The original Plants vs. Zombies is one of my most cherished games on iPad. I pretty much played it non-stop until I completed the campaign. It's a perfect example of PopCap magic - simple and easy to grasp base mechanics, plenty of charm and personality added on top and several twists and turns to a genre you thought you knew all there was to know about.
The sequel is a free-to-play game and to a large degree follows the blueprint of the original. For now it's exclusive to iOS, but it will likely hit every platform imaginable over the next couple of years. The free-to-play nature of the game is something I will rant about later on, but first let's talk about what's on offer here.
As the title implies Plants vs. Zombies 2: It's About Time deals with time travel and more specifically with Crazy Dave's quest for his lost taco. Or rather the taco he kept in his pocket and then ate and now wants to eat a second time. Enter his friend the time travelling van and the adventure kicks off.
Longtime fans will feel right at home in the first world set in ancient Egypt. While the zombies are mummified and Egypt introduces some new plants like the bloomerang (hits up to three zombies in a lane twice), iceberg lettuce (freezes zombies, extinguishes torches) and bonk choy (serves up a bowl full of fisticuffs) and mechanics like plant food that supercharges your plants for a brief moment (very useful when particularly tough zombies are bearing down on your brains).
The first world is made up of 11 maps that challenge you in various ways with side paths providing you with bonus plants (you unlock these paths with keys you either earn through gameplay or buy), and once you have finished the last level you need to earn enough stars in the world to open the star gate to the next world. Now earning these stars would sound like a chore if it wasn't for the fact that each star is earned by replaying a certain level with new criterias (like not losing any lawnmovers, not allowing zombies to step over a certain line, not use any energy for a minute and the likes). All told the grind is surprisingly enjoyable, after all as long as we're given new challenges and enjoy it there's nothing wrong with lots of content to work our way through.
The pirate world follows and adds some twists to the normal formula as you'll face pirate captains with parrots that fly off and pluck your plants, midget zombies shoot out of cannons and zombies that hang from birds. Zombies will be walking the plank and you're well advised to place spring beans near water for instant zombie murder. Personally I felt this was the weakest of the three worlds on offer, but it was still great fun.
That takes us to the third world, the Wild West (cue Will Smith). This world is truly inspired and features hilarious zombies like the chicken-rearing farmer zombie, the piano playing zombie that sends zombies dancing between lanes in a manner that is sure to send you into panic mode the first time it happens. Then there's the old geezer of a zombie that uses a dynamite to fly across the board and walk backwards gobbling up your plants from the back row and forward. Getting clean runs and securing the latter stars in this world is a proper challenge and requires creative use of the many plants you will have unlocked at this point. Beyond the Wild West lies the Far Future (just how the taco got there is unknown, but we're sure there's some logical explanation) a world that will arrive later on as an update.
I've easily spent more than ten hours on Plants vs. Zombies and there's still achievements to be captured and stars to be earned. It's a huge game. Halfway through the review process my iPad was stolen and I played the rest of the game on my iPhone 5. Not quite as enjoyable as the brilliant animation work really shines on the larger retina display.
"Love and hate, what a beautiful combination. Sending shivers up and down my spine." (anyone old enough to remember Erasure here?) Seldom have truer words been sung and they sum up my feelings about about the free-to-play model. Free is great for the most part, but there are ways in which the free-to-play model influences the game design that I'm not at all happy with.
You could argue that Plants vs. Zombies 2: It's About Time is a bit heavy on the grind. The mini-games you need to complete to unlock special plants and bonuses (all essential to being successful later on) and the fact that you have to collect stars in order to unlock new worlds, mean you won't progress through the content quickly. Without paying your way to new content that is. But PopCap do a nice job of hiding the fact that you're grinding. You're always given a variety of objectives and there's never the sense of being forced to replay something boring over and over. Sure you can pay to progress quickly (although to be honest you will be in for a rough ride as skipping over unlocks will land you in ever hotter water later on), but it's clear that this game has been designed in a way that a skilled player will have no problems progressing through the content without ever reaching for the credit card.
I haven't played all that many freemium or free-to-play titles as of late, and it genuinely worries me that Plants vs. Zombies 2: It's About Time is seen as a model free-to-play offering. It is quite clear that the game design has been altered in order to monetise the game, or if you will, to cash-in on weaker players who still want to progress. Are we really just happy that we don't have to pay to play often (I'm looking at you Candy Crush)? Or that there are no outright pay-gates? Or that there are no massive difficulty spikes to entice you make use of powerful "super abilities"? I cannot help but feel that had EA and PopCap deemed it more profitable to release this game for a sum of, let's say a fiver, then the overall balance and design would have been better. Adding plant food and super powers does feel like something that's there to create an economy more so than adding actual gameplay value. These micromanagement additions also fit very poorly on the smaller iPhone screen as you're likely to accidentally touch these buttons when managing the bottom row of the board.
As a player who would gladly pay ten quid for a new Plants vs. Zombies and a player who genuinely enjoyed much of the new content on offer here it saddens me that there is no option of simply buying the game. I feel a bit queasy about the constant lure of using overpowered specials (that you can pay for as well as earn in-game). It's a bad fit for the genre that is all about planning and altering your strategies to best deal with a problem - not run your fingers over the screen to electrify zombies, pinch their heads off or simply fling them off screen. And it's a fair point that I don't have to use these features. In fact I played through the campaign without ever using these extras (which meant I had a huge pile of in-game coins at the end of the journey) outside of the tutorial, still I feel they taint the experience to a degree.
If you're okay with the constant lure of paid for shortcuts and a bit of a grind Plants vs. Zombies 2: It's About Time is one of the best times you can currently have on iPad. The game may be a little more difficult to control on iPhone, but it's still very good. And while love and hate is a beautiful combination I have to admit love is the feeling that wins out in the end with Plants vs. Zombies 2.