Somehow, the original Plants vs. Zombies is comfortably over ten years old. It’s strange to think that an addictive yet fairly unassuming brand, based on a simple two-dimensional blend of tower defense and strategy, would still be relevant enough to talk about today. Yet here we are, with the latest iteration of the eternal battle between the greens and the grays. Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville neatly captures the overall direction of the series as a whole; a little new growth, a little decay, and plenty of soil still left to fertilize.
It’s hard to call Neighborville a revolution, because there’s an awful lot of similarities between this third-person shooter and Garden Warfare 2. Yet there are some notable and welcome improvements, that seem to have come about through careful observation of rivals in the long-term multiplayer space, like Overwatch and Fortnite. The over-reliance on multiple variations of class has disappeared, leaving room for a few more unique base characters to be added to both the Plants and the Zombies roster, bringing the total to 20.
In fact, almost all of these new characters steal the show. Two of them complement each other from either side of the eternal war. For the Plants, it’s the humble Acorn; for the Zombies it’s a Space Cadet in a tiny circular UFO. Both are nimble enough with moderate sustained firepower balanced with a brittle defence, but an ability can turn the Acorn into a lumbering, powerful Oak. The Space Cadet can turn into a slow-moving but powerful floating fortress. Things get more interesting when there are multiple Cadets or Acorns on a team, because multiple players can hop on top of a bigger counterpart — with all of the advantages and complications that implies. It’s nothing new for the genre, but it’s new for PvZ, and it’s one good reason to return to the battlefield. The Plants’ flamethrowing Snapdragon is effective if a little boring, while the Zombies’ 80s Action Hero has a wonderfully unique laser-bow weapon and an ability set that encourages players to get creative; with utility at range and up close with both explosive and targeted fire, he might be the most versatile option in the entire roster. The Plants’ new stealthy Night Cap will probably become a particular favourite for some players, but at the time of writing their unusual skill-set just doesn’t suit the explosive anarchy of a multiplayer shooter’s opening month.
Night Cap isn’t the only option that could do with some tweaking in the coming months; with more versatile class members joining the roster, close-combat options like Chomper and Super Brainz need a little more power – unless you happen to be rolling with a very well-organised team willing to support them.
Another highlight is the expanded Story Mode, now taking place across three distinct open-world maps containing their own collectibles, enemies, challenges and questlines. Both teams will have access to Neighborville's Town Center, with Mount Steep and Weirding Woods available to Plants and Zombies respectively. It’s all moderately charming in design, if nothing truly unique. There’s the usual array of collectibles and side-quests that adorn any open world – there’s chests to open, bounty hunts to complete and specific Ops challenges to overcome, among other things. The main questlines are passable, mindless fun — the whole set of four will probably take less than 5 hours, but within that players will take on four unique bosses that can pose a challenge. If there’s one frustration, it’s the fact that players are locked in to their current character class for the duration of a quest, some of which have multiple stages. Unfortunately because the roster is so diverse, it means that players can spend a lot of time trekking over to the next quest point only to find that the Boss is nigh on impossible with the current class, due to its speed or lack of ranged attacks. If in doubt, it’s best to pick all-rounders with sustained ranged fire for any story quest.
The story hubs are just begging for future questlines, but even now the worlds are fun enough to wander around in alone or with friends, thanks to random spawns of boosted “Champion” variants of an enemy or a sudden incursion of enemy waves, with a time limit to defeat them. Certainly it’s a reasonably entertaining way to pass the time while grinding for class levels which not only work towards achievements but also unlock additional perks as each class ranks up – ranging from generic XP boosts or increased damage on low health, to class-specific perks boosting their ability sets. It’s nice that you can work towards these progression goals in solo play and still have a variety of activities to get involved in.
Multiplayer feels like the least evolved area in Neighborville. While there are some new modes, it definitely feels like the PvP and Ops action sticks to the proven formula. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — it seems clear that Neighborville is in some ways Garden Warfare 2.5, a slight iteration redesigned for the culture of persistent play over endless sequel purchase. However, if you happen to be jumping straight from Garden Warfare 2 to Neighborville things might feel a little too similar. At least each mode takes place in parts of the new hub worlds, so the maps feel relatively fresh, however none of them are particularly exciting or challenging in terms of their design.
The main addition to the multiplayer is the 4v4 Battle Arena in a unique map called the Funderdome. If a player dies in a round, they’re out for the rest of that round — and in subsequent rounds all previously used classes are now locked out. This means that as the four-round event continues, players must select a new class that hopefully co-ordinates well with the remaining options for their team-mates. It’s a more thoughtful and tactical mode compared to the relatively mindless chaos of the rest of the options, and it’s definitely a good way to encourage play with all of the classes. However, it might just be a little too much work to become a fan favourite. It's already difficult to land a match in this mode during the game's quieter hours.
Plants vs. Zombies is in desperate need of a refresh in its sound design. The effects on firing weapons or using explosives are far too humble, and the music is lacklustre. There’s no reason to leave it on, which is a shame — though perhaps a benefit for those who like to listen to something else while they grind a few levels. The other issue is clutter in the game's main multiplayer hub, which once again puts a Plant and a Zombie HQ on opposite sides of an infinite free-play PvP arena. These areas are confusing to navigate thanks to an unnecessary number of vendors and types of transaction. Coins can be used towards cosmetics or XP levels from two different shop fronts, unhelpfully separated from each other. There’s a prize giver NPC that’s entirely separate to the Festival Map rewards seller — effectively, the Battle Pass vendor — who in turn has an entirely separate currency. That’s not even including the three additional currencies in each of the story mode hubs. It’s not the messiest economy out there, but it’s certainly far more complicated than it needs to be; it's also unnecessary to make all of these elements physical places to visit rather than buttons on the pause menu.
The achievement list is almost a perfect microcosm of Neighborville’s highs and lows. Players will have to see through all of that reasonably entertaining story content, but they will also have to grind out 200 kills with everyone on the roster; though thankfully this is seasoned with requirements to use some of the more fun abilities hidden in the class list. Players will also have to get a high score in a shooting gallery and a strange, deadly dance competition. Ultimately though there is still a bit of a grind in the shape of getting every character class to Master rank. Assuming that all past and future exploits will be patched pretty quickly and firmly by the developers, this is going to take a long time. After several hours of play, only around half of the roster had ascended past the initial rank. It’s certainly doable though as several players on site have already managed to complete the list — series veterans will be pleased to hear that at launch, there are no unobtainables or achievements reliant on an event calendar.
SummaryPlants vs Zombies: Battle for Neighborville isn’t a huge evolution for the series — but it is mostly an improvement, and appropriately prepared for the persistent multiplayer culture we find ourselves in. Players jumping straight from Garden Warfare 2 to Neighborville may find the action too similar, though they will at least appreciate the distractions of some exciting new classes, new maps and a more engaging story mode. Neighborville is probably as far as PopCap can afford to push the Garden Warfare formula without losing its audience — the general look and sound of the world, its currenices and progressions, all could do with an overhaul. In the meantime though, its hard not to recommend Neighborville to those ready to revisit this strange universe — as well as new players intrigued to see why a feud between flowers and the undead remains unresolved after a decade.
EthicsThe reviewer spent 14 hours gleefully switching allegiances in the floral-undead conflict, earning 24 of the game's 50 achievements in the process. An Xbox One digital code for the Standard Edition was provided by the publisher for this review. Played on a standard Xbox One and an Xbox One X.
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