There's nothing badass about a sunflower, in theory and at first glance, especially not the sunflowers you'll encounter in Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare - merrily hopping around the game's lazily affluent maps in their dinky little pots, cereal packaging smiles turning to cute frowny faces as you clamp down the trigger on your light machinegun.
But now that sunflower has caught wind of your presence, and she's about to make you reap what you've sown (delete and insert superior plant-based pun on vengeance as appropriate). Besides the ability to toss out smaller flowerpots that radiate healing beams, sunflowers can root themselves to the spot, upgrading their basic projectile attack to a full-on Iron Man-esque death ray. Anything caught in the blaze will be incinerated in seconds, but the Zombie team can always counter by dropping chunky gym dummies to block the blast, or perhaps by teleporting a Scientist to the rear.
You could also ask a friendly Engineer to send up a disposable skull helicopter to distract the sunflower, allowing a crack team of Chargers to run it down. That Engineer will need to take care, however, as he'll be helpless while controlling the chopper - easy pickings for Chompers, who are able to guzzle enemies down in one gulp when they attack from the rear.
As you've hopefully worked out by now, Garden Warfare isn't your average class-based third-person shooter. It's also a lot more entertaining than it has any right to be, given that it's perhaps the most cynically conceived game you'll ever play, save for the next gen version of Angry Birds: Star Wars. The whiteboard arithmetic is as follows: "massively popular family-friendly tower defence label" + "genre beloved among demographic that isn't typically keen on family-friendly stylings" + "figleaf of irony" = "$$$$". But none of that's really apparent when you sit down to play.
What's apparent, instead, is that a multiplayer shooter can get by just fine without a blood-red screen filter, lashings of grit and a physics system that's robust enough to simulate a volcanic eruption. All you need are interesting class abilities, maps that are scaled according to how fast people can run, and a sense of humour that's manifest in silly weapon and sound effects.
In fairness, Garden Warfare's classes and tools aren't a huge departure in terms of what they actually do, rather than what they look like - medikits, sniper bullets and riot shields are still medikits, sniper rifles and riot shields when they're dressed up as purple healing fountains, cactus spikes and thick knots of undergrowth. But it's hard not to giggle at the playfulness of the implementation, whether you're talking about a Soldier Zombie rocket-jumping to safety, a Chomper running down a Charger after covering it with ability-sapping goop, or an Engineer hurtling around aboard a powerdrill.
With up to 12 players a side, the proceedings get hectic fairly fast. Each side has classes that can deploy heal stations and defences, so it's common for bouts of team deathmatch to get bogged down around a particular stairwell or high point. This can feel a bit grindy, when one side gets the upper hand. Still, a well-placed exploding kamikaze zombie robot or underground Chomper invasion may be all it takes to loosen the knot. There's no single player mode, alas, but the full game does contain a survival mode (plus splitscreen on Xbox One), in which four players battle waves of zombies broken up by bossfights - find a trailer for that below.
I'm a little worried by how much I enjoyed Garden Warfare, given that I rolled my eyes so hard at the announcement footage they all but fell out of my head. The concept is so shameless that you find yourself lingering suspiciously over every detail, waiting for the inherent evilness to explode all over the screen. But so far, PopCap Games appears to be onto a winner. It probably won't put Titanfall out of commission, but given a healthy roster of maps, some sort of support for solo play and decent balancing, Garden Warfare might be worth digging into.
It's out 20th February for Xbox 360 and Xbox One.