Prior to Garden Warfare, PopCap Games was largely known as a purveyor of tightly-crafted, colourful, maddeningly addictive fare aimed squarely at the casual end of the market. The appeal of these titles is undeniable – games like Bejeweled, Peggle, and of course Plants vs. Zombies are probably known to everyone reading this, and possibly their mothers as well.

So while last year’s Garden Warfare is a 3D shooter, it’s a decidedly uncomplicated one that looks to appeal to less hardcore fans of online shooters. Garden Warfare 2 lead gameplay designer Chris Fox doesn’t see this focus as a bad thing. “I don’t think casual is a bad word at all,” he says. “For PopCap, what that means is accessibly with depth. Anyone can play, but then it makes time to master.

Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare 2 preview
Chris Fox.
Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare 2 preview
Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare 2 preview

“We were looking at deconstructing the shooter somewhat, taking things like sprint and melee and minimaps and looking at, ‘What do you really need? What are the core essentials of what makes a shooter competitive?’ We wanted to make things simpler without dumbing it down.” That means things like the zombie soldier’s rocket jump is achieved with a single button press, rather than via a series of moves that might be out of the reach of some of the game’s audience.

“Anyone can feel like the hero, anyone can do the cool action,” says Fox. “It’s giving people the tools and equal footing to do it. Just lowering the bar to entry and making things accessible. That’s kind of what Garden Warfare is about.” It’s a formula that working out well for PopCap: unlike many online shooters, Garden Warfare’s popularity is only growing as time goes on. “I think that’s just a testament to the fun of the characters and the worlds we’ve created and the depth of the gameplay,” says Fox.

Even so, like any good sequel, Garden Warfare 2 looks to build on the ideas of the first to – in Fox’s words – “make things cooler, make things more fun, and give you more opportunities for those big hero moments. We wanted to do the most we could do, we wanted to make things bigger and crazier.”

Crazier is right. While the first had plenty of zaniness, Garden Warfare 2 will feature a rose who is a time-travelling sorceress who turns zombies into playable goats, an imp that can call down a mech from orbit Titanfall-style, and a bounty-hunting orange from the future that’s been sent back to stop the invention of said mech. The latter sports spin-dash attacks, an orange laser, an energy shield and an ‘EMPeach’.

“I don’t think casual is a bad word at all… what that means is accessibly with depth.”
Chris Fox, lead gameplay designer

The game sees the plants on attack for the first time in the franchise, as they try to reclaim Suburbia (now Zomburbia) from their undead foes. There are six new classes all up, and new modes too, including a zombie version of wave survival mode Garden Ops titled Graveyard Ops, and a new 24-player Herbal Assault mode. There’s even a moon-based map with low gravity physics.

Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare 2 preview
Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare 2 preview

All that and the standard modes is accessible via Backyard Battleground, a fully interactive 3D hub that replaces the menu system of Garden Warfare. Here, friends can congregate, take quests from Crazy Dave or Dr Zomboss (that can be completed by either side), and participate in events against AI in the hub itself. “What we wanted to do is create a fun place for friends to gather and mess around with their abilities, decide what they’re gonna play,” says Fox.

There’s still no server browser though, a decision made to keep the game simple for those not acquainted with online play. It’s nonetheless an annoying omission in a region more sparsely populated than the States or Europe. There will be custom matches though; private matches where players can adjust parameters like health and ability cooldown times, as well as restrict characters or maps.

Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare 2 preview

You also don’t have to play online at all: every mode be played solo, or split-screen. Garden Warfare 2 will launch with 12 maps and 40 characters, but PopCap intends to dole out free DLC like it did with the first game as well, as that kept the community together and was
“super successful”, according to Fox.

The only thing that won’t return is boss mode. Fox doesn’t have any specific reason for this, except to say that it was by fare the game’s least popular mode. Honestly, it’s hard to imagine anyone will miss it.

Our hands-on time in the game’s four-player co-op Graveyard Ops mode is brief, but it shows that with Garden Warfare 2, PopCap is expanding but not complicating things. I really enjoyed Garden Warfare, and unsurprisingly I liked my time on the demo here as well. It’s a competitive yet relaxing game free of the unchecked aggression that frequently sours other online shooters.

“People are there to have a good time and unwind. It’s competitive, but it’s not as serious,” says Fox. “I think it’s the personality of the characters that adds a lot to that feeling.” It is, after all, hard to be mad when you get vanquished by a grinning orange wearing oversized sunglasses.

Matt traveled to Gamescom courtesy of EA