Funny as it might have been, Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare was no joke. Though it retained the offbeat yet disarming humor that helped make the original tower defense game such a massive multi-platform hit, Garden Warfare successfully spun the universe into an impressively rich and robust third-person shooter. So as you might expect, Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare 2 expands its predecessor's winning formula by adding brand new characters, fleshing out fan-favorite modes, and introducing a wealth of new features--from cute, quirky surprises to an active, engaging hub world.
As before, you take control of either the plants or the zombies as you battle for backyard supremacy in a variety of competitive and cooperative multiplayer events. Both sides still offer the same selection of highly distinct playable characters that fill various strategic roles. You'll find tanks, snipers, heavy gunners, artillery units--basically everything you'd expect to find in a deep, class-based tactical shooter, just with more floppy flower petals and gap-toothed undead grins.
With the advent of Garden Warfare 2, each side is set to grow by three characters: plants get Citron, Rose, and Kernel Corn while zombies get Imp, Captain Deadbeard, and Super Brainz. In both cases, these new character types fill gaps in the roster, which should create both better balance and greater diversity. Rose, for example, is a support-type who excels at buffing her teammates or hindering her opponents from just behind the frontlines. Super Brainz, on the other hand, is designed to deliver devastating melee attacks after charging headlong into danger, making him something of a kamikaze unit.
Impressively, not only can you deck out all 14 total characters in a huge array of unlockable cosmetic accessories, every character also has at least five variant forms: Chomper becomes Yeti Chomper, Peashooter becomes Rock Pea, Foot Soldier becomes Scuba Soldier, and so on. Unlike the accessories, these variant forms actually affect the way these characters play, offering brand new basic attacks, special abilities, and more. Imp even has a Mass Effect-themed "Z7" mech suit variant that allows him to jetpack around the map for a limited time. It seems the only way to unlock these alternate forms is to find them in mystery card packs purchased with in-game currency, but this gradual accumulation of new characters should provide a constantly expanding pool of new gameplay options, even if each one comes randomly.
In addition to the six new characters (and their accompanying variants), Garden Warfare 2 delivers new ways to play, such as the previously announced playable hub world and solo side missions that take place in their own discrete areas. The game also updates established modes with deeper options. In the Garden Ops horde mode, for example, you can now spawn AI allies and swap between them on-the-fly rather than forcing three actual friends to join you for co-op (though split-screen is now an option for every single mode).
Most importantly, Garden Warfare 2 still features a full suite of competitive multiplayer options, with maps that support up to 24 players and modes that no longer require plants to be full-time defenders while zombies constantly invade. Most impressive among the options I saw during a controlled hands-on session was Gardens and Graveyards, an objective-based competitive sprint in the style of Battlefield's Rush mode that forces both teams to dash from map to map through a history-themed amusement park. Win enough encounters and your side gets a chance to storm your opponents' stronghold in the final area.
Each zone offers something completely different, whether it's a low gravity gunfight or a resource gathering mini-game that challenges both teams to guide giants orbs into the opposing squad's goal. And crucially, I died a whole lot during my time with this mode, which gave me a chance to respawn as a huge number of different characters. While I found some more useful and familiar than others, I was constantly impressed by the inventiveness of each class. I also never felt helpless or outmatched, regardless of who I picked. At first glance, Imp's mech seems unstoppable, but with a little experimentation, I eventually figured out which classes can shut him down effectively.
With such an expansive and varied collection of content, along with some tight, accessible shooting mechanics driving the whole experience forward, Garden Warfare 2 will likely surprise even the most hardened shooter fan. Its silly exterior hides a genuinely fun, functional, and thoughtful shooter. Of course, you can find out for yourself when the beta goes live tomorrow, January 14.