Plants vs Zombies has long been synonymous with mobile gaming. When the game caught fire several years ago, it was everywhere and the odds are, at some point, you have spent time growing plants and smashing suburban zombies. But gamers and the gaming industry in general make a fickle mistress, and even hit games need to adapt and grow to survive. The inevitable mobile sequel Plants vs Zombies 2 went to a full free-to-play model with mixed results, but developer PopCap and their overseer, EA Games, knew PvZ had the potential to branch out well beyond mere phone screens.

The result was Plants vs Zombies Garden Warfare, a spin-off series whose lighter tone and super-accessible action make it a great antidote for the malaise of uber-serious shooters. It’s a multiplayer console and PC game with more in common with Call of Duty than the original PvZ, although it takes itself far less seriously.

Taking the feud between flora and the undead into the realm of online shooters seemed like a joke, but in this case it’s a joke that works amazingly well. The first Garden Warfare was a fast, fun, and incredibly polished team vs team shooter that quickly marked itself as a solid alternative to the endless line of military-themed shooting games. Deftly working its cartoonish charm, Garden Warfare managed to hit the sweet spot for both online shooter fans and the decidedly casual core audience of mobile gamers. And the recent sequel does the same.

Garden Warfare 2 expands on the original in pretty much every way: more characters, more levels, more game modes, more fun. The core PvZ game is a single-player strategy-focused game, so jumping the characters and themes to the multiplayer-only arena was a risky move sure to ostracize some of the series’ core audience. Thankfully, one new enhancement for this sequel is a bit more focus on single-player fun.

Garden Warfare 2 slides players a little more gently into the largely multiplayer-centric action by providing a surprisingly meaty hub world to explore before going online. This town, overrun by zombies, contains secure fortresses for both plants and zombies. Each fortress sends out automatic scouts and marauders who spend their time fighting each other while the player bumps around aimlessly or completes missions to earn more points and in-game currency.

Most of these missions are really just single-player takes on multiplayer game modes—plants must protect their home garden, for instance, while the zombie forces try to overrun the greenery. But the overall gameplay is entertaining enough for the action to work with or without other humans around.

There’s plenty of nods toward the mobile game’s “tower defense” roots as well, since setting up defenses and spawning new units is vital to survival. The game does still have an unfortunate focus on buying things—card packs and seeds, for instance—that borders on the irksome free-to-play model of the mobile sequel Plants vs Zombies 2. The saving grace here is that Garden Warfare 2 is generous with in-game currency, so buying new stuff really just requires playing more (as opposed to forcing you to spend real money to get the cool stuff).

All these elements work in part because of Garden Warfare’s absurd levels of charm. The visual finesse is stunning in its beautiful cartoonishness. Granted, this action may be something we’ve all seen before, but it’s seldom portrayed in such a damned cute and comical manner. Indeed, the only real comparison is Nintendo’s Wii U game Splatoon.

Splatoon is a terrific all-ages shooter with a fantastic animated look, but it suffers from a lack of content—which isn’t a problem here—and the fact that it’s available exclusively on Nintendo’s Wii U, which isn’t the most popular console right now. Garden Warfare 2 offers tons of characters and ways to customize those characters, and plenty of game modes, in addition to its hub world activities.

The goofy sense of humor makes Garden Warfare 2 a refreshing change of pace from the usual militaristic online battles, and the gameplay is surprisingly refined. The original proved there was space for a comical, competitive shooter, and the sequel improves on that in pretty much every way. It’s a rare release that works for both fans of the genre in general and those who normally wouldn’t touch an online-centric action game.

Jason D'Aprile has been covering games and entertainment for the last three decades across a variety of platforms, many of which are now extinct. In addition to covering gaming (both obscure and otherwise), he also writes a bit of the odd fiction and tries hard to avoid social media.

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