Plants vs. Zombies 2 has been a long time coming, and that wait seemed to be extra long because the original was so good leaving us wanting more. It has been 51 months since the original launched, but finally the sequel is here with the tagline, “It’s About Time”, which couldn’t be more apt. That tagline also connects to the theme of the game, which presents you with various time periods to play in because Crazy Dave has a time machine, and wanted to go back five minutes to eat a tasty taco again. Of course he made a mistake, and we end up in Ancient Egypt with mummified zombies to do battle with, but luckily our trusty plant friends have traveled with us. There are brand new plant types as well as unique zombies based on the different time periods in the game. The most compelling aspect of the sequel is that it’s free to play, so there’s no reason not to download it, but we’re here to tell you exactly what to expect.
At launch, the game features three time periods relating to Ancient Egypt, pirates, and the Wild West with various unique intricacies along the way. The base game returns with the lane defense set-up that is made for anyone to pick up and play as you have just five lanes to defend, and you simply tap to place plants within those five lanes. The various zombies keep coming at you, and you need to gather sunshine to add new plants to your defense. If you’ve played the original, you will be right at home with the sequel, and even if you haven’t, the game is completely accessible with no prior knowledge. The familiar set-up has been extended into a surprising amount of content as there are about 40 stars to earn in each of the three time periods. There are ten main story levels to play through, and upon completion you unlock three star challenge variations in each of those levels. That means that each one of the 40 stars constitutes a single challenge giving you a whole lot to play.
The overall level set-up is a brand new in the sequel, so there’s an actual world map with branching pathways off the main storyline. The pathways include unlockable plants as well as three special challenge modes, which you can play right in line with the story. In the original game, the challenge mode was restricted until after the story mode was completed, and now you can play those bonus levels right in the swing of things. The sequel also introduces a number of new objectives to earn each individual star, allowing you to play the same level multiple times, with a different restriction each time. For instance, the amount of sun is limited, the number of plants you can use is restricted, there is a set line you don’t want the zombies to pass, and the back rows can be blocked from use. There are also arcade levels to change the pacing giving you puzzle matching twists, a set amount of sun to use, or a conveyor belt of plants. Each objective isn’t necessarily new, but taken as a whole, it provides a whole lot of time to spend with Plants vs. Zombies 2.
The lane defense gameplay returns, and maintains the same ideas of planting the sunflowers in the background to generate sun to be able to plant attacking plants. Each level starts out extremely slow as you generate your initial sun allotment, while facing one or two zombies at a time. The levels build up at a very methodical pace to reach the huge waves of zombies that you need to be prepared for with a completely flushed out defense filling each lane with about three different attacking plants. There are new twists on the base formula with new plant food, and gesture based power-ups, which are both tied to the new in-app purchase system based on the free to play style of the sequel. The plant food can be earned or bought, and you can place each one on a particular plant to provide a temporary special power-up with each plant type offering a unique benefit. The plant food is extremely beneficial, and it’s built right into the flow of the gameplay. The gesture power-ups on the other hand, are overkill as you can pinch off zombie heads, electrocute them, or flick them off the screen to dispose of any challenge of a level relatively quickly.
The main extras relate to the new plant types and zombies with the introduction of punching Bonk Choy, boomerang tossing Bloomerang, electric Lightning Reed, Coconut Cannon, and fire breathing Snap Dragon. Each one is geared towards new zombie types that include sun stealing Pharaoh zombies, pirate captain zombies, and even chicken riding zombies. The time period level design also offers a few twists with Ancient Egypt set-up like an extension of the original, while the pirate theme offers swinging and airborne pirates over gaps in the lanes, and then the wild west theme has planters that are on rails to slide between lanes. There are a bunch of little enhancements that combine together to very precisely and nicely build upon the winning formula of the original. It all comes together to keep you coming back, and fully experiencing the game completely for free.
