Plants vs Zombies 2: It’s About Time has to be one of the most aptly named sequels in the history of gaming. After all, the original came out way back in 2009, and was something of a huge hit at the time – so the fact that it’s taken this long for the creative minds at Popcap to produce a true sequel has long stood out as a curiosity, not to mention a worry for people who loved the original and craved more. Well, the sequel is finally here – launching on the iOS in free-to-play form, no less – and with it has come a whole lot of changes. I played the original game through to the ending, immediately picked up the sequel when it hit the app store, and I even had a talk with PvZ2’s senior producer Bernard Yee about just what changes fans can expect to see in this latest Vegetation/Necrofication matchup. If you want to know just what’s growing in the Plants vs Zombies 2 garden, you’re in luck, because I have a whole lot of sunlight to share.
Interviewing Plants vs Zombies 2 Senior Producer Bernard Yee
Let’s start with the interview. Bernard Yee brings quite a resume with him – he was Bungie’s web/mobile producer for their Aerospace initiative, he was the Director of Programming at Sony Online Entertainment back at the launch of Everquest, he’s done consulting work, MMO concept development and a whole lot more. A man of impressive credentials and one hell of a track record, which probably made him a natural choice for senior producer of a much-anticipated game like Plants vs Zombies 2. Right out of the gates, there’s an obvious question to ask – why would Plants vs Zombies 2 go for a free-to-play release, as opposed to the stand-alone pay-up-front version of the original? Bernard’s reply was that Plants vs Zombies had a very broad appeal, something that managed to capture the interest of everyone from Battlefield players to Angry Birds fans. With the game catching so much attention, it made sense to make the sequel reach as broad of an audience as possible – and no matter how you slice it, ‘free to play’ is about as broad as you can get. Considering the game has hit 16 million downloads as of two days ago, it’s hard to question the logic on this point: people are picking up this game like crazy. Bernard also went on to say that the PvZ2 model is extremely generous – ‘you can play more than 95% of the game without paying money’. So far, between my ample PvZ2 playtime and my incredible cheapness, I can say the man speaks truth here – I have been able to play my way through two of the three initially launched ‘worlds’, and so far I have yet to hit anything resembling a paywall. Part of the idea behind this release seems to be to expose as many people as possible to the Plants vs Zombies IP, and to make them feel good about it and craving more in the process.
Also emphasized is the fact that there’s really nothing resembling a true ‘grind’ in PvZ2. There are keys you have to acquire to ‘unlock’ certain areas of the game, for example, but these drop from just about any level you play – and considering the abundance of levels, ‘star challenges’ and more, chances are you’re going to acquire these keys through natural gameplay rather than consciously slogging through one or another level over and over just to advance. Of course, while the player is advancing through the game, the game itself is supposed to be expanding – after all, one thing free-to-play games are known for is added content. So I asked, just what can be expected in the PvZ2 future? And the answer here is: a lot. A ‘future’ world has already been announced for release in PvZ2, but Bernard said that just about everything one could conceivably expand on in the game will be worked on – additional worlds, additional gameplay modes, additional plants, additional zombies. The key here is ‘newness’ – fresh content that feels like an actual addition to the game, rather than a mere rehash. At this point, I had to ask – the Zen Garden from Plants vs Zombies 1. Can we count on that returning? And really, the answer I receive was one of those polite, open-ended ‘we’ll see what the future holds’ replies which gives me just enough hope not to rule it out, but just enough not to bet the farm on it. That sounds reasonable – the garden, while fun, was a mechanic that worked first and foremost with the particular design of the original, and things have changed quite a lot in the sequel. If it comes back, it would have to be in a revamped form that fits the new game.
That led to more questions about the improvements of PvZ2 over the original – what does the sequel really add over the original game? Here, Bernard emphasized the exploration aspect of PvZ2 – the game features worlds with an overview map, complete with diverging and unlockable paths – adding a nice touch over the original’s much more linear progression. On the technical side, there are smoother animations, an improvement of general graphical quality (the maps really are gorgeous), and attention to detail. When a plant shoots a pea, you don’t just see the sudden appearance of the pea – you see the plant’s cheeks puff out just before it launches – little touches that bring a lot more life and character to the game. And that opened the door to the final question: so far the real characters in PvZ2 are Crazy Dave and his time-machine truck, Penny. Could we expect to see any more characters introduced down the line? As with the Zen Garden, the answer was a bit more up in the air – if it makes sense, if a great idea hits for a fun character, sure. But the real focus of Plants versus Zombies is on the… well, the Plants and the Zombies. The emphasis is on the gameplay-affecting characters far more than the story characters in this game.
…And then hours of experience with the game itself
Bernard Yee definitely gave me a lot of hope for Plants vs Zombies 2 in terms of long-term plans and the spirit that went into designing it. But really – nothing compares to actually playing the game itself. And after over 20 levels and a couple dozen stars, I think I’m able to give a fair verdict of the game: it’s fantastic. Really, it’s a must-have title for the iOS, by just about any measure – and this is the case even whether it’s compared against pay-to-play or free-to-play titles. But at the price of free, I almost feel as if you’d have to literally dislike playing games in order to not even give Plants vs Zombies 2 a try.
