Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare and its sequel were both games that I spent a lot of time playing, their cutesy visuals and fun multiplayer shooting acting as a great alternative to the more serious Call of Dutys and Battlefields of the world. But a third game never appeared, and Plants vs Zombies sort of faded away, its days as a multiplayer shooter nearly forgotten. Until now, that is. Plants vs Zombies: Battle for Neighborville may not have the Garden Warfare name but it’s most certain a sequel, one that has snuck under the radar. Released this past week with very little hype or advertising it has sucked up hour after hour of my time.
In fact, there was so little buildup to release that when I went to hunt down screenshots for this review I discovered that there were barely any. Did EA just push this one out of the back door in the middle of the night?
Once again it’s third-person warfare with the cute plants vs the moaning zombies as they battle for supremacy across a few different modes. The headlining act is easily Turf Takeover where its 12v12 with one team defending a series of objectives while the other attempts to power through. The zombies may have to push through a payload while the brave plants fend them off, or a Mallowmortar that rains down sticky marshmallow death might have to be blown up.
Each team gets a roster of 10-different characters and this is where I feel Plants vs Zombies: Battle for Neighborville excels by making each one feel distinct. A lot of that is because of the sheer amount of personality and charm that the developers have managed to forcefully shove into their designs and their animations. I love the way that the cheerful sunflower skips across the levels, or how the Zombie’s quarterback lugs his football launcher around. Many of these characters return from the prior games but a couple of them are new, like the Zombie’s space cadet who floats around in a little UFO or the Plant’s tiny acorn who can grow into a massive, tough oak that stomps around the level. These new additions slot nicely into the existing roster, giving plenty of variety when it comes to finding something that suits you.
No matter the character you opt to use in a match you get three special abilities that you can use. The humble peashooter can plant its roots and turn into a lethal gatling gun, while the Dreadbeard can climb into a barrel before running into a crowd and detonating it, a tactic that is exceptionally deadly given the game’s love of having to capture or defend small, confined areas where an explosion can wipe out a whole team. Again, every class feels like it does enough to help separate it from the others and give it a distinct role on the battlefield. My personal favourite at the moment is a ninja mushroom on the Plant team who can vanish in a puff of smoke, thrown down bubbles that makes allies disappear and can unleash an insane flurry of blows. As a small character the mushroom is easy to overlook, so combined with its relatively low health it’s meant to be used carefully, striking from the flanks before disappearing again. Another person favourite is the Chomper, a menacing plant that’s almost all mouth and teeth which can burrow underground before emerging underneath a victim and swallowing them hole. The downside is that while digesting its unfortunate prey the Chomper moves slowly and can’t attack, making it a sitting plant.
It’s the interplay between these various characters that make the action very, very fun indeed. With so many abilities being combined and fired off the fights between teams feel hectic without every becoming a complete clusterfuck. Learning how best to use your abilities and how they can be combined is satisfying. There’s a lot of room for proper teamwork, too, like the chunky Citron plant using its shield to provide cover for a Peashooter in gatling mode. The cartoon visuals stop you from ever taking the action too seriously, letting you sink into the light-hearted, simple gameplay.
The only complaint I have about the general gunplay is that movement and aiming are a little stiff. Battle for Neighborville isn’t as smooth and fluid as other shooters on the market, but thankfully you don’t tend to notice it too much as you try to figure out how you, a simple sunflower, are going to toe-to-leaf with a hulking zombie mech that is currently trying to grind your yellow face into yellow paste.
That one-on-one element is stronger in the smaller modes such as the 4v4 Team Vanquish, and it’s quite fun to venture into them to find out how different characters can play off against each other. But I also found that those smaller modes also revealed that some characters don’t cut it in those situations. This is a game where big teams filled with different abilities clash and that’s when it shines. In those smaller fights something like the gentle sunflower doesn’t fare as well and can get forgotten about, and so I found myself gravitating towards Turf Takeover and hoping that they add more maps because right now there’s just a few.
Don’t fret due to the talk of abilities and teamwork because none of this is as nuanced as something like Overwatch where team composition and perfect use of abilities is key to not getting your arse handed to you. Battle for Neighborville is much more forgiving and while good team composition and smart plays can make a difference it mostly comes down to having a blast and enjoying yourself.
It is a bit of a shame that the character variants from the previous Garden Warfare games have vanished, mind you. In Garden Warfare 2 each class had numerous elemental variants that would change how characters played. That’s been tossed onto the compost heap and in its place is a small upgrade system where you can pick from a few perks for your character. New ones get unlocked as you level characters up and some of those do alter the way you play a reasonable amount, but none of them are as fun or interesting as the variants they’ve replaced.
