardens & Graveyards and Herbal Assault. While the new maps are great, with the same kind of delightful scenarios should the attackers reach the final area, there’s still only four maps in total, which simply doesn’t feel like enough for the marquee game mode. It’s backed up by other modes, such as Vanquish (Deathmatch) and the excellent Gnome Bomb (Battlefield 4’s Obliteration), and with a playlist that mixes them all together at random, but you’d expect a few more from that core mode.
You’ve also got the same kind of unlock system for character variants – excellently, you can import characters unlocked in Garden Warfare, until next year – and getting the general cards for summoning attacking minions and defensive emplacements. Oddly, these packs cost in and around twice as much as in the original, with the first pack setting you back 2,500 coins instead of 1,000, and a character costing 75,000 instead of 40,000. Garden Warfare 2 is much more generous with handing out coins, thanks in part to a daily quest board for tasks that can be completed both online and solo, but also from each match giving you more cash.
What it doesn’t seem to account for, however, is that there are now twice as many minion and defence cards to get. It might not matter 20 or 30 hours into the game, but your early game and playing solo – when you’re the only one placing defences – can be hampered by constantly having to refresh your cards and not getting anything that suits your needs time and time again. It would have been friendlier to share these cards between both sides.
PopCap have gone out of their way to cater to the solo player, and while the story questing is a disjointed affair, having AI to play with in every part of the game is excellent. However, even with other additions like the Backyard Battleground and new characters, this largely feels like more of the same. It’s not as exciting and refreshing as two years ago, but that’s not too big a complaint when it’s more co-op defence and liberally borrowed and adapted multiplayer, all slathered in the quirky Plants vs. Zombies universe.
Versions tested: PlayStation 4, PC