Aah, PopCap – the three hundred pound gorilla of the casual gaming world. The Rockstar of pick-up-and-play. Years before Mark Pincus escaped from the inner circles of Hell to found Zynga, years before the first angry bird took suicidal flight on an iPhone, the good folks at PopCap were hard at work churning out ultra-accessible, super-juicy mega-hits like Bejeweled and Peggle while blithely ignoring the derision of “real” gamers.
Then, in 2009, came Plants vs. Zombies. Originally released on the PC, PvZ was an elegant (in mechanics if arguably not in art direction) take on the newly-hot tower defense genre, which had evolved organically out of fan modding communities for popular RTS games like Warcraft III. Tower defense games already distil the real-time strategy experience, dispensing with features such as unit movement control and map exploration, but PvZ took this logic further, doing away with genre tropes like tech trees and free tower placement and opting for an even simpler, more discretized approach.
Zombies advanced from the right side of the screen towards the player’s house (and brains) on the left along several lanes, rarely switching between them. To stop the onslaught, players placed plants with various offensive and/or defensive powers in slots on a grid made up of the lanes and the rows extending from the house to the right side of the screen. The gameplay was simple to grasp, but there weren’t plenty of interesting choices to make.
Which six or seven plants should you choose for the upcoming level out of the twenty-plus available, given the zombie mix preview you’ve just seen? When should you stop planting sunflowers, the defenseless peons that generate the sun you need to pay for other plants, and start growing your army proper? What mix of plants should you plant in each lane? Sure, PvZ was no League of Legends (another game that grew out of the same RTS modding communities), but it wasn’t trying to be an ultra-complex super-hardcore e-sport. It was trying to be an accessible yet robust and satisfying single-player strategy & tactics game – and, underneath its deceptive cuteness, it managed to be just that.
The sequel, recently released on Android, takes the original formula, mixes in a few more gallons of cute juice, and adds a whole bunch of new: new settings, new plants, new zombies, and new gameplay twists. You start in the same suburban backyard where the first game begins, but you soon find yourself transported to far-away lands and times, including ancient Egypt, a generic Disney sort of pirate world, and finally the Wild West (another world, the Far Future, is coming soon). Each spacetime location has its own overworld map, features about ten main levels, and introduces a new element to the board design along with unique zombies.
Egypt levels have tombstones, which block your plants’ ranged attacks. The pirate levels have a mix of regular-length and shorter lanes, and the Wild West levels feature carts on rails that allow you to move some plants from lane to lane. As for the zombies, you have your standard shufflers and their tougher variants, but also ones that burn your plants, send a horde of zombie chickens stampeding your way when defeated, make other zombies switch lanes, and so on. There’s always a plant that’s particularly well-suited to dealing with any given zombie, but because each level features a variety of zombie types, picking your plant mix is still a process rife with second-guessing and tricky compromises.
In addition to the main levels, each location also features additional levels and minigames locked behind gates. To unlock each of these gates, players can either pay $2 or replay previously completed levels dozens of times to collect enough rare random-drop gate keys. Replaying old levels isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds, though: completing the final story level in each location unlocks star challenges on each level, and beating each of these requires satisfying several conditions from a large and diverse mix (for example, the game might ask you to beat a level without spending any sun for 60 seconds AND without losing more than one plant).
Still, there are only three challenges per story level, and with keys dropping only once every ten levels or so, you’ll be replaying the same content over and over if you want to experience the whole game without shelling out any money. It’s too bad, too, that the game doesn’t do more to support hardcore score-chasing play: there’s no way to save your plant rosters for easy reuse, and no tracking of stuff like how little sun you managed to spend in beating a level.
Despite these shortcomings, though, Plants vs. Zombies 2 is an excellent tower defense game, full of interesting choices and replay value, easy and intuitive to control, generous with its free content and not too pushy about selling you the rest. Should you play it? So long as you’re hardcore enough to look past or outright embrace its horrifying, all-consuming cuteness, that’s a yes.
PvZ2 is an excellent sequel and a deep and elegant tower defense game in its own right. If you can stand the art direction – or, like me, grow to, UGH, kinda like it – and have any interest in strategy games, you owe it to yourself to try this. And if you’re new to the genre, this is a great place to start.