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It’s about time: Plants vs. Zombies 2 is here, and it’s damn good (review)

Above: Plants vs Zombies 2: It's About Time

Image Credit: PopCap

It’s about time! That’s the subtitle to Plants vs. Zombies 2, the sequel to the wildly popular 2009 tower-defense strategy title from PopCap Games. That’s also the way I feel about the timing of this long-awaited game, which is due out for the public very soon.

Now part of Electronic Arts, PopCap has been toiling on this title (on and off, for almost four years) to deliver something both familiar and fresh to millions of fans of the first game. Now the second game’s release is imminent, and we’ve played through many hours of the iOS game (for iPhone and iPad). The game bears a lot of resemblance to the first title that came out in 2009. So I wonder why it took so long. But it is also very well-tested and balanced, and that makes me understand the craftsmanship at PopCap and why it took so long to get this title right. [Update: The game launched today, Thursday Aug. 15, on iOS].

PopCap never hurries. Even under the ownership of EA, it waltzes toward its game releases, like a slow-moving zombie who wants to eat your lovably misspelled “brainz.” All three of my kids were obsessed with the first game, but they’ve grown much older as they waited for the new version to arrive. It’s rare for a game to have such universal appeal, at least in my household. The fundamental breakthrough in this game, in my opinion, was that it was a slow-moving title where you could sit and think about what you needed to do until the horde arrived and became unmanageable. That’s what made it stand out in the overcrowded zombie game genre.

The verdict on the new game? Fans are going to love it. It does just about everything it needs to capture a large market of players. It has cute zombies and pretty flowers. It’s got a silly story and a sense of humor. And it has hardcore, sometimes extremely challenging levels that seem simple but are very difficult to master. To make it through three large worlds in this time travel game, you’ll have to spend hours replaying levels lots of times. The painstaking attention to the gameplay details shows. If the level designers tweak just one parameter in the game, what was once a simple level can become very hard to survive. And if you don’t survive, the zombies will devour your brainz and you’ll have to start all over again.

The good thing is that the vast majority of the game is free-to-play, where you can play for free but purchase virtual currency with real money, and the game doesn’t force you to spend money. You’ll get your money’s worth in this game, and for PopCap and EA’s sakes, you probably won’t mind spending money once in a while to make more progress in the game or get ahead of your friends. In this sense, Plants vs. Zombies 2 is a rare, thoughtful sequel.

Plants vs. Zombies 2. Wild West map.

Above: Plants vs. Zombies 2’s Wild West map.

Image Credit: PopCap

What you’ll like

Familiar, addictive gameplay

Few games are as addictive as the original Plants vs. Zombies, which debuted on the PC in 2009. The first game was so successful that PopCap spent about two years porting the title to just about every platform where games appear. Then it began working on the second version and worked hard to get the balance right in every level, according to senior producer Allen Murray.

Plants vs. Zombies 2 is still a twist on the classic tower defense strategy genre, where you have to set up a fortress and manage your resources efficiently. Zombies walk across a segmented board, which can be your lawn or the deck of a pirate ship. They try to get to the other side so they can break into your abode and eat your brainz. You use a bunch of plants to defend yourself. The zombies start out painfully slow at first. You plant sunflowers which produce little suns. You tap on the suns in order to stock up on them. And then you spend the suns to purchase new kinds of plants. The variety of plants in mind-boggling and creative, but you don’t have to think too hard about which ones you’ll use. Every zombie has a counter in a plant, in a rock-paper-scissors fashion. You’re limited to choosing from among six or so plants in each round.

Zombies may attack down six lanes. But if you dawdle in setting up your defenses, or you spend too many suns on the wrong kind of plant, they may surprise you. If just one of them gets to the other side, that may ruin your victory conditions and you’ll have to begin again. At some point, the zombies will amass in overwhelming numbers. If you haven’t spent your suns wisely in amassing a lot of firepower to counter the zombies, then you’ll lose your brainz.

New plants, new capabilities

The basic mechanics are the same, but the changes come in the character types. The new plants include a Boomerang Flower, Bonkchoy (which can punch in two directions), and Peapod and Snapdragon are all new plant defenses. But there are also new kinds of zombies, including the Pharoh Zombie, Mummy Zombie, Pirate Captain Zombie, and Cowboy Zombie. Each one of those zombies is aimed at crushing your defenses in surprising ways.

