It’s About Time in more ways than one, or even the two the subtitle suggests. The original Plants Vs Zombies was very much a zeitgeist experience, arriving in 2009 at the very peak of the undead invasion of popular media, the tipping point where if the game had arrived one cutesy zombie parody too late, it would have been consigned to the pile of ‘me, too’ games behind the outhouse, and behind the times. The tower defense genre was at a similar state in 2009 as well, but as it was PvZ was able to distinguish itself from the hoard of zombie games and tower defense titles with a self-aware wit, and mechanics that were simple to learn and difficult to master, earning the game well deserved fans on every platform the game was launched on. Which was a lot. The question is, four years on, is it really about time for more with Plants Vs Zombies 2?

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While PvZ’s genre and inspiration were well established in ’09, free to play mechanics were not. Now, with freemium being a word on many mobile gamers’ lips (albeit one spat with considerably more venom than Popcap and EA would like), PvZ2 is looking to do the free-to-play concept proud just before most turn on it completely. It might not be quite as artistically honourable a task as changing perceptions about zombies or tower defense, but try as one might, freemium mechanics can’t simply be ignored in a game like this, so that’s the obstacle the game is charged with. We’ll attempt to scale the paywalls later on, but in the meantime, how does the game itself play?

Well, a lot like Plants Vs Zombies is the answer. A time hopping story seeing you move through levels set in ancient Egypt, pirating high seas and the Wild West add new context, but the game is essentially the same as it was years ago. Zombies approach from the right, and you have to keep them off your lawn (patch of sand, ship deck, whatever) by placing combative plants that are grown through steady sunlight production. Hold off the zombies without losing all of your lawnmowers that solve as your last line of defense and it’s onto the next stage. As one might expect, new plant types join the familiar likes of the resource producing sunflowers and repeating pea shooters to change things up somewhat, but core gameplay, and winning strategies are largely identical.

For pirate ship gangplanks, read the first game's swimming pool. Level designs are unadventurous.

For pirate ship gang-planks, read the first game’s swimming pool. Level designs are unadventurous.

The biggest change to moment to moment gameplay is the addition of plant food and power ups, attained through random drops and in-game currency respectively (want to spend real dough to help things a long? But, of course). Plant food will provide temporary boosts to each of your plants, so sunflowers will produce more resources, pea shooters become machine guns, and potato mines will spit out a couple of clones. Power ups meanwhile allow you a brief window to pinch zombie heads or brush them away with your fingers to clear a path. The random plant food drops occur often enough that they subtly influence tactics for everyone, without becoming a simple pay to win mechanic. Power ups are less convincing, and rarely as effective as plant food at any rate, which means the overall effect additions have on original PvZ gameplay is fairly small. Ultimately, this is more Plants Vs Zombies Again than a true sequel; the time travel story conceit could have made its way to time warping gameplay mechanics, or just something could have been added to the mix in some way, but with just a batch of new levels and plant and zombie types to offer, it’s hard to escape a twinge of disappointment.

The biggest change to the sequel is in its structure. It’s where the free to play hand is definitely held out to the player with a nagging clearing of the throat the most (more on which later), but in principle adds a lot more flavour to proceedings. Rather than a standard linear progression through levels, each of the three playable time zones has their own world map with a main mission line and branches off to the side containing bonus stages. To get to the bonus levels, you’ll need keys that are randomly dropped by zombies during gameplay, or, naturally, bought with real cash. Open the doors and complete the levels behind them and you’ll earn new plants for regular play. The keyed levels are no pushovers, often containing extra goals such as limiting your inventory of plants, or protecting certain pre-planted flowers. They join special challenge towers where you hold out against ever-increasing waves with one new plant added to your stock with each round as fun additions, and being optional, you often feel fine about forging ahead without them, while constantly desiring the new powers they bring, which might convince some to open their purse strings.

More of an odious addition is PvZ2’s star system. Clear the main line of levels within a time zone and the path to the next may seem clear, but is actually gated behind a number of stars. These are attained by going back through previously completed levels and passing new objectives. There’s three additional objectives per stage, but you can only play for one at a time. While each objective does spice up play somewhat, forcing you to complete the stage while gaining as much sunlight as possible, for example, being prohibited from planting on certain tiles, or only having a dozen ‘active’ plants on the playfield at once, the reason for their presence is obvious; grind or cough up. Without paying, you now have to grind the same stage up to four times (once for initial completion, then once more for each star) and while, no, the game never actually prevents you from playing at all, or places you in unwinnable without cash situations, the presence of the stars feels badly judged for reasons that are best explained by scaling…

 

The Paywall

Plants Vs Zombies 2 attempts to earn your cash in four ways. In ascending order of prominence and potential irritation:

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The first is in one time purchase benefits. These come in the form of in-game resource multipliers and extra plants like the burning logs and frozen pea shooters from the first game as well as a few extras. As pricy as they are, (250 Yen/3 Dollars for one plant is hard to rationalise), they are by no means essential to play at all. and really exist for the benefit of fans for the first game who want to use plants they’re familiar with.

Coins have a bigger effect on actual gameplay. As noted above, they can be used to buy plant food and power ups within a stage itself that can often mean pulling a victory from the jaws of defeat.Yes, the inept can break the game through coin purchases by having enough to constantly buy plant food to boost their plants and never have an issue, but this pay to win strategy also makes the game less fun, and plant food drops are common enough through natural play that the food mechanic feels like its baked properly into the experience, and not something tacked on as a cash grab. Power ups meanwhile, are fairly weak novelties, and are easily ignored.

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Want through that star gate? Time is money; grind or pay up.

The harder to ignore requests for cash are in the structural unlocks of keys and stars. As mentioned above, the bonus levels that keys unlock are fun and challenging diversions. Their presence toys with your curiosity, as you’ll feel eager to try the new plant types and play the new levels, but they’re by no means essential to the core experience. As such, paying to play these levels, or grinding long enough to get the key drops feels like a reward to Popcap, paying to say thanks for the experience. Again, 170 Yen/2USD to get early access to four levels at a time is a fairly pricy  solution, and its strange that there isn’t a simple one-off payment to unlock all level doors in a world at once with a discount, but you can kind of forgive their presence.

Star gates are the paywalls you’ll bump up against the hardest, however, and are the hardest to give a pass to. Additional objectives might put a slight twist on proceedings, but the fact remains; to advance you must grind, grind and grind again. It seems odd that the people who most enjoy PvZ”s gameplay are likely the people who would be willing to fund Popcap and spend money on the next batch of levels, but they’re the group of people who would also forgive replaying stages to obtain the extra goals, so the structure seems to serve to alienate the entire audience. Like key gates, you can only pay to open a star gate, not to buy stars, which means regardless of how much progress you’ve made, either you have to try and try again against a batch of difficult tasks to get one measly star, or pay the same, ridiculously steep 450 Yen (5 Dollars American) as someone who’s only just started the game.

Plants Vs Zombies 2 is a fun game, albeit one that does disappointingly little to advance the PvZ formula established four years ago. It’s free to play structure though seems unlikely to reap many rewards, or much praise. In a game like this that offers a finite amount of content in its stages, many FTP critics will pine for a one-off payment to unlock all the content in one go; try and calculate the cost of that payment for PvZ 2, and you come up with 3,390 Yen, or $40. Would that be reasonable payment for what is essentially More Plants Versus Zombies, rather than a true sequel that pushes things forward (especially after a good four years in the making)? It’s hard to say yes.

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Gamer, Educator, Writer of Stuff, wrestler of professionals (sometimes)