Much like the original game, Plants vs Zombies 2: It’s About Time is an impressively strategic, yet accessible, tower defence game with hours of content. The one big difference between the two is that this sequel is a free app only available on iOS.

Despite being very similar to its predecessor, this change in pricing has had a knock on effect that has made PvZ2 a fun but disappointing game that doesn’t live up to the excellent original. This is due to how the free to play model has damaged the structure, and down to the fact that this sequel simply isn’t as good as the first game.

The biggest defence you can give Plants vs Zombies 2 is that it’s a lot of fun, and you get hours of content for free. This is fantastic on paper, but in reality it’s not quite so appealing. It is entirely possible to play every level in PvZ2 (and there are a lot of levels) without spending any money at all (the only thing truly locked away is a few plants), but to do so requires a lot of grinding. At first this sounds completely acceptable, in a world where we claim time is money, investing a lot of time rather than zero money seems like a fair deal.

However, though this model is in no way inherently bad, the way Popcap and EA have handled it is poor. The core issue is that the game being free to play has meant the game was built with free to play in mind, and it’s built in a way that short changes those willing to pay, and will frustrate the unwilling.

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One of the best things about the original game was the sense of progression and the pacing. New mechanics and plants were layered on at well placed points, in a way that kept you engaged and eager for the next new thing. The progression in PvZ2 just isn’t the same and the pacing is awful. First of all (freemium structure aside) the levels on the whole just aren’t as interesting as the first game, and don’t progress in the same manner. PvZ2 sports more varied environments, but the original did more with its environment. You were only ever at your house, but they did a lot of creative stuff with the garden space.

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The sequel takes you away from the garden and instead lets you travel through time. It’s an interesting conceit, and one that contains a lot of promise. The reason behind your time travelling is justified incredibly poorly though; you have a time machine (don’t ask why, you just do) and Crazy Dave has just eaten a taco. He claims it was delicious and therefore aims to go back in time so that he can eat it again.

It’s a very forced and poorly written introduction, and it’s never really relevant. You travel in time, but the purpose is never really for the taco – in fact there is no real justification at all for the places you go. The game’s excuse is that Dave is crazy, which is certainly true, but this isn’t a good thing. There isn’t even any pay off at the end, as instead of any kind of ending or conclusion (not that this terrible conceit needs it), the player is just left with tease for future DLC once they’ve completed the story levels. It’s completely underwhelming and lessens and sense of achievement, it also makes no sense (the tease is for time travel to the future… In order to re-eat your taco… Which you ate in the past… It’s not just me who sees an issue here right?).

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Of course the story in this game is mostly meaningless, and doesn’t have a real negative impact. But it does make the game slightly less charming than the original, and a stronger story could have helped the game out. Also, and very importantly, a stronger sense of context to the random progression could have helped to lessen the grind. This is exacerbated further though by a lack of variety, something that does harm the game. Having three distinct worlds does create an inherent variety, but Popcap leave it there. Each world feels different from the last, but really only for one key reason.

Gameplay variety is limited to one key mechanic per world, and this isn’t really enough.

The worlds on offer are Egyptian, Pirate and Wild West themed. This makes for a nice variety in visuals, but the gameplay variety is limited to one key mechanic per world, and this isn’t really enough. The Egyptian world has gravestones (which were in the first game), the Pirate world has arenas with bits missing, and the Wild West has railway track. The gravestones provide cover for zombies, meaning you have to worry about knocking them down (or firing over them) as well as just killing the undead. The bits missing in pirate levels mean you have less ground to play with, your planting area is like a ships plank and some parts just don’t reach the end. This means zombies will swing (or fly in) to areas that you have less room to play with, and though this doesn’t sound so impressive, it does have a real tactical impact. This is especially true due to zombie types introduced with this terrain in mind.

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The wild west mechanic is equally interesting, part of the terrain is covered with railway track, which has a single cart on it that you can move up and down with touch controls. The catch being you can only plant on the cart, not on the rails. This means an entire row of your area may be taken up, but you do have more flexibility with a single plant. It once again forces you to plant more strategically and carefully, and makes the final levels a great deal more challenging than what comes before.

Repetition is further created by the structure of the game, which requires you to grind out stars in order to progress to the next world.

The problem here is that these are the only variants, a new mechanic is introduced in a world, the old one is forgotten, and that’s all you get for ten levels. They simply don’t build upon things as well as they could. More plants are added as you go, and that does create variety, but it doesn’t change how you play the game in the way the changing mechanics do. In the original there was a sense of progression to the garden; as night levels surfaced, then swimming pool levels and eventually roof levels (where you could only plant in pots). There’s none of that here, and the levels feel less varied and less interesting. It’s still a very fun Plants vs Zombies game to play through, but it’s not as creative. The mere fact that the core gameplay is so similar to the previous game also detracts from the appeal. It’s still a great core, but it’s not as novel or exciting, and the less varied levels do nothing to make it any more so.

Repetition is further created by the structure of the game, which requires you to grind out stars in order to progress to the next world. The problem is that you can’t do this from the get go; you have to get to the end of a world first. Only then, when you have beaten the last level and are ready to move on, are you stopped in your tracks and told you need to go and replay levels. Extra stars are added to each level (only at that point) and you are forced to play through these (until you reach the desired amount) if you want to progress for free. This makes for an inferior experience, and though every main level gets three stars, you can only attempt one star at a time. Meaning you have to replay levels to a great extent. Luckily no level is the same twice, each star represents a new challenge and each is unique (objectives repeat a lot, but no level is exactly the same). These bonus stars are actually a fun challenge, and force you to play the game in very interesting ways. They are very good bonus levels, but they aren’t really bonus levels. Forcing you to go back and play these levels makes them feel like a chore, rather than extra content for those who want more out of their games. And the way they are implemented makes them feel like a roadblock.

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Once again, it sounds OK to make the free loaders grind when the paying customers get the best experience. But because it’s free with micro-transactions, rather than pay or don’t pay, this logic falters. If you could just buy the game for the price of a comparable app or play it free, then the structure would work. The game would still not hold up to the original, because it isn’t as good, but it wouldn’t be so poorly paced. The in app purchases are just too expensive, and having to grind or pay for many plants detracts from what could be well implemented progression. To complete PvZ2 you have to pay 45 stars, and that’s a significant time investment that isn’t quite worth it. Also plants from the original game (that can only be bought) cost up to £2.49, a price the entire first game is often below.

The amount of money the game asks to unlock all the levels feels like too much, and the time commitment feels like too much. The freemium model could have worked if the game was better, instead it just damages the overall package. It was built with a model in mind, and the model is poorly implemented. It’s a strange thing to say but PvZ2 would be a better game if it was just a paid app, and built with that in mind. As it stands PvZ2 is a really fun game, but it outstays its welcome and isn’t quite worth the amount of time, or money, it wants you to put into it.

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