I played the first Plants vs. Zombies a little bit when it came out as a flash game; it was great at destroying my wrist. Then I got an iPad and fell in love with Plants vs. Zombies. It really shines with the touch interface, it almost feels like the game was made in anticipation of tablets. Just like all the other PvZ fans out there, I got excited when I heard that there would be a Plants vs. Zombies 2 and eagerly downloaded it when it was released. It has received some very glowing reviews, which has surprised me. Don’t get me wrong, I have enjoyed playing it. I still pick it up and play it even though I’m pretty sure I’ve seen everything it has to offer right now. However, is has still left me a bit disappointed. It’s About Time seems to care more about making money than providing a great game experience. I’m going to try to break this post in half, first giving a fairly spoiler free review, then going into some more detail to give concrete examples which will contain spoilers.
It’s About Time has a considerably different feel to it than the original PvZ. There are now a number of gates, both literal and figurative, on the game play. To advance through certain parts of the game, you either have to pay money or grind out enough time in the game to continue. This completely changes the flow and feel of the game, putting the microtransactions in your face all the time. While the majority of the plants can be unlocked through play, a number of my favorite plants from the first game are locked behind a pay wall. The plants that you haven’t unlocked yet still show up in your plant selection, again putting the microtransactions in your face.
There is a great GDC Vault video by the designer of the original Plants vs. Zombies about creating tutorials. After watching George Fan talk about tutorials and really agreeing with most of what he had to say I was curious how It’s About Time implemented its tutorial. While it certainly has a different goal – to get the player into the game fast so that they can get onto the time side of the game – it doesn’t feel nearly as polished as the first game. It’s not fun. They seem to have tried to follow some of the design considerations Fan talks about, but didn’t really spend the time to fully polish them.
It’s About Time currently has three worlds, each representing a time period, that are laid out like Super Mario Bros. 3. Even though the original Plants vs. Zombies had five stages It’s About Time has a lot more personality in each of its worlds making the game feel a bit bigger than the original. The art has all been updated and the zombies are themed really well to their time periods. The game is beautiful but falls a little short mechanically – I’ll get into this more later.
Spoiler free, I don’t want to get into the cast of zombies and plants too much. I’m a bit more impressed with the new plants than with the new zombies, but I’ll talk more about this after the spoiler break. Plants now have super powers, which adds a fun new element to the game and adds a lot of personality.
I understand that game developers need to make money and I’m not against microtransactions in principle, but I can’t get past the feeling that Plants vs. Zombies: It’s About Time has far more polish put into making money than into making the game. The art has been updated and there are a few new ideas, but it feels like a mask to encourage people to pay the tolls. That said, there is still enjoyment to be had here.
[Now I'm going to talk a little more in depth about mechanics. Spoilers ahead!]
I’m going to start my mechanical discussion with stage mechanics. Each of the three time periods has its own stage mechanic: Egypt has the tombstones than certain plants can’t shoot through, Pirate Seas has a section of the ground that is not plantable but zombies will fly across the gap, and the Wild West has mobile mine carts that can be planted in. The first two of these are just a twist on things we saw in the first game, and did not really add anything interesting to the levels. The mine carts are really cool though. They really change how you think about plant placement and add an interesting feature to game play. It would have been nice if the other two time periods had similarly game changing mechanics in their levels. Maybe the pirate ships could have hard points that could be planted on and rotated, or in Ancient Egypt they could have had tomb entrances and exits that the player could open and close for zombies to walk in and out of allowing the player to control the flow of the field.
Seven to nine new zombie mechanics seems like a very reasonable number for a sequel, but only a couple of these feel really interesting. Looking at raw numbers, It’s About Time has way more zombies than the original PvZ, but many of them are rehashes of the same ideas or different skins of the same zombie. For example, in Ancient Egypt there are Bucket Zombies and Sarcophagus Zombies, but the Sarcophagus Zombie is really just a slightly weaker version of the Bucket Zombie. Many of the zombies are either slight modifications or stand ins of the original zombies. The pianist zombie is truly unique and plays nicely with the mine carts.
The plants received a bit more attention, most of the nine new plants are quite interesting. Some of them are very situationally specific and a couple of them really allow for player preference in filling a roll. For example, the Bonk Choy and Snapdragon both offer excellent front line defense. I prefer the Snapdragon, but both fill the roll very well and both in interesting ways. While I would like to see some plants that really change up the mechanics of the game, I’m pretty happy with It’s About Time‘s offering. I also really enjoy the addition of the plant food. It acts as a bit of a “get out of jail free” card, allowing the player to unleash a powerful attack when things are looking grim. I really like an addition like this for giving the player a little bit more to do in the game, but not so much that the amount of actions that the player needs to take is overwhelming.
In writing this, I’ve thought a lot about the place of microtransactions in games, and might write a full post on my thoughts. In brief, I think It’s About Time uses them too much as a gate for content instead of using them to make the game more interesting for those who are willing to pay. I think this this the wrong way to go about a microtransaction implementation.