Plants Vs. Zombies: Battle For Neighborville review – flowering into action

The follow-up to Garden Warfare 2 is one of the only family friendly online shooters around but has it bloomed into a worthwhile sequel?

Plants Vs. Zombies should be a sobering lesson for all games companies, in demonstrating just how quickly a blockbuster franchise can fade from memory. A decade ago it was one of the biggest titles around, especially once it got to smartphones, but after the microtransaction-fuelled sequel – an early controversy that EA clearly learnt nothing from – it quickly fell from grace, to the point where many today are probably more familiar with the Garden Warfare spin-off series than the original tower defence games.

Why this isn’t called Garden Warfare 3 we have no idea, especially given how awful the new subtitle is, but that’s essentially what it is. Although there is also a Plants Vs. Zombies 3 currently in early access on smartphones, so clearly there’s a concerted effort going on to bring the brand back into the public eye. Which makes it all the stranger that Battle For Neighborville slipped out with zero fanfare and no advance reviews.

In fact, it was stranger than that, as it was released almost episodically, starting six weeks ago with a founder’s edition that slowly built up until it had the same content as the launch version. We’re not sure what that was all in aid of, other than trying to give the game a reputation for a lack of content, but that’s essentially irrelevant now. And while Battle For Neighborville still fails to improve on some of its predecessors’ more obvious flaws it remains an impressively entertaining and imaginative shooter.

To most adult players, the fact of whether there’s realistic violence in a game is probably of little concern but it does make a huge difference to how a game is designed and, as seen in Nintendo’s Splatoon, encourages developers to come up with unique ideas out of necessity rather than just random inspiration. It’s true that there are a lot of weapons in Battle For Neighborville that are functionally very similar to things like sniper rifles and shotguns but the context and characters are completely different.

As you might gather, this is a third person shooter where you play as either ambulatory plants or cartoon zombies. There are three new characters per side, including the stealth-orientated Night Cap and the zombie 80s Action Hero, who’s primarily a pastiche of Rambo. The most interesting though are the two defend types that can transform into alternate forms, which can then be manned by other players. The Acorn is a useful scout on its own but can also turn into a giant Oak, which acts as multiple turrets for other players. At the same time Space Cadet zombie can team up with others to turn into a space station.

A lot of the characters return from Garden Warfare 2, from the wizard-like Rose to the double-jumping zombie Imp, but strangely the whole variant concept, which acted essentially like sub-classes, has been stripped out. At first that seems like madness, given the variety it added, but it appears to be an attempt to improve the balance between different characters. Instead, you can now customise each one with different upgrades, meaning that everyone’s working from the same pool of differing buffs and abilities.

Rather than the competitive side of things, the main focus of Battle For Neighborville’s new features is the PvE aspect of the game. This was a relatively minor element of Garden Warfare 2 but now there are three different areas that work a bit like the patrol zones from Destiny. They’re not quite that big but they do have their own collectibles and rewards, and some surprisingly good boss battles. There’s even something resembling a story connecting them all and they’re just as entertaining whether you’re playing alone or with friends.

There’s even a two-player split screen option when playing locally, although for no good reason the game requires a permeant Internet option to play.

By comparison, far less has changed in the PvP side of the game, although developer PopCap has got rid of consumables and instead their new equivalents just run on cooldown timers. There are no microtransactions at launch but ominously EA has said they’re coming, and they’ll presumably be tied to the gacha-like capsule system which costs an enormous amount of in-game currency for just a single cosmetic item. It’s easy enough to ignore but outside of that there’s a lack of meaningful progression, with the levelling and prestige ranks not encouraging the same drive to get all the variants as the previous game.

There are plenty of different modes though, even if a lot of them are the same as Garden Warfare 2. The 4v4 Battle Arena elimination mode is new though, where you only have one life per round and aren’t allowed to play the same character twice. If that sounds very Call Of Duty then that’s always been the point, with other modes stretching up to the 24-player Conquest style Turf Takeover and the 16-player Team Deathmatch equivalent Team Vanquish. (Do you see what they’ve done there in terms of the non-violent names?)

There are also two separate social hubs to visit, which are a faff to use in a hurry, when you just want to access options that would normally be on a menu, but they’re indicative of a game that really does seem to be making an effort in terms of its presentation and range of features. Although it’s biggest problem – that has been true for the entire series so far – is that the gunplay still feels a little too imprecise, with a lack of animation feedback that can make it hard to tell if you’re damaging an opponent.

For a long time now EA has seemed allergic to the idea of just making a good game, releasing it, and letting people enjoy it. Which is a shame because the Garden Warfare series, whether you call it that or not, has always been something of a hidden gem and deserved more fanfare than this weird early access-esque launch. The series still needs a little more time to grow into the more complete family friendly experience it should be but Battle For Neighborville has still managed to flower into one of the most unique shooter experiences of the year.

Plants Vs. Zombies: Battle For Neighborville review summary

In Short: Garden Warfare 3 in all but name, but while it’s not an emphatic improvement on the previous games it’s still a highly enjoyable, family friendly online shooter.

Pros: The core action is still a lot of fun and the new characters are all great. New focus on PvE works well and could even teach Destiny a thing or two. Enjoyable co-op options and competent map design.

Cons: Early Access approach is entirely unnecessary. Lack of sub-classes is a shame and the progression system lacks drive. Gunplay could be tighter and the threat of microtransactions looms.

Score: 7/10

Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Price: £34.99
Publisher: EA
Developer: PopCap
Release Date: 18th October 2019
Age Rating: 7

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