Editor's note: This is an early impressions piece, based on limited play on live servers. We'll have our full review up early next week.
If you're not a shooter player, the whole genre is pretty easy to dismiss. Years of chasing the almighty Call Of Duty dollar homogenised the online FPS to the point where it became difficult to differentiate one game from another. Battlefield, Counter Strike: GO, Titanfall, even the ubiquitous Destiny - to those not 'in the know', they all do very similar things in a very similar way. I should know - my wife gleefully tells me that 'every game you play is the same' as I sit in the office with an Xbox headset protruding from my ear. She's basically right.
Except, not every shooter is actually the same any more. Yes, most have military men running around saying military things, or the occasional switch-up when alien military men run around saying alien military things, but in the past year we've had Splatoon demonstrate just what can be done with a little more colour, and now, we have this already rather sumptuous sequel to the secretly brilliant Plants Vs Zombies Garden Warfare.
Now, these early impressions are based on time with EA's own QA team on selectively available servers - and nothing else - because without an internet connection the game simply does not work. No access to the new open hub world, called Backyard Battleground, no access to the revamped and reworked tower defense/horde variant Garden Ops, no access to anything at all.
Thankfully, as Garden Warfare 2 isn't the type of game to waste time, nor did we, as we dove into a selection of multiplayer offerings, battling other journalists and merciful members of the QA squad that could have eviscerated our chlorophyll-filled bodies in seconds had they been feeling particularly frisky.
What's here is very similar to its predecessor, only in expanded form. Which is to say it's a very accomplished shooter that barely looks like a shooter at all. Gorgeous character models bound around beautiful maps (12 new ones are on offer) at a buttery-smooth 60fps. For all its childlike energy, it's deceptively deep too: with Garden Warfare PopCap showed it's a serious hand when it comes to blasting peas at the animated reanimated. It's evident here again - Garden Warfare 2 is not messing around.
It's almost as if PopCap truly realised that the first game was no fluke and perhaps this whole online shooter thing isn't as daunting as it might have first seemed, so set about doubling down on everything the original achieved, improving every aspect along the way. Most of our time was spent playing Gardens And Graveyards, the returning big team battle mode where zombies must turn a series of capture points into rotting abodes of the undead, but now the maps are more expansive with sharper design and clever skirmish points. One memorable capture on the Great White North stage sees the plants pinning down the zombies with long range fire from higher ground, while the shamblers return fire to cover the flanking fast-movers who try to get in underneath and cause havoc. It's up there with the type of thing you'd see in a great Battlefield map.
Perhaps where Garden Warfare 2 genuinely outdoes its peers is in its class - or more accurately character - selection. Both sides of this battle have seven variants to choose from, all of which operate very differently on the battle allotment. Veterans of the first game will recognise the pea shooter and sunflower on the plants team and the scientist and football player representing all things zombie, but they've been joined by a few interesting sorts that add more depth and variety to the scraps.
Limited time obviously restricted my experience with any of these new characters, but it is abundantly clear that the Rose is an instant hit. She fires thorns after a short wind-up, like a mini gun, she can slow down time, and turn enemies into goats. In fact, she's so good that I'm mildly suspicious she may be completely overpowered. Thyme will tell (sorry).
Serious time on live servers later this week will uncover Garden Warfare 2's true place in the shooter premier league - are those characters kept in balance? How do the other modes stack up to the excellent Graveyards and Gardens? What secrets does the hub world hide?
What a great start, though. Garden Warfare 2 feels like it's going to be a perfect accompaniment to Splatoon - another irreverent, breezy shooter, but one with very impressive mechanics humming away under the topsoil. A true PopCap joint, then. It might just be time to take this light-hearted shooter very seriously indeed.