The biggest criticism we can make of Plants Vs Zombies 2 will be of little concern to its players: it’s hard to see how it’s going to make much money. It is remarkably generous for a free-to-play game. There are no paywalls, no demands you pester Facebook friends to progress, and no energy system. Item and currency drops are plentiful. Yes, Plants Vs Zombies 2 is an F2P game, but it rarely feels like one.
Much of that comes from being bound to a rigid set of rules and mechanics. Level layouts and enemy placements are the same every time you play a mission, and when you fail – which you will, for this is much harder than Plants Vs Zombies – you always know why. PVZ2 has all the trappings of free-to-play, including its currencies and premium boosts, but none of its traps.
Take Plant Food, which you drag and drop onto plants to power them up temporarily. It’s the classic free-to-play booster, either accrued through play (dropped by zombies that glow green) or bought at any time, even mid-level, for 1,000 in-game coins. It could, if cynically implemented, ruin everything. Instead it enhances it, offering both PopCap and you the freedom to experiment. The original’s early game, for instance, was about building up an economy, planting enough Sunflowers to ensure a steady flow of sun, the game’s vital resource. Now you can drop Plant Food onto a Sunflower for an instant 150 sun. Drag it onto a Peashooter to unleash a burst of fire that will mow down a handful of regular zombies in seconds. A Cabbage-pult will send a volley of ordnance into the air, which falls all over the screen. Yet Plant Food drop rates are so frequent that you’ll often have to use one of your starting stock of three to make room for another. It doesn’t carry over from one level to the next, either, so when the final wave arrives, teeming with undead, you might as well use whatever you’ve got.
Much of the first PVZ could be played with the same group of plants. Here you’re more inclined to diversify, taking new plants into battle just to see what effect Plant Food has on them. We never much cared for the Cabbage-pult, to be honest, using it only when the first game gave us no alternative. Now it’s regularly by our side, that full-screen attack obliterating entire waves of zombies and on several occasions helping us atone for what could have been a fatal mistake.
Plant Food changes the formula, then, but PVZ2’s structure – three eras, each spread over its own world map – also brings with it a host of places and new ways in which to play, as well as thematically appropriate twists to level design. In Egypt, tombstones block horizontal fire and must be destroyed or bypassed. In Pirate Seas, gaps between two ships are crossed by rope-swinging zombies or imps fired from cannons. In the Wild West, you drag minecarts up and down the screen as zombie attack patterns dictate.
Clearing the ten or so levels that make up each world’s critical path is only the start, with completion of the final stage opening up Star Objectives, which task you with replaying each level up to three more times with new sets of rules. There might be a limit on the number of plants you can lose or have in play at once. You might have to produce a large amount of sun or not spend any for a certain amount of time. You’re often tasked with killing a large quantity of zombies in a tight time limit, or with preventing them trampling over a line of flowers placed halfway across the screen.
Further ways to play lie in branches off the main path behind locked gates, keys to which are dropped by zombies. But while these seem ripe for monetisation, they aren’t available through in-app purchase in our review build. Each gate leads to one new plant or item and three progressively harder levels, dubbed Brain Busters, based on new concepts. In Last Stand, you’re given 2,000 sun with which to set out your stall, but once the action starts you play no role in proceedings bar deploying Plant Food. In the OK Corral, you’re given just one plant per zombie wave and shown exactly where onscreen your foes will make their entrance. These world maps play host to remarkable variety, and considerable challenge, too.
Perhaps its toughest levels are where PVZ2 will make its money. But while we’ve been challenged, we’ve never felt forced into spending our in-game coins to get us past a difficulty spike. We’ve spent coins on Plant Food and the new touch-control power-ups in a pinch, but with 15 hours on the clock we’re sitting on almost 50,000 coins. The casual players who made up the vast majority of Plants Vs Zombies’ 150 million installs may feel more compelled to pay up. At least the nonlinear world-map structure means that they won’t find themselves stuck on a single level for weeks on end, a tactic employed by many successful free-to-play games and one to which many expected PopCap, beholden to its new EA paymaster, to succumb.
A note of caution: PopCap is finessing its pricing structure during a soft launch in Australia, so we can’t say for sure what top-ups, premium items and the handful of IAP plants will cost on launch day. This is a live service, too, so if the game isn’t making enough money, all it takes is a slight back-end tweak to redress what is currently a pleasingly generous balance. But on the evidence of our playthrough, PVZ2 shows that PopCap is still the educated gamer’s favourite casual gaming company. This is a remarkable sequel, one that takes its predecessor not as a template, but a jumping-off point. And for all the justifiable concern about its chosen business model, its implementation of the free-to-play model prizes players’ hearts above the contents of their wallets.