What really caught me by surprise is the interface. After all, the original Plants vs Zombies game was a desktop game, and that’s where I first encountered it. Whoever designed the UI for the touch-screen clearly knew what they were doing – whether you’re navigating through menus, deploying plants to the field or exploring the map, this game feels entirely natural from start to finish. There’s not an awkward gesture or a non-natural-feeling control interaction that ever pops up, and the whole experience can aptly be called ‘buttery smooth’ on my iPad 4. This skill with the tablet interface has also been put to use in a trio of new gesture-based powerups that have been introduced in PvZ2 – after you initially unlock them, you can pay in-game-acquired currency during a match to use swiping-based powers over several seconds. Squeeze your fingers together to pinch off the heads of oncoming zombies, lift the zombies up and toss them offscreen altogether, or even electrocute them over time to burn them away – it’s your choice, so long as you’ve earned enough funds to spend on the powers. As with the rest of the interface, these gestures are easy to perform and feel almost like second-nature after their introductions.
There’s also an incredible amount of content here. Launching with three worlds initially – egyptian, pirate and wild west themed – you’re guaranteed not only a diverse variety of locations in Plants vs Zombies 2, but a broad array of new plants to acquire, new zombies to encounter, upgrades to unlock, and challenges to face. This is also where you’ll start to see some of the cash shop aspects pop up – certain plants and upgrades can only be acquired by paying for them, but so far I have yet to run into any level or challenge that seemed impossible, or even appreciably difficult, without spending money in the shop. To top it off, completing all the levels of a particular zone unlocks three progressive ‘star challenges’ on all of missions along the main pathway – and these challenges introduce brand new win conditions (like ‘earn at least 2500 sun’ or ‘don’t lose more than 2 plants’) that require the player to tune their plant choice and placements carefully. There are also optional paths branching off from the main path that can be unlocked either with keys acquired through the normal course of gameplay, or (naturally) which the player can pay to unlock if they’re impatient. ‘Patience’ is the gold standard here: it seems like most of the pay-unlocks in PvZ2 are aimed at people who feel the need to open up all the content as soon as possible, or who simply want to collect every plant or powerup the game has to offer. For the less collection-oriented or the more patient, these things feel as close to ‘completely optional’ as one could ever hope for.
The gameplay modes change a bit depending on the particular level or challenge being attempted as well. In a standard level, you can choose a selection of your unlocked plants to bring into the fight with you, deploying sunflowers to help you accumulate sun to ‘buy’ and place plants with, fighting off the zombies who slowly creep towards your side of the screen. In other levels, you may be limited to a specific selection of plants, which you’ll have to find synergy between in order to complete the level. On still others, you may be granted a random selection of plants over time via conveyor belt – eliminating the need to worry about the sun, but placing a stronger emphasis on intelligent plant placement. Clearing the main path of a ‘map’ also opens up a a progression-style level, starting you off with a narrow selection of plants and allowing you to choose one of three additional ones (or a starting bonus of sun to spend) as you face increasingly difficult waves of zombies. There’s even a ‘yeti’ zombie who can show up now and then on particular levels on the map – playing that level will give you the chance to kill the yeti, and pick up a small prize as a result. Oh, and as you clear these levels and defeat these zombies, you’ll earn money which you can spend on the previously-mentioned gesture-based powerups – great for those levels where you’re almost clearing things perfectly, but just need a slight edge to keep one of the zombies from killing a plant or triggering your lawnmower lane defense (a one-time clearing of zombies from your entire lane), both of which often spell failure for a challenge level.
Last but not least, there are the new zombies and plants themselves. There zombies don’t only change their appearances depending on the ‘world’ you’re playing in – they also gain some new abilities. One zombie in the egyptian level will raise a magic scepter in order to attract uncollected bits of sun to itself, forcing you to pick up this per-game ‘currency’ as fast as you can or lose it until the zombie is destroyed. In the pirate-themed world, a zombie buccaneer can send his pet parrot towards one of your plants, lifting it up and off the screen altogether unless you make sure to destroy it as soon as possible. There are zombies who advance rapidly on your defenses through a whirlwind or by swinging from a rope, there are barrel-rolling zombies who will bulldoze their way over barricades, and more. On the plant side of things, you’ll see iceberg lettuce that costs 0 sun to deploy, and which will freeze a zombie in place for a small amount of time (giving you valuable breathing space to earn more sun, or hammer away at it with your offensive plants). You can pick up the boomerang-tossing Bloomerang, able to hit multiple zombies in a given lane. You can acquire the coconut cannon, a powerful single-lane plant that needs to be tapped to ‘fire’ a powerful ranged area-effect strike, but which has a somewhat lengthy cooldown time after use. For both the zombies and the plants, these are just examples of the variety of new additions to the Plants vs Zombies world you’ll see in this game – and that’s before accounting for the additional zombies and plants that will be released in the future.
Plants vs Zombies 2: It’s About Time is a must-have game for anyone who owns an iPhone, an iPad or any compatible iOS device. The fact that a company can give away a game this polished, this content-filled and this just-plain-fun for free is simply stunning. If you have an iOS device and haven’t downloaded this game yet, don’t wait – hit the app store and grab it now. You won’t regret it.