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Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare's unexpected success is shaping its sequel

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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 2's announcement during E3 2015 might have surprised you, but if you follow the numbers — like publisher Electronic Arts surely did — producing a sequel to PopCap Games' 2014 third-person shooter makes a lot of sense. EA announced earlier this year that more than 6 million people have played Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare, and according to PopCap, feedback from them is shaping in the direction of Garden Warfare 2.

Listen to this story in the episode of Minimap, Polygon's daily news podcast, below.

Garden Warfare 2 is being developed at EA Canada by PopCap HD, the same team that made the first game. EA brought Garden Warfare 2 to a preview event in New York last week, where we got hands-on time with Graveyard Ops, a four-player co-op mode that's debuting in the sequel.

The story of Garden Warfare 2 is that the zombies defeated the plants in the original game, and proceeded to make the suburbs — now rebranded as "Zomburbia" — their own. Graveyard Ops casts players as zombies attempting to defend Zomburbia from waves of plants. That's right: The plants are going on the offensive for the first time in the long-running Plants vs. Zombies series in an attempt to take back their home turf.

We played a round of Graveyard Ops as one of the new zombie classes, which is actually a combination of two characters: Imp and Z-Mech. Imp is an agile little ball of destruction, wielding two laser pistols and a jetpack on his back that he can use for aerial moves. The jetpack allows him to double-jump and hover, as well as cartwheel to the side in an effort to evade attacks.

Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare 2 - snow screenshot 02 1920

While Imp is the weakest zombie in the game in his normal form, he can call in a favor from the sky a la Titanfall: Z-Mech, a large orange and white mech suit. The robot armor conveys a health bump from Imp's max of 75 all the way up to 400, and comes with its own attacks, like a ground stomp and a missile barrage. Of course, Z-Mech moves much slower than Imp, so if you're getting slammed, your best bet might be to eject from the suit and let it self-destruct. As with the Garden Warfare series' other playable characters, each of the six new classes (three zombie, three plant) offers its own unique play style.

Graveyard Ops is a fun spin on the original Garden Warfare's Garden Ops mode, and we played it online with four people in the same room on their own TVs. That game only offered offline play on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and EA is listening to its fans by building a variety of additional modes into the sequel.

Every mode in Garden Warfare 2 can be played solo against AI opponents or in split-screen co-op. So if you want to play the 24-player Herbal Assault mode alone, the game will throw in 23 bots to play with. Local split-screen play supports two players, and both of them can level up separately. (In modes that are traditionally four-player experiences, like Graveyard Ops, the game won't fill out your team with two bots.) You won't need a PlayStation Plus or Xbox Live Gold subscription to play solo or in split-screen, but you will need an internet connection.

Gary Clay, global marketing director for the Plants vs. Zombies franchise at PopCap, told Polygon that input from Garden Warfare's 6-million-strong player base had a major impact on the sequel's feature set.

"That was far more players than we anticipated," said Clay. Those players have been vocal, too, according to Clay, sending thoughts to EA through forums and social media channels. Taking that feedback into account, along with telemetry data from Garden Warfare itself, helped the developers figure out where to go for Garden Warfare 2.

In addition to the aforementioned options, Garden Warfare 2 will allow players to set up private matches in which they can modify gameplay settings to their heart's content, turning off elements like the HUD. Instead of the sticker-based unlocking system of the original game, the sequel has a much simpler XP-based setup in which players can "prestige" each character. People who have played the first game will be able to transfer progress, including almost every unlocked character, to Garden Warfare 2 — and this process works regardless of platform.

Garden Warfare 2 also includes a redesigned pregame area, the Backyard Battleground. This hub world features plant and zombie sides, and it's not just a static area to hang out in. You can customize your characters' abilities and test out various builds right there in the world. Plus, you can do quests before jumping into specific Garden Warfare 2 modes. You also have the option of inviting up to three friends into your Backyard Battleground to tackle waves of enemies, all outside of the game's eight modes. Clay said this design was inspired partly by Destiny's social spaces.

From our limited time with Garden Warfare 2, it seems like PopCap HD is expanding on what fans enjoyed about the original game, and addressing their complaints about its shortcomings. Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare 2 is set for release in early 2016 on PS4, Windows PC and Xbox One.

Correction: Garden Warfare 2 is being developed by PopCap HD, which is based at EA Canada and is the same team that made the original Garden Warfare. We've edited the article to reflect this.

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