A major aspect of Plants vs. Zombies 2 is the freemium model, and the question is how exactly is it integrated, as that can be a make or break proposition. We have been playing the game for hours making it through two of the worlds, and haven’t spent one cent, or even been inclined to do so. The in-app purchases relate to coin packs and keys, but you earn coins and keys at a relatively good pace. While playing through the story mode progression, you’ll find that purchases are completely unnecessary. The coins can be used for plant food or the power-ups, but you earn plant food while playing each level, and the power-ups are just too powerful. The keys are used to unlock the branching pathways for the extra levels and unlockable plants, but again you earn the coins while playing, and I haven’t been restricted yet, while at least earning the necessary stars to advance to the next world. The only restriction is that some plants are hidden behind $2.99 in-app purchases with no way to earn them, and they include first game classics like Squash, Torchwood, and Jalapeño, all not essential, but still can only be accessed with real money.
The free to play mechanic lends itself to allowing you to play through the plethora of content for free, and that reason alone makes the game one to pick up. Plants vs. Zombies 2 isn’t without its problems though, and one of the biggest is the simple mechanic the game is known for. The sequel is too easy for its own good, and while that simple mechanic was mesmerizing the first time around, it has definitely grown stale four years later. The main problem is that we know exactly what to expect with just five lanes to defend, and a similar strategy required to beat these levels. The game requires no real thinking at all to the point that I’m sure the zombies that star in this game could beat these levels. Any strategy is the same as the original as you build up the sunflowers in the back row, and then slowly place in the attacking plants. To make matters worse, you can use the same set-up each time, for instance in the Egyptian worlds I simply plants sunflowers in the backrow, double pea shooters in the next, bonk choy in the third row, and place walnuts in front of each of the Bonk Choy. That set-up can complete every Egyptian level with no thoughts involved, and when on to the pirate levels, you just need to add in the corn catapults and snapdragons.
There’s no doubt that the game becomes extremely repetitive with similar level set-ups, but even the world map calls for repetition. You play through each story level to unlock the challenges for those levels. Then there are three challenges per level, which means you end up playing the same level set-up, and difficulty four different times with slight alterations in the objective. It gets to the point that you’re looking at the screen, and your eyes glaze over with never much thought required on your part. The biggest problem with the game is that it’s so similar to the original, and it makes the sequel feel extra repetitive and simplistic in comparison. We had higher expectations to offer some actual innovation or change of pace to the mold, but it just isn’t there. The more familiar you are with Plants vs. Zombies, the more bland the sequel becomes.
Despite these claims, the game still holds that oddly alluring charm that keeps you playing through the levels, and even though I acknowledge these faults, I’ve made it halfway through the game already. The game isn’t bad, far from it, but we just had higher expectations of what could be, and at times it feels like a joke in how slow these levels progress. The pacing takes methodical to an all new level, but the latter half of each of these levels are quite rewarding for the monotony that you have had to put up with in the first half. The main addition I would like to see is just three extra optional buttons with fast forward, rewind, and send next wave. Many players could ignore these buttons, but they could be invaluable to those looking for greater challenge. It would be nice to speed up the beginnings of each level, and even have a chance to send the next wave early for added challenge and some bonuses for the added risk. A rewind button, would also be beneficial if you stop paying attention to the game, and mess up a wave by missing a few sun, placing a plant in the wrong spot, or just snoozing off during a dull stretch.
Through it all, there’s one intricately crafted gaming experience that can be had completely for free. It’s not the most engaging, and could benefit from a few tweaks here and there, but it still maintains what made the original so good. It doesn’t have the same connection with the player as the original, because that game was unique when the theme was so new, and now we’re just used to it. There are still brand new challenges, a valuable world set-up, tons of content, new plants to experiment with, new zombies to be amused by, plant food power-ups to savor, and still tons of great personality. Time is such an interesting concept, and in Plants vs Zombies 2 time can drag on forever and pass extremely quickly all within the span of one level, which is an embodiment of the game as whole. There are goods and there are bads, but the overall experience is not to be missed, and that is all that matters.
Plants vs. Zombies 2 (Free, Universal) offers an entertainment experience unlike any other that can be a mainstay on your iOS device, and in your free time. It enhances every aspect of the outstanding original, and while it’s not perfect you will definitely enjoy the time you spend with it. This review is long and meticulous, just like the game.