Players will appreciate the variety of the zombies in this new game that represent multiple types of threats. Some can swing over barriers such as water. Others can fly over your plants, attacking you in middle of the board. Still others can roll TNT barrels that block your main Pea Shooter plants. At each point along the way, you have to decide whether to spend your valuable suns on short-term stop gaps, such as a walnut that gets in the zombies’ way for a while until they eat it, or long-term, expensive weapons such as a cannon. You’re constantly making trade-offs in the game, and your choices really matter.

In the Pirate Seas world, you defend your ship from zombies trying to board it via a plank. You can close off the lanes where there are planks. But the Captain Zombie can leap over the gap between the two ships and swing on over to your ship. That gives you very little time to react. You can counter the captain with a Walnut or a Freeze plant. And that makes it all feel like a very competitive chess game.

The meta maps

The sequel has a larger campaign this time and a meta-campaign where you have to make your way through the levels but also pursue side quests. You’ll have to earn Stars by playing the same levels over and over and hitting the target performance level. Once you accumulate enough Stars, you can advance. The three worlds are Ancient Egypt, Pirate Seas, and The Wild West. PvZ2 is designed in a modular fashion, so PopCap can release additional levels as well as additional meta worlds in the future. That gives players who just can’t get enough a path to continuously engage with the game.

PopCap trains you to be a meticulous player, and that should result in higher engagement. You’ll come back to this game, and replay levels, over and over, because it is designed that way. You can speed through the levels in the first world or two and move on. But to get to the third world, you’re going to have to play through levels over and over.

If you add up all of the levels, it has more than 60. At the end of each world, you can play in a “challenge zone” that offers you never-ending gameplay, if you wish. That’s a huge amount of content for a free-to-play game.

Plant food

When you kill a glowing zombie, you’ll earn a new kind of power-up dubbed Plant Food. You can use these to temporarily boost the firepower of a plant or to instantly produce 150 sun points. The firepower is usually enough to eliminate the threat of a zombie attack in a given row, or it could be used on your mortar-like corn plants to lob sticks of butter at every zombie on the map, slowing them all down. Your Pea Shooters can suddenly become Gatling guns, mowing down zombies and giving you great satisfaction.

You can only have three or four of these Plant Food boosters at any given time, and the glowing zombies don’t arrive too often. So you have to hoard them as if they were precious and use them only when emergency dictates it. This gives the defense a significant boost, and that allows PopCap to ratchet up the number of zombie waves attacking to a much higher level than in past games. While Plant Food helps you out enormously, it also increases the intensity and tension.

Gesture attacks

Another big change is its focus on touchscreens. If you earn enough gold coins, you can purchase more temporary power-ups that can save your bacon in the height the zombies attacks. You can use your coins to buy special abilities that you can execute with simple touch gestures. Eight hundred coins buys you the ability to pinch the off the heads of zombies with your finger and your thumb. You can spend 1,000 coins to send a bolt of lightning through the zombies, electrocuting them. With 1,200 coins, you can pick up a zombie and flick it off the game board. Each one of these attacks is available for 10 seconds or so. That’s enough time to launch a devastating attack on most of the zombies on your game board. Such attacks come in handy when you really need some “divine intervention” in the face of the zombie assault.

More game modes

The first game had a story-based campaign and a never-ending challenge survival mode. You still have those options, but the variations on a theme within each level are important. Sometimes you’ll be called upon to defend your plants without losing any flowers at all. Sometimes you have to defend a plant, such as a Spring Bean (which can bounce pirate zombies off the ship into the water) at a given location at all costs. These different victory conditions cause you to change your tactics and the line-up of plant defenses. You don’t really get the sense that you’re traveling through time.

Plants vs. Zombies 2. Ancient Egypt Day 4

Above: Plants vs. Zombies 2. Ancient Egypt Day 4

Image Credit: PopCap

What you won’t like

The silliest of stories

For four years of work, you have to wonder how much time PopCap spent coming up with the script. Plants vs. Zombies 2 has quite possibly the worst story I’ve ever seen in a video game. Fortunately, it’s meant to be funny, and sometimes it is. But most of the time, It’s trying to be funny and not succeeding. Dave, your crazy neighbor with a cooking pot on his head, is back in the new game, and he initiates the mayhem because he eats a taco. That taco is so delicious that he wants to eat it again, so he fires up his time machine so that he can rewind time to just before the moment when he ate the taco. Instead, the time machine — named Penny — takes you back to ancient Egypt, where you have to battle zombies on your lawn. Penny and Dave keep up a banter that will drive you nuts. It’s all tongue-in-cheek, but I almost wish that PopCap took this part of the game more seriously.

