Et tu, PopCap: Plants Vs Zombies vs in-app purchases

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Whenever Electronic Arts rears its head, much of the internet’s gaming population does a sort of collective shudder. The company has risen to infamy by tossing gobs of cash into acquiring successful developers and grinding their beloved franchises into the dust, all in a myopic bid to reach the wallets of that nebulous critter, the casual gamer. Our best defense is to shrug and give our cash to someone else, but sometimes it gets a little personal. Sometimes EA buys PopCap, creator of the beloved Plants versus Zombies, and we learn that the long-awaited sequel will be free-to-play with more in-app purchasing opportunities than you can shake a reasonably large stick at.

Well, it’s here, and it’s Plants versus Zombies in all its glory. Just... better. The action, charm, and replayability that made the first one such a smashing success are captured and improved. But it’s also leaves me a little sad. Because while the game retains all the charm and grace of its predecessor—and then some—it also bears the hallmarks of the most odious forms of the free-to-play genre. You’ll have a great time and likely won’t even spend a cent. But that pervasive need to nickel-and-dime, however optional, leaves a slimy sort of film on the goodwill PopCap has earned through excellent game development.

A primer: zombies are attacking, and your platoon of sunshine-powered plants are tasked with defending our brains. This time there’s a taco and space travel involved—it’s weird, just download it (Free, iOS only). The animation oozes charm, and you can’t help but smirk as sunflowers smile and laugh, or puffy-cheeked pea shooters rain death on the undead. The music is catchy, and the environments, challenges, and mini-games are as inventive as ever.

Most important, you can play through the entire game and earn most of the paywall-restricted goodies without ever dropping a dime, and be treated to a challenging—but fair—experience that honestly eclipses its predecessor.

The first hit is always free.

The trouble starts with Plant Food, a powerup that can supercharge your floral forces, and is dropped by random glowing zombies. You can only carry three at a time, but they flow fairly regularly—until they don’t. The random number god is a fickle beast; in some levels, I had more plant food than I knew what to do with, and would flick it at my minions just to see what it would do. Other levels required a bit more careful management, or simply doing without.

And then there are the keys that will unlock doors scattered across the map. They too drop randomly, and while the doors don’t necessarily impede your progress, they do block access to new plants you’ve yet to acquire. And finally there are stars—that basic metric of level completion for today’s mobile games. Complete challenges to unlock stars, and you’ll unlock a gate that’ll take you to the next map.

Want more plant food? Just spend 1000 coins, which are occasionally acquired by defeating enemies (at random, of course)—you’ll also get up to 50 coins if you complete a level without any major mishaps. Want more keys? Just keep playing and replaying levels until more drop, and spend them wisely. Naturally, you can just open up your wallet and buy all the coins and keys you’ll need. But I refuse—it’s a shortcut all too akin paying to win, and I’ll be damned if I’ll have that on my conscience.

And just like that, everything becomes too awesome to use. I play conservatively, stockpiling plant food and only spending it when I’ve reached the cap and a glowing zombie makes an appearance, securing my supply line. Any keys are simply hoarded—that plant looks pretty nice, but I’ve only got seven of these things and who knows what’ll be available on the next map.

But my heart didn’t well and truly sink until I was introduced to the touch-centric powerups. Pinch zombies to pluck their heads off. Swipe them up into the air, and then flick them off the screen. Or press and hold to zap one, then drag your finger across the screen to fry his buddies. Incredibly fun, well-balanced abilities (only active for a few seconds) that serve as a sort of Hail Mary pass when the game is at its most hectic. But they’ll cost you a considerable number of coins—more coins than you’ll earn in fair number of levels. Unlike plant food there’s no way of accruing them “naturally,” so I play knowing that those powerup icons sitting on the bottom of my screen may as well not be there, as I’d feel foolish ever wasting that much currency on them.

Grind for stars, or shell out the price of a premium app.

I paid $20 for the original Plants versus Zombies. And then I purchased it again, for my iPad. And then it was released on the iPhone, which is a lot easier to hold when you're standing on a bus, so there goes a bit more cash—I’m not averse to rendering unto PopCap what’s theirs. But I’m pretty sure I’ll never shell out any cash for Plants versus Zombies 2, and this irks me.

What was once a fun, fluid tower defense-esque experience can at times feel more like a sort of a resource management sim—not because of scarce resources, but because those resources cost real money. Still fun, but forever plagued by that nagging sensation that you’re only worried about playing so efficiently because you know you could be wielding awesome power for just a few bucks. And have a full arsenal of plants to choose from—many of them old favorites—for just a few bucks. Look, I love the Snow Pea ($4). But is a single plant really worth as much rymdkapsel?

To be fair, Snow Pea is pretty great.

You can also pay to avoid a hefty amount of repetition: The new time periods are locked behind “star gates,” so you’ll need to hoard stars by playing new challenges on old stages before you can proceed. Or forking over five bucks. To be fair, the nature of Plants versus Zombies’ gameplay means that “stages” are mere backdrops, and no level ever feels the same. But the first game kept things moving at a refreshing pace: A few levels in the backyard begets a night zone with new plants begets a new play dynamic with aquatic-zombies, before heading to the roof for an entirely different experience. Quaint as the Plant versus Zombies 2 experience is, you’ll get sick of hanging around Egypt before too long.

This could have been much worse: consider SimCity or Real Racing, series that could once do no wrong rendered nigh unplayable or cynically expensive by decisions aimed at converting every moment of our entertainment into cold hard cash.

In Plants versus Zombies 2 we’re never nagged to spend money, or forced to pay to make progress or post quips to Facebook in exchange for extra sunshine or whatever. It’s far more insidious than that, as the very essence of the game involves separating the wheat from the proverbial chaff.

“Core” gamers will have their challenge, with a decidedly brisker pace than the original game and challenges to play over and over and occasionally, over again until they’ve perfected their build order. The casual gamer, otherwise known as the family member or friend we introduced the original game to, might instead feel a bit overwhelmed. Perhaps they’ll shell out some cash on powerups to beat a level or two. Or maybe they’ll chuckle at the comical narrative and set the game aside—it was free, after all—wondering what the heck all the fuss was about.

Don’t think twice about grabbing this game (unless you don’t own an iOS device, natch). It’s incredibly fun, and free, and well worth your time. But its in-app purchases are worryingly over-priced, and while seasoned gardeners won’t have much trouble, I worry about the precedents it sets.

This story, "Et tu, PopCap: Plants Vs Zombies vs in-app purchases" was originally published by TechHive.

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