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PopCap on designing the unique characters of Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare is a multiplayer-focused third-person shooter, which means that much of its appeal — the charm and humor we expect from the Plants vs. Zombies series — depends upon its characters. Developer PopCap Games has to transform the previous games' stylized 2D figures into dynamic polygonal models, and bring them to life with high-fidelity visuals as well as sound cues that make sense in a 3D space. Plus, the new characters have to conform to the gameplay context of a shooter as opposed to a strategy title.

"The vision is for us to make characters that feel like they still fit in the PvZ universe," said Brian Lindley, a producer on Garden Warfare, in a phone interview with Polygon last week.

At the same time, PopCap is striving to make each of Garden Warfare's classes feel special. The studio wants the characters to "look cool [so] that you want to acquire them," and is making an effort to give the characters "some additional tweaks and changes to their primary weapon and abilities," said Lindley. A number of variations are available for each of the four plant classes and four zombie classes, such as versions of the characters based on elemental powers like fire.

the characters have to "feel like they still fit in the PvZ universe"

But PopCap is aiming to design individual classes that play relatively similarly, regardless of the variant a player chooses and the customization options the player outfits their characters with. And one of the keys for that design process is humor: According to Lindley, PopCap is making an effort to ensure that "everything surrounding [the characters'] presentation just is rewarding and fun, and makes you smile and laugh or grit your teeth and want to keep fighting."

For the most part, that comes through in the visuals. All the characters bear the goofy look that's the hallmark of Plants vs. Zombies series — for example, the zombies' different-sized eyeballs go a long way toward making them appear less menacing. And if you see the Engineer zombie, a mashup of characters like the Handyman and Miner, from behind, you'll catch a glimpse of some plumber's butt.

PopCap faced some interesting challenges in creating both the plant and zombie characters in Garden Warfare. The studio had to create most of the zombies from scratch, because the series' existing zombies were "very one-dimensional — they kind of did one thing," Lindley explained. And while the developers used plant characters that were already present in Plants vs. Zombies, they had to spend more time figuring out appropriate sounds for the various plant classes because "they're kind of the most abstract when you look at the characters themselves and what it is they're actually doing."

Here's a closer look at four of the variants for the plant classes: the Future Cactus, Hot Rod Chomper, Mystic Flower and Ice Pea.

The Future Cactus came about because "we wanted to make something that was a bit more tech-y," said Lindley, explaining that most of Garden Warfare's other characters are designed around elemental powers. The Cactus class focuses on ranged shooting, but the Future Cactus is the only Cactus variant with a charge attack, which you can prepare by holding the right trigger. It works in three phases, and the most powered-up version does a lot of damage. "It's something that makes the character really unique to play, compared to the other variants," Lindley added.

Another plant with a charged attack is the Mystic Flower, a Sunflower that is "powered by mysterious energy." Holding down the trigger will charge up its powerful sunbeam, which can be unleashed as a crowd-control attack or used to deal damage to a single strong enemy.

the Hot Rod Chomper sports a shiny black coat of paint with purple flames

Melee-oriented players will likely choose the Chomper, which resembles the Mario games' Piranha Plant in that it's a big, spherical mouth on a stem. But the Hot Rod Chomper, which sports a shiny black coat of paint with purple flames, changes things up with a focus on speed. While it has lower health than the standard Chomper, it has a unique special ability: If it can take down a zombie with an instant kill (a sneak attack from below or behind), it will get a speed boost. "If you're good with the Chomper, you can use the Hot Rod Chomper to quickly run from victim to victim, if you manage to string a bunch together," said Lindley.

Many of Garden Warfare's classes work well in conjunction with a teammate playing as the Ice Pea. This Peashooter variant fires peas of ice, and if enough ice peas hit a zombie, it will be immobilized and left vulnerable to attack. Combinations of not just classes, but unique variants like the Ice Pea, are where "the tactics and strategy start to emerge," said Lindley.

Lindley hinted that PopCap is planning to expand Garden Warfare with additional class variants for both plants and zombies after the game's release. For more details, check out our hands-on preview from November.

Update: You can see the aforementioned four plants in action in the 11-minute gameplay video below.

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