Of all the games I expected to hear being referenced as an inspiration behind Garden Warfare 2, it wouldn't have been Destiny. And yet, as we sat down to play PopCap's latest, I must have heard the developer describe their new direction via comparisons with Bungie's gigantic shared-world shooter, perhaps three or four times.
Jumping into the multiplayer modes themselves is going to seem very familiar - there's new maps, classes and game modes to play, but really, it feels like more of what we've already seen from the game's predecessor. That's no bad thing and I can't talk about that too much until a later embargo lifts, but the big change and the comparisons to Destiny are found in the game's new hub world, Backyard Battleground.
This is designed to be the place where you hang out between matches, likely with friends that you've invited to your world. There's an awful lot to keep players busy here, but the centrepiece appears to be a battle taking place in the middle of the map, where AI-controlled plants and zombies are locked in an eternal struggle for control of a flag post. You can claim it for yourself, triggering a wave defence mode that just seems to keep on going - it was never made clear if this is something that you can actually 'win'.
After a few rounds of this, as we became uncertain as to how much progress we were actually making, I switched allegiances, and was able to join the horde of undead attacking my (former) plant teammates. This was easily the most fun we had in Backyard Battleground, despite it not being the most efficient way of earning coins, completing objectives, or chasing one of the many other incentives the game appeared to be offering.
That seems to be a huge part of Garden Warfare 2, by the way. When you enter your base in the hub world, you're encouraged to pick up character-specific quests (compared to Destiny's patrol missions), or grab additional objectives from the notice board (compared to Destiny's bounties). This, I'm told, is a great way to earn coins. Similarly to the original Garden Warfare, you'll want to spend those coins on sticker packs, which unlock new characters and provide you with the consumable minions you'll need in almost every mode that you'll play. You might also want to spend them on unlocking new areas within the Backyard Battleground - we were shown one example of a firing range that's locked behind a wall until you can afford to access it. This helps provide a sense of progression, which can be extremely important for multiplayer-focused games, but really, I found it a bit much.
The more cynical amongst you may look at these ideas and question whether they've been designed to sell microtransactions. We already know that you'll be able to purchase these in-game coins using real world coins, just as you could in Garden Warfare, and that's a valid concern to think about. I didn't get to see the shop itself, so I'm not ready to make a call on whether that's a major problem, but even if I can play Garden Warfare 2 without ever feeling the need to hand over extra dosh, there's something about this entire setup that feels a little too desperate. Spending even a few hours with this preview gave me the sense that Garden Warfare 2 is terrified that I might stop playing. "Come back tomorrow and we'll give you some more coins," it pleads. "Just keep playing. We'd really like you to keep playing."
And the daft thing about all of this? I rather like the game that's buried underneath all of it. Just like with its predecessor, the shooting still lacks a certain impact, but the characters are delightful. Both the plants and the zombies have seen three new classes introduced here, and each of them offers a very different sort of playstyle. The zombie's imp is the fastest and most fragile of the game's characters, but if you can stay alive long enough, you'll be able to call in a powerful mech that's yours to control - allowing you to stop skirting around the edge of combat and dive straight into the thick of it, unleashing a barrage of missiles as you go.
Compare this to Citron, the plant team's very own bounty hunter from the future (who also happens to be an orange). He's at his most useful when on the team's front line, attracting the attention of the enemy as he activates a forward facing shield that eats up much of the damage he'd otherwise be taking. I still continue to be impressed by how the PopCap team have translated the abilities of the towers in their original series to an entirely different kind of genre. There are so many excellent throwbacks for Plants vs Zombies fans to enjoy.
There's a new mode in the form of 'Herbal Assault', which supports up to 24 players and there are maps set on the moon. There are now 14 classes and a zombie equivalent to Garden Ops. There are yet more ways to customise your characters. There's lots and lots of new stuff. Garden Warfare 2 offers more of what you likely enjoyed about the first game, and it's still incredibly refreshing to play a decent multiplayer shooter that's this damned colourful. For players that know they're going to be spending a lot of time with this game, the abundance of quests and bars to fill up will likely be a welcome thing, but there's something about a PopCap game taking lessons from Destiny that makes me feel a little mournful. I miss the days of the original Plants vs Zombies when the only incentive I needed to complete a level was that I was having an excellent time with it. That used to be enough.