Whether you’re listening to a tiny Acorn yodel as it transforms into a mighty Oak tree or watching a wannabe superhero zombie hold his arms aloft like Superman when he sprints, Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville’s roster pops with personality. Its PvE campaigns may be boring and repetitive, and its multiplayer maps can create chaotic clusters of action where it’s hard to work out what’s going on, but that’s easy to forgive after you meet its varied and amusing cast of playable plants and zombies. Their unique abilities fill the full range of playstyles, from snipers to healers, and kept me smiling even if the modes around them never quite hit the same high bar.
From its stylish social hub, you can pick from its six PvP multiplayer modes, a co-op tower-defence mode, and even free roam areas with standalone campaigns that can be played solo or with a friend (split-screen co-op is available for all modes on console, but not on PC). Most are derivative of modes you already know – Suburbination is just a three-point domination mode like you’d see in any Call of Duty, for example – but the variety meant I was always able to find something I was in the mood for.
I had two favorites I kept returning to, one of which is called Battle Arena – a new mode that wasn’t in Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare 2. It’s a series of 4v4 rounds with no respawns, but once you’ve picked a character you can’t use them again in later rounds. That limitation encourages you to try out different heroes, and it’s fun to come up with wacky team compositions on the fly. It’s also full of tense 1v1 moments where you know everyone is watching, and it’s your chance to be the hero.
Battle Arena is a great addition, but my favorite mode has to be Turf Takeover: a 12v12 fight on one of four huge, multi-part maps. These battlefields blend capture points, payload pushing, and some exciting final objectives, such as delivering bombs to an enemy base while dodging giant, falling marshmallows. It’s the same formula as previous Plants vs. Zombies shooters, but the all-new maps each have their own distinct mechanics that breathe fresh life into it.
I also enjoyed just spending time hanging out in the hub, which has dance contests, a shooting gallery, and a central, sandbox-style battle area that sits between the plants and zombies’ home bases. It’s where you’ll first glimpse Battle for Neighborville’s bubbly personality. Everything here looks and sounds like it fits in the world: neon signs glow and purr atop changing booths, and satellites chirrup as they swivel side-to-side, scouting for enemies. At the time of this review, the whole area is decked out for Halloween, with candles flickering inside carved pumpkins and mechanical ghosts popping up in every corner, accompanied by maniacal cackling, with different seasonal decorations planned throughout the year.
That personality is best seen in the plants and zombies you control. The lineup from Garden Warfare 2 is beefed up with three new characters on each side, and developer PopCap has made them all feel unique and exciting to play as. Night Cap is a silent assassin mushroom with glowing purple eyes, and when it turns invisible every sound is muffled and warped, as if you’re tip-toeing through another dimension. The 80s Action Hero is an explosives expert that looks like a washed-up rocker, complete with floppy hair and headband. When you pull back his bow it pulses with musical energy, its five purple projectiles gradually forming a single powerful arrow the longer you hold down. Letting it fly and landing a headshot feels fantastic.
Their personalities are expressed most clearly when they sprint – an action that wasn’t included in previous games, but is a welcome addition as it lets you get back into the action faster. When you sprint with the Zombie Foot Soldier, his back-mounted rocket hoists him up and propels him forward, sputtering and chugging along the way. When the healing Sunflower runs, they first glance back at the camera and then dance forward, leaves slapping the ground as their head bobs merrily from side to side.
Garden Warfare 2’s elemental character variants don’t return here, which has annoyed some fans, but I never felt like, but I never felt like I lacked for choice: every one of the 20 heroes has its own playstyle that feels entirely distinct, and each of them has at least three abilities to master. Some can even morph into different forms, such as the new Acorn evolving into an Oak with a punchy explosive gun, and the new Space Cadet linking up with other Cadets to create a single space station unit controlled by multiple players.
I enjoyed figuring out how to make the most out of a character whenever I tried a new one, and whenever I wanted a break I would just switch again. I love playing healers, and spent a lot of time with Sunflower, who has a healing beam and can transform into a stationary turret if your team needs extra firepower. But when the situation called for it, I could quickly switch to the Kernel Corn, who fires dual automatic weapons and can mark enemy positions by chucking sticks of butter.
These abilities are all exciting on their own, but when they combine it can create a chaos that throws all tactics out the window. It’s hard to coordinate with teammates when, amidst several explosions, your entire team is transformed into goats by an enemy Rose. It’s still fun, but it’s the kind of fun I’ll return to when I’m in the mood for mindless multiplayer firefights rather than deep team-based tactics.
I wish maps were more focused, though. Some objectives are very exposed with multiple routes to reach them, which means you’ll often be killed from behind, and it’s hard to know where to look to stay safe. I’m not saying more restricted maps full of chokepoints is the answer, but the maps lack a natural spatial direction to make fights flow.
Some maps don’t feel suited to their mode, either. Ruiny Ruins, a map with a stone temple at its center, works well for the co-op Ops mode where you and your squad stop waves of AI enemies blowing up a central target, placing defence turrets at defined points. But the same map, unaltered, is also used for Team Vanquish, and it really isn’t suited for it. Without the focus on the central point the map feels too spread out, creating isolated 1v1 fights rather than focused team engagements.
On the campaign side, each of the PvE free roam maps has a series of multi-part fetch quests with boss fights, escort missions, and tower defense sections mixed together. They’re repetitive, getting old quickly. Completing a quest is all about spewing out as much damage as possible, which limits the characters you can use effectively: if you aren’t playing with a co-op partner, the healing characters are useless, and long-range characters are mostly rubbish at clearing out big groups.
At times, these quests even feel deliberately frustrating. The final boss of one area is a big tree that huffs and puffs and tries to blow you off the platform you’re fighting on. If you fall, you land in a pond, and multiple enemies with powerful lock-on laser beams will immediately pop out of the water. It’s almost impossible to avoid getting hit by them, and to get back up to the boss you have to press a button to activate a jump platform, then get to it without dying. You’ll lose two minutes every time you fall, or more if you end up dying, making it a chore.
The best thing I can say about the campaigns are that they provide an accessible route into the multiplayer, which is where the meat of the battle lies. The PvP modes give you plenty of reasons to come back beyond the simple satisfaction of killing enemies, as leveling up each character nets you new abilities that can tangibly change your approach to battle. Annoyingly, you have to buy expensive random cosmetics one at a time using coins earned from regular play, but that didn’t stop me pouring in gold to get my beloved Sunflower looking exactly how I wanted – and, thankfully, nothing in this randomized system will make your character more powerful.
It’s hard to say much about these microtransactions without details on how much they’ll cost, or how many you’ll earn through regular play – EA is keeping schtum for now – but the prospect of shelling out more money on a $40 game is hardly inviting. I’d happily pay more in-game gold to buy specific items and avoid the current random loot box system, but I don’t plan on opening my wallet for the privilege.