PopCap arguably popularised the casual game genre or at least rode the first big wave of the casual game revolution. Tablets were still new back then, and they took a big share of casual games market on the PC with popular hits such as Bejeweled, Zuma and of course Plants vs Zombies. Eventually, PopCap released their big hits on mobile platforms as these were nascent casual gaming devices and looked to be the future for casual games. After a long hiatus, PopCap have released their highly anticipated sequel; Plants vs. Zombies 2: It’s About Time.
Plants vs. Zombies 2 dives right into the game with a simple tutorial, which you can skip if you want to. Your guidance is once again provided by the cooking pot wearing Crazy Dave. The story setup is quite simple: Crazy Dave recently ate a delicious Taco and wants to enjoy eating it all over again, and as such, he straps himself into a time machine in the form of an RV, and you get transported back in time. Unfortunately, you take a wrong turn and end up in Egypt, and subsequently, travel through various other time periods in search of “The Great Taco”.
The gameplay will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played the original. Essentially, it’s a “tower defense” game. Each level is comprised of different kinds of zombies ambling along towards your house across your “lawn”. There are five horizontal rows along which the zombies approach your house. You plant various kinds of violent plants to stop the zombies reaching your house and eating your brains, and a lawnmower booby trap is there at the end of each row to literally mow down a row of zombies should one slip through your floral defences.
Plants vs. Zombies 2 brings with it some very interesting new plants to add to your arsenal, as well as a lot of interesting new zombies with different abilities to get in your way. There are also variety of new environments, with the game currently being split into 3 different time zones: Ancient Egypt, Pirate Seas and Wild West. There will be at least one more time zone, likely to be released in the near future, which will also be set in the future.
Up until an update in December 2013, each area was comprised of a more complicated map with side quests you could unlock with cash or through earning enough stars. Each level required you to play it three times to earn 3 stars. Each star required you to pass the level with a slightly different twist on the challenge. However, PopCap clearly decided that this was too much and have introduced a more streamlined, linear map that is easier to get through. As you progress along the map, you unlock new plants without needing to take any side quests. This simplification of the map and the removal of the need to grind to unlock is welcome, however, it is unclear whether players that paid to unlock the side quest gates were compensated. It does bring up the issue of how much a developer can tweak a game post-release, especially if it can be considered detrimental to customers.
This brings us to the elephant in the room. Free-To-Play, also known as F2P. I’m not a fan of this business model, but I won’t go into too much detail about the pros and cons of this type of monetization today. Suffice to say, I always prefer to pay for a game once, enjoy it for as long as I want, and replay it as often as I like without needing to fork out money for every play through. Eventually, developers will need to strike a balance between allowing a player to get through the game without paying anything, against the desire to get people to pull out their wallets.
Basically, this means that the game will likely be much more challenging if you choose not to pay, which is exactly the case with Plants Vs. Zombies 2. I wouldn’t say the game is impossible without paying for upgrades or extra plant unlocks, but it makes for some pretty hectic levels and will definitely force a few replays. If there was an option to purchase a bunch of useful and non-consumable upgrades for ten dollars, it would be worthwhile. However, as it stands, I couldn’t find a bundle that was worth the purchase price. The upgrades you keep are not that great and the consumables will dwindle away quickly, requiring you to reach for you wallet again in no time.
However, not everything is just take, take, take. PopCap recently released a “Feastivus Celebration” update which sees daily levels with suitably themed backgrounds and zombie outfits. Completing a level gives you some nice bonuses of coins, and sometimes a few other goodies (but mostly coins). Although, with that being said, during such levels, the game repeatedly reminds you that you can use the special powers in exchange for coins to help you get through the level, and sadly, the amount of zombies attacking you appears to be geared toward that end. Basically, why not dish out some free coins to get players hooked on using the power-ups? I still found it possible to get through some of the levels on my first try, so hopefully we’ll see other appropriately themed bonus levels as the year progresses to earn some extra coins, even if it’s essentially “dealer’s free crack” to keep you playing.
In classic PopCap style, the art and visual design of the game is mostly excellent. The levels are colourful, detailed and vary quite nicely depending on which time period you are in. The sound design is also excellent with crisp sound effects and well-composed catchy music that has been updated from the original. The screen is laid out nicely, and everything is easy to tap on both a phone or tablet screen. My only complaint is that when tapping on the suns that come down from the top of the screen, I would frequently tapped the “buy more coins” button.
Plants vs Zombies 2: It’s About time is a great addition to the franchise. The trademark humour is there, as is the great art style, sound and music. The game is much more challenging than the original, but be aware you might feel like PopCap are trying to push you towards a purchase to help you along. If you can grit your teeth past the F2P irritations, you will enjoy the gameplay and humour. And you can’t really argue with the entry price, can you?