Plants vs. Zombies has come a long way since its humble beginnings as a tower defence game. After developer PopCap was acquired by EA, the studio churned out two fairly well-received multiplayer shooters before going relatively quiet for the past three years. Now returning with Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville, is it worth reaching for your seed packet?

As with both Garden Warfare titles that precede it, Battle for Neighborville is a third-person shooter with a heavy online focus. Players choose between the undead or the shrubbery and duke it out using the unique abilities of each. Prior plants and zombies return, but are joined by inventive newcomers, like a melee focused mushroom known as Night Cap, the 80s Action Hero Zombie that’s able to throw explosive missiles in large bursts, and our particular favourite, the Space Cadet Zombie -- able to smash a flying saucer into the opposition.

You’ll get plenty of chances to use each one, too. Online play is divided into both competitive modes (team death match, elimination, a variation on Battlefield’s Rush mode, and more), and co-operative wave based play. While individual character abilities and synergies aren’t as make-or-break to a team’s success as they can be in something like Overwatch (because there’s more of a focus on kills here), you can come up with some devastating combos.

The aforementioned Night Cap, for example, can turn invisible for a period to flank around an enemy that’s fixated on a Peashooter in “gatling” mode, while Sunflowers offer significant healing ability and can turn the tide of a battle by charging up teammates to support a push for an objective. It lacks the nuance of something like Blizzard’s online sensation, but that’s kind of the point; Battle for Neighborville is the antidote to overcomplicated metas and po-faced military fare. Released into early access at the beginning of September, the latest incarnation of the franchise feels tightly balanced, too -- no unit feels too overpowered, with each offering a varied enough range of abilities to feel useful in at least one combat scenario.

On the subject of characters, the Plants vs. Zombies franchise has always been stuffed with personality like an explosive jalapeño, and in this regard Battle for Neighborville raises the bar. Its collection of characters is one thing, but the eclectic NPCs that dole out quests are a treat. For one, the ever-cheerful and potentially psychotic sunflower Major Sweetie offers laugh-out-loud humour, while early encounters include dressing a lawn mower as a zombie to gain entry to a nightclub. This is all to say nothing of the top-notch puns that permeate everything from dialogue, to ability names, and various menu systems. The whole thing is a whimsical joy.

But wait, quests and encounters? Didn’t you say it was online-focused? While the game is clearly designed for multiple players, you can explore surprisingly large map areas to complete quests to earn bonus currency with which to customise your shambling horde or lethal garden. There’s even a hub area akin to Destiny’s Tower for each team, but in a neat twist they offer an adjacent skirmish area which you can jump in and out of at any time in order to test your loadouts, as well as firing ranges.

Those open areas aren’t just big for the sake of it, either. They’re full of detail and life, as AI enemies and allies roam the streets of the suburban Town Centre, battling each other. Just when you think you’ve seen all the area has to offer, you can hop over to Mount Steep’s rocky desert and Weirding Woods’ lush forests. Honestly, the environments look really good - better than we’d have expected - which means searching out hidden caches of coins and other such rewards feels more like a reward for exploration rather than an arbitrary box to tick.

That’s not to say the presentation doesn’t stumble every now and again. Playing on PlayStation 4 Pro, there’s definitely some degree of texture pop-in, particularly when arriving on a map as your rocket-powered RV flies you into a combat hot zone.

We expect these issues to be ironed out in due course, especially given the rate at which PopCap has added to the game since the beginning of the review period. New modes, cosmetics, and even regions have been added on a weekly basis, while the game’s new Lawn of Doom Halloween event has gone live just in time for launch. The developer also seems to have used the last month or so of early access to tweak the game’s economy -- there are things to aim for, sure, but Battle for Neighborville avoids becoming a grind (at least until new premium cosmetics are added post-launch).

Conclusion

If you’re looking for a fun, colourful team shooter with plenty to see and do, Battle for Neighborville could be just the ticket. If you weren’t swayed by the prior Garden Warfare titles, you’ll likely want to pass on this, but for the sheer silliness of its characters and the world they exist in, it’s well worth sinking your teeth (or vines) into. You may never want to leave Neighborville.