Really the question is whether Plants vs Zombies: Battle for Neighborville will have the staying power that a multiplayer shooter needs, especially with the likes of the new Modern Warfare launching. With microtransactions incoming it’s clear that EA intend this to be a continuing game, so I wonder if the core gameplay has enough to keep people coming back. That isn’t to say the game isn’t brilliantly good fun because it most certainly is: since picking it up I’ve sunk a few dozen hours into Battle for Neighborville and still find myself looking forward to sneaking in another couple of matches.
While it’s primary a multiplayer game Battle for Neighborville does offer something for the solo player. The singleplayer elements are tied into the multiplayer by only being accessible through the little hub world that you run around between matches. The zombies and the plants each get two singleplayer worlds they can visit that feature a handful of quests and short stories culminating in surprisingly fun boss battles. You’ll help out a zombie scientist that is worried about how he’s becoming too smart, and aid a cheerful sunflower who genuinely made me laugh dress up a lawnmower to make it look cool. There are some bounties to hunt as well, plus elusive special enemies and some other nice bonuses to discover whilst exploring.
While the singleplayer is essentially a way of helping players get ready for the multiplayer there’s a good sense of fun to everything you do. The mission designs are nothing special and again reflect the idea that singleplayer is a training ground for online but the game’s great humour and the sheer charm of the visuals make them enjoyable to complete. I often found myself spending an hour or two checking everything out, opening chests and trying to tackle some of the harder challenges.
There’s a grindy element to these zones, too, as each one has a vendor who will sell you special cosmetic gear provided you can hoover up enough currency and earn enough medals. In the desert town where the plants can visit, for example, you can earn Sheriff Badges by killing enemies and completing quests, then go find the level’s vendor where they can be traded in for some unique stuff. I wouldn’t say the cosmetics you get will have enough appeal to keep you playing these areas for very long, but doubtless some dedicated players will enjoy trying to unlock them.
I should point out that you can also invite some friends into these hubs or even do split-screen if you fancy having some company. If the developers are smart I think they’ll update these areas with new things and challenges to help encourage players to keep coming back to them.
The main way to unlock new visual customization options for characters is to spend coins at the capsule machine which spits out a single, random item each time. Each capsule costs 30,000 coins and per match you’ll probably come out with 10,000-18,000 coins so it doesn’t take long to afford a capsule, but getting one random thing each time is dull and frustrating. There’s no joy to be had in saving up your cash only to get a couple of cosmetic items, none of which are even for characters you like or play as. I’d like to either see the price per capsule dropped, or for you to get more than one item at a time.
But the sheer amount of stuff to unlock seems quite impressive so far. I’ve seen a wide array of different bits and pieces that people have gotten from the capsules, missions or from special chests that you can find in the singleplayer areas. The legendary hats even have special reactions too, like a clapping monkey that smashes together cymbals when you earn a kill. It made getting one more exciting.
I’ve also got to raise the issue of microtransactions; there are currently none in the game but it has already been confirmed that some form of premium currency will be getting introduced at some point. The exact form it will take and what you’ll be able to buy hasn’t yet been revealed, but this tactic fits in with the recent trend of microtransactions being added after launch so that the initial reviews aren’t affected. When these do get added they have the potential to radically shift the quality of the game.
If you find yourself bored of the little hub worlds and straight multiplayer then there’s also Ops mode where you and a few other people can team up to fight off waves of A.I. enemies interspersed with special bosses. It’s a fun mode that doesn’t have enough rotting meat on its bones but used as a bit of a palette cleanser it’s fine.
Finally, it looks like there were be special events running that offer up even more special cosmetics to snag. Right now it’s the Lawn of Doom where you can earn bulbs by doing specific things and then spend them to unlock themed rewards like new costumes, emotes and more.
While it’s never going to compete with the big boys of the multiplayer genre there’s a whole load of fun to be had in Plants vs Zombies: Battle for Neighborville and if EA play it smartly by keeping microtransactions purely cosmetic they could have a superb little game with a relatively small but dedicated group of players. If you enjoyed the first two Garden Warfare’s then this is absolutely worth picking up, although don’t go expecting any major leaps in terms of gameplay mechanics or ideas. And if you never played the prior games then this is still a game you should grab if you can, especially if you fancy something lighter.
4 out of 5