Garden Warfare 2 has a cool trick to disperse the red mist of an online death: its cast of heroes are so dumb-looking, that you can't stay angry. Ever tried flinging an f-bomb at a sunflower? How about insulting the parents of an undead construction worker? It can't be done. Spite cannot survive in the face of such silliness.
What do you expect from the world's friendliest third-person shooter? Enemies aren't killed, but 'vanquished'. Your own fallen body is shown to be concussed, with eyes dopily swivelling in the sockets. Even the killcam jollies up an impersonal war by keeping tally of your killcount (sorry, vanquish count) against every attacker. Discovering that an undead pirate is 3-0 up on your rose witch lets you enjoy a head-to-head grudge match amidst the chaos. This isn't to say the game is without urgency - you'll fight as hard to protect a giant comedy tombstone as you would a Battlefield control point - but the losses don't smart quite as much.
It's a game that prefers heroic victory to the aggressive domination preached by most shooters. Success is met with a burst of cheery energy, whether it's setting off fireworks by holding all capture points in Surburbination mode, or the spray of treasure from a flagpole when you repel a wave of enemies. Even individual kills are celebratory, marked with a comedy 'pop!' sound effect. Get a spree going and it resembles microwave popcorn; doubly so when it's living corn cobs you're frazzling. My favourite touch is the jaunty whistling as plants seize a control point - a spot of Colonel Bogey March-like motivation to push you over the finish line.
Much of this goes for the original, so is there enough to justify a return to the juice (bodily and citric) splattered trenches? For starters, GW2 arrives with a spread of modes it took several DLC packs for GW1 to amass. It also doubles up by offering the zombies' version of events. So Garden Ops' Horde-like mode is matched in Graveyard Ops, and Garden and Graves, PvZ's answer to Battlefield's Rush, is mirrored in Herbal Assault. Forcing a zombie retreat may not sound mechanically revolutionary, but it's fun to play attacker with the usually put-upon plants and to see zombies put those much hungered-for brains to a tactical defense.
Fighting earns coins, coins buy stickers granting support items, cosmetic goods and new heroes. Good news: real money isn't involved and coins flow freely – you can buy a new hero every 90 minutes. The downside is tying consumable AI soldiers and turrets to stickers – both add greatly to match complexity, so it's a shame they run out so quickly.
New characters play into the armies' diversified roles. In Kernal Corn, the plants get a great projectile character, rattling off five-a-day yellow death, while Rose holds the line with a time-slowing gas and goat-morphing magic (not an instant win as said billy can then headbutt you). Citron's ability to roll in a defensive peel shell is more useful in objective-led modes and so a bit weedy on the defensive line, but he gets a pass for being a bounty hunter orange from the future. Zombies, previously the more conservative of the two sides, get a dose of variety from the whirlwind fists of Super Brainz and a tiny Imp who pathetically nips at health bars as he charges up a devastating mech.
New classes currently dominate online games - who wouldn't be curious about playing as a bounty hunting orange from the future? - but it's clear that both sides are better balanced for offense/defense. You're encouraged to experiment with new roles, further differing GW2 from multiplayer rivals that encourage fierce investment in building a super soldier. Here characters level so fast that they can max out and 'prestige' in two hours. Don't worry about longevity, though, as they need to be maxed out five times to unlock upgrades (a spot of personalisation missing in GW1), and there's a huge 110 class variations to take through the process.
Crucially, it's a sense of progression that was missing in GW1. Everything you do, from slogging out a half-hour Herbal Assault victory to beheading a lone zombie stumbling around the hubworld, edges you towards another tick on GW2's ludicrous checklist. This is before you factor in missions overlaid on day-to-day play (get X kills with a certain hero, etc), or tackle a story mode built from bot-filled matches or simply explore the hubworld that brings all the options together in a living, albeit wartorn, menu screen. After a year of the likes of Battlefront and Rainbow Six Siege offering vanilla packages around sound multiplayer action, GW2 certainly feels more substantial.
Of course, no amount of dressing, not even with PopCap's Pixar-esque sheen, can carry mediocre action. As admirable as it is to zig against the military shooters' zag, it's undeniable that replacing the precise sting of lead with broad cartoon splat of a pea or other comedy props just won't gel with some digital veterans. It actually has a similar flavour to Star Wars Battlefront: respawns are quick and most problems are solved by throwing a tidal wave of expendable bodies at it. GW2's clearly defined class roles and their sprinkling of upgrades arguably make it the deeper shooter, but if you're coming to it from Battlefield 4 or Siege, it can appear to be a dumb bunfight.
It's tricky to see exactly who Garden Warfare 2 is for, then, but there's no denying how hard it works for that unknowable demographic. Whether you're on a detox from simulated man-murder, or simply seeking to sink into a fug of XP-fuelled dopamine hits, there's a lot of fun to be had. And hey, at the very least you can easily stop hateful teens from teabagging you – just play as a cactus. Oof.
This Xbox One game review also appears in Official Xbox Magazine.