A man wearing a steel pot for a hat tells you that he wants to enjoy the taco he just ate again, so he’s going back in time with the help of his talking camper. That’s essentially the plot of Plants vs. Zombies 2, the long-awaited sequel to the much beloved tower defense game that pits vegetation against the undead. This time your adventures in gardening take you to Ancient Egypt, 17th-century pirate-infested waters, and eventually the Old West. Despite a freemium model that nearly spoils the crop, PvZ2 is still a blue-ribbon mobile title with a charm and humor that is beyond garden-variety.
Plants vs Zombies 2 eschews the linear formula of the first-game for a more classic board game format. While you’ll still deploy little planted peapods and sunflowers to confront rows of bumbling zombies, the levels exist in a larger world now and beating a stage unlocks another along the path. There are forks in the road that let you decide how you’d like to proceed, and even keys to find that open up new areas. Ultimately your goal is to work your way to a star gate which takes you to the next world.
Instead of simply defeating several sequences of increasingly complex and uniquely-powered zombies, the main campaign has some welcome variety in “last-stand” challenges, maps with specific restrictions, and new world-specific enemies. You’ll slay tombstone-raising zombies in Egypt and later confront undead sea captains with their nefarious parrots and rope-swinging brethren. While the pacing suffers into lulls at times, the overall experience is more varied and full than the original, thanks in large part to the scale: Now you’re no longer just a homeowner, you’re a time-traveling adventurer.
To respond to these new threats and challenges, your botanical arsenal has been augmented with bloomerangs, coconut cannons, iceberg lettuce, and adorable “spring” beans among others. The character design is as charming as ever, with the plant almanac full of chuckle-inducing introductions and adorable biographies. The art is also much improved over the first title, with superior animations, worlds, and environmental effects.
Your green thumb also gets a huge upgrade: Now you can also feed your plants special plant food that will give them temporary boosts. Sunflowers spit out a huge amount of sun, while peashooters suddenly become gatling-gun-like repeaters that level everything in their path. Experimenting with the different upgrades and unleashing them in timely fashion is one of the best new elements of Plants vs Zombies 2.
One element that doesn’t feel quite at home is the new god-like powers that you can now utilize. While before you were merely a homeowner with an undead problem, time travel somehow gave you the ability to flick zombies off screen, pinch their heads, or strike them dead with lightning. While relatively easy to deploy via the touchscreen, they make any mission a near-walk due to their sheer power. Thankfully, they’re somewhat expensive to purchase using the in-game currency, but if you’re willing to throw down real money, you’ll find the game much, much easier.
This ability to pay money to make the game easier is a common trope of modern iOS games, but with PvZ, a franchise that prides itself on strategy and clever-thinking, such free-passes seem blasphemous. The main issue players will have with PvZ2 is likely dependent on how much they care about the freemium model’s awkward game balance issues. Developer PopCap had to satisfy fans of the series who have come to expect certain gameplay elements, while publisher EA likely pushed for every opportunity to squeeze more money from the player. The result is a game that can be completed without paying, but seems to punish you in every way imaginable if you choose not to.
If you’re playing without paying, you’ll see many of your favorite plants locked away behind paywalls ($3 for squash!?), you’ll have to trudge through levels again and again to mine for stars (which are used to open star gates), and you’ll be handicapped in the use of your super powers. The game is simply a much longer, thinner, and monotonous experience if you decide to keep a tight hold on your wallet. Meanwhile, if you throw down some money, you can use your godlike powers with impunity, have access to the full arsenal of plants, and unlock new worlds instantly. But it’s not just a few dollars, it’s a lot of money: Unlocking every plant will cost you about $20, while unlocking a new world will cost you $5. It just feels like needlessly milking a fanbase that is already falling over itself to buy your game.
Despite my qualms with the freemium model, PvZ2 remains an exceptional, charming tower defense title that expands on the original while taking you in new and exciting directions. So strap on your steel pot helmet, grab some fertilizer: You’ve got some zombies to kill.