There is a dramatic, M. Night Shyamalan-worthy twist in Plants vs Zombies 2, and EA deserves a round of applause for it.
The first eleven levels of Plants vs Zombies 2: It’s About Time form an extended tutorial and introduction to the story. Crazy Dave, the aptly-named neighbour from the first game, has eaten a taco so delicious that he travels back in time (with you in tow) so that he can eat the taco again. Dave (and his sentient time machine) overshoot the mark just a bit and you begin the game in a zombie-filled Ancient Egypt, stopping by the golden age of piracy and the American old west on your way back to the present.
Those initial few levels capture what was so memorable about Plants vs Zombies. You move briskly along zombified Egypt, learning new gameplay mechanics and picking up new plants to use in your endless defense against the undead. Crazy Dave and his Studebaker time machine show up to interject the occasional quip. New touchscreen-based powers like pinching the heads off of zombies and zapping them with lightning are introduced. It’s genuinely endearing and pretty entertaining.
And then comes the twist.
Here is the deepest, darkest secret of the original Plants vs Zombies: it wasn’t all that interesting of a game. It was inventive and it was charming, but it got more mileage out of its delightful theme song and whimsical character design than it ever did out of its gameplay.
The original PvZ understood that (as with the sex life of an long-married couple) the key was to keep things fresh: a new plant or a new zombie appeared every other level, and the map itself changed to add new gameplay wrinkles. If you had to play the same levels over and over again, the fundamental idleness at the core of PvZ would reveal itself.
The best gameplay PvZ has to offer is the initial setup in each level: balancing the need to build sunflowers (the producers in PvZ’s economy) with defensive plants that kill zombies but generate no resources. Once that phase is over, most Plants vs Zombies levels are on cruise control and you can get up and go make a sandwich. We were mostly in it for the funny zombies.
This central truth about PvZ — that the game is much sizzle and little steak — is one that is apparently lost on EA, who swooped in and bought PvZ makers PopCap a couple of years ago and whose fingerprints are all over this game. The biggest mistake EA and PopCap could have made with Plants vs Zombies 2 would have been to make it a slow, grindy treadmill where you have to play the same levels over and over again against the same enemies and using the same plants.
And there’s the twist. I’m sure most of you saw it coming. Let’s all clap. Slowly.
After the first eleven levels, PvZ2 grabs the treadmill’s speed control and slams it all the way back. Once you’ve finished the 11th level in Egypt and seen everything that that game world has to offer, Plants vs Zombies 2 informs you that to progress to the next world, you have to go play all of the levels over (and over) again, gaining stars to unlock the pirates. Or you can just pay six bucks.
Before the game was released globally, the thing we fretted about was the plants themselves, which EA had locked behind in-app purchases. Those turned out to be the least of PvZ2’s problems — it’s the stars we needed to worry about. Grinding out a sufficient number of stars (you can never earn more than one in a single level) to progress to the second world is an investment of hours and hours of gameplay, repeating the same levels over and over again. There are some token nods to variety in the replayed levels (don’t plant on these squares, don’t spend more than X sun) but it’s paltry compared to the pains that the original game took to keep its progression interesting, and doesn’t succeed in obviating the tedium of it all.
Plants versus Zombies 2 is designed to be fun, of course, but it’s very obviously designed to be just fun enough that the frustration of playing it will force you to open up your wallet to buy an early unlock of a plant for $5, or spend $6 to see a new part of the game world. It’s crass. It’s gauche.
If you play games to escape from the real world and unwind for a few minutes, don’t play Plants vs Zombies 2, because it exists primarily to wheedle you for money. If you were going to download Plants vs Zombies 2 to entertain your kids, proceed with care. If Junior knows your iTunes password, he will be a touch away from some extraordinarily-priced IAP bundles costing you over a hundred dollars a pop.
I hate the fact that EA keeps playing to type as a big soul-sucking corporate monster. It’s boring and predictable. This the plot twist I want to write about: EA makes a truly great mobile game, charges us a fair price for it, and earns our dollars (and repeat business) by generating goodwill. But Plants vs Zombies 2 doesn’t do that.
Rest in peace Popcap. Rest in peace, Plants vs Zombies.