PvP needs more thyme to blossom
It feels like a small miracle that the team-based shooter series Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare is now on its third game in five years. The latest, Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville, isn’t a huge step forward as much as it is a continuation, but PopCap Vancouver has done a lot of streamlining.
And you know what? I’m perfectly fine with that! All three games have their high points.
Some fans are always going to prefer the expertly-crafted map designs and purity of the original game, and I can sympathize. Others will forever cling to Garden Warfare 2‘s countless character class variants, which offered a tremendous sense of flexibility but contributed to long-term balancing headaches.
I can also picture Battle for Neighborville winning over another subset of players: folks who love hanging out in PvE zones and scouring for collectibles and secrets without the pressure or stress of PvP.
Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville (PC, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox One)
Developer: PopCap Vancouver
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Released: October 18, 2019
The developers tried something different with Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville‘s release model, and overall, I think it worked out well. The game was made available for purchase six weeks before launch in a cheaper, not-yet-complete Founding Neighbor edition. That’s where I began.
Each week, PopCap doled out more game content, including multiplayer modes – like the new four-on-four Battle Arena – and multiple open-ended PvE story zones, like the Weirding Woods. This gradual rollout prevented me from burning through any single area too quickly, which I appreciated. It’s also hopefully a sign of what’s to come if post-launch content updates or expansions are on the table.
As it stands today, you’ll be able to hop into Battle for Neighborville without those early-access restrictions. Straight away, you can start poking around. The plants and zombies both have their own headquarters, with an amusement park “social area” sandwiched between them, and these home bases are where you’ll access everything from PvP and PvE gateways to cosmetic unlocks and even a couple of goofy mini-games. By default, you’ll see other players, but you can form your own private lobby.
I had a love-hate relationship with the hubs at first. They’re full of personality, which is one of the series’ strongest suits, but until you memorize the layout, navigation is a bit of a chore. They’re pretty densely packed. Thankfully, I figured out that certain actions – like team switching, cosmetic customization, and character upgrades – can be accessed from the start menu. That saves time.
Battle for Neighborville expands on the Backyard Battleground concept from Garden Warfare 2, and dozens of hours in, that’s where the bulk of my time has gone. PvE really feels like a focal point.
There are three distinct zones – Mount Steep (plants only), Weirding Woods (zombies only), and Town Center (plants and zombies) – each with their own missions, collectibles, rewards, and surprisingly intricate boss battles. You can play through all of this stuff as any of the characters, at any time, alone or with friends. It’s fun to face AI troops and mini-bosses while you roam the maps, even if you’re flying solo. The story quests themselves aren’t anything too groundbreaking, but the new character designs and all-around silly vibes put a consistent smile on my face. This is such a good “podcast game.”
I wouldn’t have necessarily recommended Garden Warfare 2 to people who just wanted a solid PvE experience, but I’m much more inclined to make that case with Battle for Neighborville, particularly given its $40 price tag. The scope of free-roaming isn’t on the same level as, say, patrolling through Destiny 2, but I’ve genuinely enjoyed it, and I hope PopCap will continue building. It’s not an afterthought.
Just to be clear: this game is online-only. You won’t make it past the main menu without a connection.
As for PvP, to some extent, I’m still making up mind. In a lot of ways, the competitive side of Battle for Neighborville feels like more of the same, albeit streamlined with the removal of class variants and the piece-by-piece booster pack unlock system from before. As a quick aside, you no longer have to spend a single coin on pesky one-time-use consumable defensive items – those now run on cooldowns.
There are 20 characters, all told. Each side has three new classes, two of which are puny but can transform into more powerful forms and even team up with other players, Megazord style.
On the plant front, there’s the stealthy Night Cap, the fire-breathing Snapdragon, and the Acorn, which can become a mighty cannon-firing Oak. On the zombie squad, there’s the roller-skating Electric Slide, the bow-wielding 80s Action Hero, and the transformative Space Cadet. These fresh faces join the existing Garden Warfare 2 cast including the Foot Soldier, Peashooter, Imp, and Rose, and the whole gang can full-on sprint now. Sometimes, pinning down targets isn’t enough. They’re slippery.
Not everyone is fun to play as yet – I truly feel like game balance will be a constant tug-of-war again – but the potential is there. In place of wildly different class variants, every character has static abilities and equippable “upgrades.” You can swap these in and out at will for bonuses like health regeneration for each vanquish, faster XP accumulation, and even homing shots (depending on who you’re playing as), but you only have so many slots and potent perks take up more space (and need to be unlocked).
This system is arguably more elegant, but it loses some of the impact. My hope is that with fewer variables to juggle, PopCap will be able to add more characters down the road, not unlike Overwatch. Heck, the character select screen is even divvied up with Attack, Defend, and Support categories.
In terms of modes, it’s mostly a repeat with the objective-based 12v12 Turf Takeover, 8v8 Team Vanquish, smaller modes like Suburbination and Gnome Bomb, and a strategic new 4v4 Battle Arena mode in which players have one life per round and they can’t pick the same character twice.
If this is all sounding very samey, well, it kind of is! Again, Battle for Neighborville feels like a refresh, for better or worse. I’m not remotely tired of the formula yet, but I also think there’s room to grow.
I don’t have as much of a desire to level up the whole cast this time around – the “gotta catch ’em all” factor isn’t as palpable without class variants – but the free battle-pass-esque Prize Map for unlocking new seasonal rewards is interesting, at least in the early days. I’m also struggling somewhat with character movement and hit detection, neither of which feel one hundred percent fine-tuned to me.
I don’t doubt that the developers will try to stay on top of ongoing balance concerns, but I also worry that the power pendulum will swing too far in one team’s favor week to week. We’ll see how that goes.
That said, reviewing what’s in front of me, I’m mostly happy right now. PvP just isn’t quite there yet.
Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville doesn’t go out of its way to surpass expectations, but it’s a silly, strange, joyful game – one I’m glad was greenlit. If PopCap can continue what it started, this stands a fighting chance of becoming my favorite PvZ spin-off. I hope it gets that opportunity.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]