Inside Plants Vs Zombies 2, the PopCap sequel with a point to prove

Yesterday PopCap confirmed that Plants Vs Zombies 2, a free-to-play sequel to the charming take on tower defence which has been installed on over 150 million devices in the four years since its release, will launch for iOS next month.

We’ve seen the game, and there’s a six-page preview in our new issue, E255, which goes on sale this Thursday, June 6. You can subscribe in printon iPad, on Google Play and through Zinio. In the meantime, here are a few essential details about Plants Vs Zombies 2, PopCap’s first major release since it was bought by EA in 2011.

It’s about time
You knew that from the tagline, of course. At launch, Plants Vs Zombies 2 will feature three worlds, each set in different time periods, as players join Crazy Dave on a journey through time in search of the best taco PVZ’s unhinged guide has ever had. Ancient Egypt, Pirate Seas and Wild West each give PopCap freedom to tinker with zombie and level designs, but to players, the main benefit is a structural one.

In PVZ2 each world has its own map. There’s a critical path of 10 or so levels, but once they’re completed each can be replayed up to three times in different ways. There might be a limit on the amount of sun you can spend, for instance, or the number of plants you can have on screen at once. Branches off the critical path lead to the sorts of challenges and minigames that were buried in menu screens in the original game. Stuck on one level? You’ll have perhaps a dozen other things to do.

It’s free-to-play
Relax: it’s not that kind of free-to-play. There’s no energy system, no limit on lives – you can play through the entire game in a single sitting, if you’ve got about 15 hours to spare. There are no paywalls, no Candy Crush-style insistence that you either badger Facebook friends or pay a nominal fee to get to the next level. There are a handful of premium items – permanent boosts that increase your starting amount of sun, for instance – available through real money in-app purchase, and a handful of plants, too. But as lead producer Allen Murray explains, PopCap is determined to prove to the sceptical that free-to-play doesn’t have to be evil. “Frankly, it’s been something the team has really struggled with: how do we do it right? We’re just trying to find a really good balance. We want people to play and enjoy the game, and not feel like they’re being bilked all the time.”

It’s got power-ups
Plant Food is the principal change to the way the game plays – drag it onto the plant of your choice and it’s briefly powered up. Peashooters become gatling guns, unleashing a volley of fire that will take out four or five regular zombies at once. Sunflowers instantly produce a couple of hundred sun, saving you time on building your economy and dramatically changing the flow of the early game. You can hold three at a time, and while you can buy more using coins accrued through play, they’re also dropped by green-glowing zombies – and the drop rate is generous. Three touch-control power-ups – Power Pinch, Toss and Zap – can be accessed at any time but cost in-game coins to use. In all our time with the game we’ve never felt forced to use any of them, though we’ll admit to using Power Toss once after we made what would, in PVZ1, have been a fatal mistake.

It’s got new plants…
Our favourite is Bonk Choy, who does heavy, speedy damage to nearby enemies both in front and behind. There’s the Chili Bean, who wears the guilty look of something that knows it’s going to induce paralysing flatulence in the unfortunate undead that eats it. Coconut Cannons have to be tapped to fire, and are subject to a brief cooldown period during which they have a quick snooze. The Snapdragon emits a wall of fire that will hit zombies in adjacent lanes as well as its own.

…And new zombies, too
There’s the Chicken Farmer, whose flock charges at you when you hit him, and a piano-playing undead who causes the zombies around him to jig between lanes. One of Ancient Egypt’s zombies, modelled on Ra the sun god, uses his staff to draw PVZ’s most precious resource towards him. One pirate foe has a parrot on its shoulder which flies off, grabs one of your plants and carries it into the sky. The regular zombies are reskinned according to setting – bandages in Egypt, earrings and bandanas in Pirate Seas, ponchos and cravats in the Wild West.

It’s a PopCap game – not an EA one
The first logo you see when booting the game up is EA’s, not PopCap’s, but Murray and team insist that the 2011 acquisition – a deal which, if earnings targets are met, will cost EA $1.3 billion – hasn’t adversely impacted the making of PVZ2. “Honestly, it hasn’t affected our day-to-day development,” he says. “The question we get asked is, ‘So, you’re part of EA now. They made you make it free-to-play?’ We were already leaning towards that; it’s something PopCap has been doing for quite a while. There wasn’t any sort of top-down mandate.”

For much more on Plants Vs Zombies 2, including exclusive assets and an interview with lead designer Mohan Rajagopalan, you’ll need the new issue of Edge. E255 goes on sale this Thursday, June 6. You can subscribe to Edge magazine in printon iPad, on Google Play and through Zinio – Stay tuned for more on what’s in the issue in the coming days.