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Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville launches in early access today

Polygon logo Polygon 9/4/2019 Owen S. Good
Kernel Corn guns down a Zombie deep in the, uh, “Cheese Mines” of Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville. © PopCap/Electronic Arts Kernel Corn guns down a Zombie deep in the, uh, “Cheese Mines” of Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville.

Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville is the next game in PopCap’s shooter spinoff, and it’s playable right this minute. But let’s get something very important out of the way first: There’s no battle royale in it.

PopCap’s designers at EA Vancouver understand why folks would expect them to mimic Fortnite: They make a brightly colored, kid-safe multiplayer shooter. They made two, actually, before Fortnite went stratospheric: 2014’s Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare and 2016’s more robust Garden Warfare 2. But they aren’t doing a battle royale. They can’t do a battle royale.

“Brand rules: Plants don’t fight plants; zombies don’t fight zombies,” said Shaun Laker, the new game’s live content producer. “Right out of the gates, there’s a pretty hard blocker to how it fits into our game. And then, we really wanted to hone in on the PvP game that our previous shooters have kind of established. It didn’t feel like the right fit for us.”

Instead, Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville, whose early access version hit PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One barely an hour before this story went live, will revise and extend the features that made Garden Warfare 2 successful: solid, class-based shooter gameplay with a roster of bizarre, chuckle-inducing fighters, a social hub world that branches off into distinct areas, and a wealth of PvP and PvE gametypes awaiting players there. All of this will be done within the whimsical canon of PopCap’s Plants vs. Zombies franchise, which began as a tower defense game a decade ago.

“We stayed true to some of the charm of Garden Warfare 2, where you have all of the physical stations — less menus, more physicality,” Laker said. “We really wanted to embrace that approach and create a wacky social hub. I think that’s one of the first things people will notice.”

In a briefing shown to the media at Gamescom 2019 and later, PopCap touts 10 classes for both Plants and Zombies. Some are familiar faces, like Super Brainz and Kernel Corn. Others are new, such as Night Cap, an anthropomorphic ninja mushroom specializing in stealth and speed, and ’80s Action Hero, a Jim McMahon-looking wight with a ranged electrical attack.

Both sides will also have a kind of vehicle-and-gunner character class, which game director Rob Davidson said was developed as a couch co-op idea, particularly for parents playing with kids. For example, Oak, a large, stompy tree trunk, can have one to three Acorns riding atop him, firing on adversaries. The Zombies’ counterpart is the Space Cadet, who starts in a flying saucer that can upgrade to a space station with teammates orbiting her. “There’s definitely a balance in there,” Davidson said. “But then, we’ve also gone and looked at all of our other characters. Like, engineer is a great example, where we’ve revised his secondary abilities, to better balance the rest of the game.”

Where they fight will also draw on the regionalized approach Garden Warfare 2 had with its world. Crazy Dave’s Manor and Dr. Zomboss’ HQ are the homes for those factions, with an amusement-filled Giddy Park as a kind of open-ended mingling space, sort of like Backyard Battleground was in Garden Warfare 2.

PvP gametypes include the Turf Takeover live in the Founder’s Edition available Wednesday, as well as the return of an eight-on-eight Team Vanquish mode. Turf Takeover supports up to 24 players (the game’s maximum) but is meant to be a shorter-playing match with kooky objectives. Later on, Battle for Neighborville will introduce a Battle Arena, where teams of four duke it out in a first-to-four-wins format.

PvE activities will take place in Neighborville’s Town Center and outskirts like the Weirding Woods and Mount Steep, which has some sort of backstory involving cheese mining. Garden Ops, the PvE horde-mode staple of the first two games, will also return.

The Founder’s Edition that launched Wednesday is a six-week preview, in lieu of a beta, that will roll out content and weekly events. Davidson said it will also give PopCap’s Vancouver team the opportunity to balance and tune the game, plus fix bugs and make quality-of-life improvements. “Each week we’re going to turn on features, modes, regions, and with that cascading of features being turned on, it allows us to kind of focus the conversation,” Davidson said. All progression from this Founder’s Edition preview carries over after Battle for Neighborville’s full Oct. 18 launch (at which point it will cost $10 more).

Battle for Neighborville will also take a season-pass approach to ongoing customization content, though PopCap stresses there is no paid entry to its monthly “festivals” making up that calendar. The first one goes live Oct. 1. Laker and Davidson double-stressed that there will be no blind-box microtransactions out of the game’s cosmetics shop. There is a premium currency (and it’ll be awarded through regular play), but every item can be bought directly. This in-game store won’t open until sometime after the Oct. 18 launch.

Davidson noted that this is PopCap’s third foray into the shooter subgenre, and it’s informed by a wealth of telemetry and data from the previous games. “I think we struggled for a while to balance Garden Warfare 2 for a while there, and then we started taking a new approach and strategies that were helping more,” Laker said. “But you’re right that the road that has taken us here has definitely put us in a better spot to nail this one out of the gates, and work closely with the community to keep pushing it after launch.”

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