Retreading levels

Some players will like the replayability, and some will get bored with it. You can conquer the 11 levels in the Ancient Egypt world or the 10 levels in Pirate Seas world fairly quickly. But you’ll have to earn a variety of items on side quests to pick up extra points. Those extra points, including Keys and Stars, are essential to unlocking more content and getting enough currency to make a leap into the next world.

You’ll have plenty of reason to go back over the same territory. That’s a good way for the game designers to deal with the memory limitations of a device like an iPad or iPhone. But it can be frustrating as well because you’ll eventually get bored playing the same maps over and over. And this game is so difficult at times that you’ll have to play a number of levels over and over again.

The urge to monetize

You won’t have to pay for anything if you don’t want to. But the temptation always lingers, and it may annoy you. I found that the easiest way to make the best progress was to head straight to the in-app purchase menu and get yourself some virtual gold with real money. That may help the monetization, but you’ll wind up with a lighter wallet if you resort to buying your upgrades rather than earning them.

The deeper you get, the more you realize that you need to get rewards dubbed “Stars,” which help you progress to other levels, and “Keys,” which let you through locked doors for more missions and Stars. That means you’ll have to replay past missions so that you can get a higher score and earn your Stars.  During these retread missions, you’ll sometimes find it’s very difficult to earn the Star unless you invoke some of the divine intervention features, where you can purchase a lightning strike, to pinch the heads of zombies, or use your fingers to flick a zombie off the screen.

Those latter interventions are great fun. But they use up the gold coins you earn with each mission you complete. And when you run out of coins, you have to purchase them with real money. The temptation to do that is great, since sometimes the only thing that can get you past a difficult spot in the game is divine intervention. And that’s where the microtransactions will come in. You can still try to beat your head against a wall and try to win those coins on your own; after all, the guiding principle in free-to-play games these days is that you should not be able to buy your way to victory in a way that you can’t do via gameplay. But buying coins will shorten the time it takes to accumulate coins. PopCap says you can play 90 percent of the content for free.

Where’s the next world?

I found myself wondering why there weren’t more worlds in this time travel game. Those world’s are probably coming as future DLC, but it would have been nice to have a longer story-based campaign (as bad as the story was) and then balance that against the retread missions and side quests. It would be nice, for instance, to have more variety in night, fog, or water missions. If there were more worlds, the game would have felt considerably more different from the original.

Plants vs. Zombies 2. Save our seeds II.

Above: Plants vs. Zombies 2. Save our seeds II.

Image Credit: PopCap

Conclusion

The sheer variety of plants and zombie types will put you to the test. If you make a mistake or two in your plant selection or in countering an attacking zombie, you’ll pay for it. As a free-to-play game, Plants vs. Zombies 2 has its minor annoyances with monetization tactics. But it promises many hours of entertainment, and you’ll wind up playing this game a lot more than you should. There is no right way or wrong way to play the game, and you can mix and match your plant combinations in an almost infinite number of ways. You can stall the zombies, or try to take them out early in their march. You can try to blast them out of one lane, or take them out in multiple lanes. You’ll probably wind up with a favorite roster of your usual plants, but you’ll have to try everything to succeed against all attackers.

It is a rare title that all generations or genders of players can enjoy. I heartily recommend it, as there are no rotten vegetables in this game.

Score: 90/100

Plants vs. Zombies 2: It’s About Time has been released on Aug. 15 on iOS. The publisher provided GamesBeat with a download code for the purpose of this review. The game is compatible with iPhone 4, iPhone 4S, iPhone 5, iPod touch (4th generation), iPod touch (5th generation), iPad 2 Wi-Fi, iPad 2 Wi-Fi + 3G, iPad (3rd generation), iPad Wi-Fi + 4G, iPad (4th generation), iPad Wi-Fi + Cellular (4th generation), iPad mini and iPad mini Wi-Fi + Cellular. Requires iOS 5.1 or later. The app is optimized for iPhone 5.

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