OK, the traditional round of disclaimers. Though I do write for the Escapist, this review has nothing to do with that publication; it's entirely my own doing. Second, I'm reviewing this title having only completed the first of its three levels, the Ancient Egyptian segment. I'll explain why in a minute.
Plants vs Zombies 2 is the sequel to PopCap's Plants vs Zombies, an enchanting tower defense game designed by George Fan. Sometimes that simply means 'this dude was more or less in charge, way to go', but this time around it means 'this title was his very own baby, and it shows.' Way back in the mists of time, EA acquired PopCap, announced a sequel to Plants vs Zombies, and fired George Fan. What could be expected from that sequel?
Art design is broadly the same as before. There are some minor tweaks to reflect the plot - Crazy Dave has gone back in time looking for his taco, and you now have to fight through Ancient Egypt, the Age of Piracy and the Wild West to get to it - but if you played the first, you'll recognize the second. In fact some of the tweaks make it not so much fun; the spud mines used to explode in a spray of thick cut chips, and now they don't, the walnuts used to cry as they were being munched on, and now they don't. Little tweaks like that don't sound like much, but taken as a whole they tend to detract from the experience because they remind you that the original design aesthetic has been compromised. The night and water levels appear to have been removed, so now it's a straight tower defense with no terrain variables, but - as I haven't played through the whole title - I can't be sure of that.
Game play hasn't changed much. There are new plants - the Bonk Choy with its fists of fury, and the Bloomerang's three-hit ranged attack are the two you'll meet in Ancient Egypt - and new zombies, but the basic plants and zombies are what you'll be seeing most of the time. Plant your allies, make sure the zombies don't get through your defenses to munch your brains, and you're golden. Fans of the first won't have any trouble recognizing the pattern, and there is a handy tutorial for the new players. There have been some attempts to add extra stuff, with Plant Food that boosts your plants' abilities and power ups that let you zap the screen, but neither really impact the game that much. Plant Food is easy to come by and most of the time you won't need it. Power Ups might be more useful, but you have to buy those with coins from the store.
Which leads me to the main event, and why I probably won't play this title to completion. This is a freemium game, and that means microtransactions. In some games, that isn't a major hurdle to leap. In this one? Oy.
You soon find out just how free this freemium title is. First it reminds you - every chance it gets - that you can buy more stuff from the store. Want the Jalapeno? It's on sale! Remember, the Bundle Pack can be yours, for a mere ... blah blah blah, buy our stuff. It doesn't even stop with in-game items. The story has a link to T-shirts, cups, plushies, the whole merch enchilada. I don't think I've been playing this more than about five hours, and I've been reminded at least six times that the store has something to sell me. But there's more ...
To progress further in the game, you need two things: stars, and keys. You need 15 stars to get to the Pirate level. At the moment, I have 4. Now, I could play through all the other levels and earn stars. Several new levels have popped up, offering 3 stars each. Great, except you can't earn three stars in one play session. You earn one star per session, which means I'm going to have to play 11 more times to have enough stars to get to the pirate level. Guess what else I could do to get there faster. Go on, guess. It starts with micro and rhymes with youjustwantmygoddamnmoney. Oh, and those keys: you find them every so often throughout the zone, and they unlock special areas with new plants and other fun stuff. I think I need about 13 or so to get through all the doors. I currently have 1, and they drop very infrequently. Or, I could just go ahead and buy some with real money. Y'know, from the store. There's that link over there. It has a shopping cart logo. You can't miss it.
I have no quarrel with companies wanting to make money. That's more than reasonable, but I object to being treated like a wallet on legs, and that's how it feels right now. I can't move five feet in the game without being reminded that there's stuff to buy. I can't progress without fighting through tedious level after tedious level ... not unless I'm prepared to pay. This isn't just killing the golden goose. It's processing the goose's carcass and turning it into cat food.
Verdict: game play is fun enough, and fans will find a lot to enjoy, even if the best parts are the old parts in new clothing. The new elements add little to the experience, but at least they don't ruin what was already there. However you need a really strong tolerance for microtransactions to play this title. Either that, or a bottomless wallet. Don't expect to enjoy yourself unless you can ignore, or tolerate, the game's attempts to rake as much cash out of you as it can.