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Et tu, PopCap: Plants Vs Zombies vs in-app purchases

Nate Ralph | Aug. 19, 2013
Plants versus Zombies 2 is great. It's in-app purchases threaten all of that.

Whenever Electronic Arts rears its head, much of the internet's gaming population does a sort of collective shudder. The company has risen to infamy by tossing gobs of cash into acquiring successful developers and grinding their beloved franchises into the dust, all in a myopic bid to reach the wallets of that nebulous critter, the casual gamer. Our best defense is to shrug and give our cash to someone else, but sometimes it gets a little personal. Sometimes EA buys PopCap, creator of the beloved Plants versus Zombies, and we learn that the long-awaited sequel will be free-to-play with more in-app purchasing opportunities than you can shake a reasonably large stick at.

Well, it's here, and it's Plants versus Zombies in all its glory. Just... better. The action, charm, and replayability that made the first one such a smashing success are captured and improved. But it's also leaves me a little sad. Because while the game retains all the charm and grace of its predecessor—and then some—it also bears the hallmarks of the most odious forms of the free-to-play genre. You'll have a great time and likely won't even spend a cent. But that pervasive need to nickel-and-dime, however optional, leaves a slimy sort of film on the goodwill PopCap has earned through excellent game development.

A primer: zombies are attacking, and your platoon of sunshine-powered plants are tasked with defending our brains. This time there's a taco and space travel involved--it's weird, just download it (Free, iOS only). The animation oozes charm, and you can't help but smirk as sunflowers smile and laugh, or puffy-cheeked pea shooters rain death on the undead. The music is catchy, and the environments, challenges, and mini-games are as inventive as ever.

Most importantly, you can play through the entire game and earn most of the paywall-restricted goodies without ever dropping a dime, and be treated to a challenging—but fair—experience that honestly eclipses its predecessor.

The trouble starts with Plant Food, a powerup that can supercharge your floral forces, and is dropped by random glowing zombies. You can only carry three at a time, but they flow fairly regularly—until they don't. The random number god is a fickle beast; in some levels, I had more plant food than I knew what to do with, and would flick it at my minions just to see what it would do. Other levels required a bit more careful management, or simply doing without.

And then there are the keys that will unlock doors scattered across the map. They too drop randomly, and while the doors don't necessarily impede your progress, they do block access to new plants you've yet to acquire. And finally there are stars—that basic metric of level completion for today's mobile games. Complete challenges to unlock stars, and you'll unlock a gate that'll take you to the next map.


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