Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville just launched officially on October 18, but it had five weeks before that for Founding Neighbors to get some early access time with the game as PopCap added features and tuned characters and modes. As a huge fan of the previous third-person shooter outings pitting flora against the undead, I was eager to jump in after what’s felt like far too long a wait since Garden Warfare 2. While the first few weeks had some ups and downs, there’s a reason that was an early launch period ahead of official release, and things have come together nicely in Neighborville.
Somehow the Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare series has frequently ripped ideas straight from other popular games, but never felt like it was simply a goofy emulation of those titles. I mean, the series’ shady gnome vendor is named Rux, a direct reversal of Destiny’s own shady vendor Xur. And look at the very title of the past games: Garden Warfare, a play on Call of Duty’s Modern Warfare sub-franchise. And yet, for everything it parodies, it manages to do so much that’s entirely original as well, much of which probably stands out far more than the small in-jokes and references made throughout.
Perhaps that’s why EA and PopCap felt the need to steer away from the old Garden Warfare title and call this one Battle for Neighborville. I’m not a huge fan of the shift in the name. It doesn’t roll off the tongue all that well and causes confusion around the brand recognition. For all intents and purposes, this game is Garden Warfare 3, including returning characters and movesets from past games and updating and adding features that fans are already familiar with.
Name aside, Neighborville is a brilliant continuation of the franchise that bizarrely took a mobile tower defense game and turned it into a character-based 3D shooter. I didn’t think I could love it as much as I did, but I fell hard for both Garden Warfare 1 and 2, each being extremely fun and unique titles that utilized the crazy abilities of the plant and zombie hordes in creative ways. While those two were largely focused on PVP aspects, pitting players against one another, Neighborville adds a variety of campaign patrol areas that allow players to undertake a series of small campaigns in open worlds, including a variety of collectibles and challenges to face alone or with friends. I hope the continued support for the game includes more of these regions (or at least more to do in these regions) in the future. They’re easily some of the most fun I had in the game, and that’s saying something considering how much fun all of Neighborville is.
Of course what would the next Plants vs. Zombies game be without actually pitting players against each other as plants and zombies? The classic mix of PVP is back, as well as some brand new modes and updates to old Garden Warfare modes. Ops modes also make a return, a co-op based horde mode that tasks teams of four with defending a central point against waves of enemies from the opposite side. They all perform just as expected, especially after PopCap released an update that made some significant changes to Ops. There’s a great balance of the PVE and PVP content, which means an evening, day, or entire weekend spent playing Battle for Neighborville never grows old.
The cast is huge this time around, featuring 10 unique characters per side. That includes three brand new characters for each faction, along with some updates to the heroes you might be familiar with. On the Plants side Night Cap, Snapdragon, and Acorn (and the massive Oak) join the fray, where the Zombies get ’80s Action Hero, Electric Slide, and Space Cadet (which can transform into a Space Station). Each brings a range of new abilities to the table that are fun to use and probably impossibly difficult for PopCap to balance, but they’ve done a good job at keeping any power spikes in check for now. Additionally, if you have a favorite character from the past games, you may want to check their ability set. It’s likely that one or two things are a little bit different than what you are familiar with.
Most of the changes are ones I completely agree with and support some of the new mechanics for this game. Now that every character can sprint, abilities like the Engineer’s jackhammer were moved there, and he was given an alternate ability in place of that. If you’ve played other character or ability based games, you’ll definitely notice some influence from the likes of Overwatch, Destiny, and other games in that genre. My fundamental understanding of any given ability came from exclaiming “Oh, okay, this works like this character from that game!”
Most of the usability of characters comes from personal preference rather than a good team composition. Aside from needing the likes of a healer like Sunflower or the Scientist, most game modes tend to be overly chaotic and kill crazy, rather than the focused strategic back and forth of an Overwatch match. One of my biggest gripes with Battle for Neighborville is the increased player counts in many modes which take away those strategic elements and really take away those close matches. I too often found that matches with high player counts tended to be a blowout for either one team or the other. It’s simply too many abilities and too much chaos rendering some character abilities overpowered for those circumstances, and some characters entirely worthless to fight back. Particularly in objective-based modes, more players is not always better.
One of the most notable changes for this outing was the removal of the character variants in favor of being able to customize character skills, essentially creating a veritable garden of hot-swappable variants. While this does promote a sense of player freedom within separating (some) visual customization from abilities, it also takes away one of the more enticing aspects of the grind in previous Garden Warfare titles. Instead of playing a variety of interesting character variants, I tend to find a set of perks and skills I enjoy and simply stick with those. In Garden Warfare, I had a reason to try out different characters as I leveled each one up. Now there’s no incentive to play around with alternate abilities, and even though the cast list has increased to 20 total characters, it feels significantly smaller when the character variants managed to each feel like unique characters themselves.
That’s a small nitpick in the bigger picture. It might be a sore point for me, it doesn’t detract from the gardens of fun to be had across the breadth of the game. Neighborville still has plenty to grind for. The Halloween-themed event features an entire battle pass-like system to chase down rewards, but the best part about it is that it’s totally free to participate in. There’s no need to buy into a Season Pass or premium event track to get the best rewards (at least for right now). I’m sure PopCap will eventually find a way to monetize the game in the future (including the likelihood of directly purchasing premium cosmetics for real world money), but for right now, there’s so much to do and grind for that even if the game had microtransactions, they’d barely be noticeable.
If being one of the Founding Neighbors from day one taught me anything, it’s that PopCap is willing to go to bat for this game. In the five or six weeks preceding the official launch, the studio trickled content into the game, including a Halloween event that brought time-limited challenges and huge balancing updates and changes based on community feedback. The previously mentioned Ops horde mode was dull and unfun, and an update put that one in a great place that I can now play on repeat. That was all before the game actually released, and now that it’s actually out, I’m confident in the ongoing support the team will provide to the community of players. Between both past games and early access for this one, PopCap has proven itself.
Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville embraces all of the charm and fun of its predecessors, but manages to up the ante with a lot of new and updated features. Sometimes having too many players feels overly chaotic for a character-based hero shooter, and losing the variants makes the roster feel a little thin, but PopCap spent more than a month proving to early players that it was committed to Neighborville for the foreseeable future. For all the good it brings, it’s easy to overlook a couple of worms in the garden.
Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on PS4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy.