Rants vs Zombies 2

This is not a review.

When writing a review I will endeavour to be as even-handed about a game as possible. Whilst any review will always be led by its authors opinion, I try to factor in the context from which a game has emerged – its tradition within a genre, for example – alongside who it is targeted at and how well I think it is likely to be received.

It’s a little difficult to apply these considerations to EA and Popcap’s Plants vs. Zombies 2, a game to which I’ve had a pretty extreme reaction. It is extreme ambivalence. I can’t say that I dislike the game, because over the past few weeks I’ve repeatedly attempted to return to it – and nostalgia for its predecessor would only take me so far. Instead I would describe it as a loathing – one born of love.

Instead, I wish to rant. I do this in full knowledge that some of what I am about to say it probably wrong. That’s ranting for you.

So many aspects of this game appeal to me. Its level variety from the outset is more varied than its predecessor, for example, both in terms of play objectives, lane layout and aesthetic design. The animations are more charming than ever. The game is a lot tougher and more challenging.

And yet this game drives me up the fucking wall. I have ragequit on it maybe half a dozen times. I’m a mild-mannered adult these days, folks, and don’t tend to lose my rag as often as I once did. And bear in mind that lately I’ve been playing Dark Souls. I’ve died in that game more times than I can count, but every time I’ve known it’s because I’m not good enough at the game. I don’t know the enemy attack patterns well enough. I got lazy. My reactions were too slow. I didn’t think carefully about what I was doing. I was too cautious. I was too bold.

The point is that in just about every scenario I died either through ignorance, laziness or a lack of thought. I didn’t blame the game for my failure, and I only blamed myself to the extent that I took it as a learning experience. Move on. Try again. Fail better.

With Plants vs Zombies 2 I’m not led to blaming myself. My frustrations are levelled at the game. This is probably as much my failing as anything else, but it’s also arguably a failing of design that a game with levels clearly intended to be attempted again and again feels as unfair as it does.

What have I learned from each level? What do I take away from this failure that I can apply to work toward success? Well… not much, actually.

Zombies do not spawn on consistent lanes, meaning that there’s no way of telling where the ‘tank’ enemies will appear or how many will appear in a row at any given time. There’s no elegant solution to each level based on a canny selection of plants: there’s an optimum selection that may get you through if you luck out. If you’re unlucky too many zombies will spawn in a single row and then, my friend, you are fucked. Luck, in my mind, should not be a component of any tower defence game.

Plants vs Zombies 2 screenshot

Spectacular challenges.

This is not the case, of course, if you have happened to spend money on a Fiery Jalapeno, one of the real-world-cash purchases the game waves before your nose (later, it advertises other EA free to play games with full-screen ads). The cost of that plant is fairly negligible, and alone compares favourably with the full price the original game commanded before heavy discounting. It is however difficult to muster the will to spend money on an in-app purchase that might make a game I find tremendously frustrating occasionally easier to play. The Jalapeno, after all, only offers a get-out-clause for a tactical tight spot caused by the game’s variable lane spawning of enemies. It doesn’t fundamentally change that problem of design: a lack of elegant solutions.

The original Plants vs Zombies was not, in truth, a hugely difficult game. Once the basics were down – build an economy, choose appropriate plants, understand enemy types – play was fairly fluid. Because the lanes in which zombies would appear varied then as now, it generally made sense to assemble rows of plants that were consistent. For example, two rows of Sunflowers, one row of Melon-Pults, two rows of Peashooters or other standard damage types, and one row of Wall-Nuts. That’s a really basic setup: economy, group/heavy damage, standard damage, defence/delay.

The game could prove challenging if your choices were bad, and it was regularly tense as the action hotted up and players needed to replace plants or – yes – drop a Jalapeno or Cherry Bomb to take care of something particularly threatening, but it was very difficult to fail at a level in the main story once you knew how to play. We can argue this way or that about how much a real risk of failure adds to a game, but it goes without saying that Plants vs Zombies struck a good balance and felt engaging, fun and challenging without proving either frustrating or dull and empty.

Not so its sequel, which leaves me with feelings that its difficulty has been artificially inflated. I may be wrong but it seems to me that plants are weaker, zombies are tougher and the economy is slower. Or it might simply be that levels progress faster; in hindsight, it is probably that. Less time means zombies appear more promptly and less sunlight appears over the course of a level.

Regardless, as a result of the game’s difficulty I find myself attempting levels again and again, often running afoul of the game’s arbitrary requirements. You can’t use these two rows at the back because blah blah whatever. Gravestones are occupying spaces you might wish to use, probably to just annoy you. Here are some plants in the middle of the board that must not be eaten. Or my personal favourite, don’t have more than x number of plants, which incidentally does not prevent you from planting more… it will just fail the entire level if you forget. How absolutely fucking delightful.

Conceptually I think these restrictions are a great idea; in practice, however, they end up feeling like yet another way the game has stacked the deck against you. And in a game built around in-app purchases it is impossible to avoid the suspicion that this is the result of a business-led, not game design-led, decision.

So how does one get around problems like the game’s substantial difficulty? Powerups, obviously! Plant food has different effects on different plants and can help in a pinch, or there are other power ups which let you directly effect attacking zombies. Plant food will randomly spawn, usually far too much or far too little (again: inelegant). Power-ups must be bought, as plant food optionally can, for 1000-1800 in-game coins. How many coins do you receive for completing a level? If you’re really lucky… 150.

And that aside, power-ups linked to an in-game meta-currency with artificial scarcity and the option of purchasing more with real money? Colour me suspicious. Yeah, sure, I don’t need to pay that, but I can certainly see how 10% of players are supposed to be enticed into doing so, and probably spending more than an upfront price tag would’ve ever brought in. Meanwhile, those of us who’d have bought a game with a traditional upfront cost and no IAPs are left begrudgingly grinding… or just not playing altogether.

I have deleted Plants vs. Zombies 2 from my phone and won’t be reinstalling it. I may be wrong about all of the above – my girlfriend really likes the game and is much further through it than I am – but life’s too short. PvZ2 filled me with hatred and fury despite being built upon something I loved, and is therefore clearly not for me. Instead I will go and play games where the difficulty level is not linked to real-world economic stimulus.

Call me an emotional infant and tell me why I am wrong, or thank me for taking a stand about this poorly-conceived sequel and slap me on the back, in the comment threads below.

(P.S. Don’t even get me started on the tile-matching levels. Jesus. If I wanted to play such a game I would travel back in time… from the future to slap myself. The original game’s Wall-Nut Bowling was fine because it was a piece of piss. I just cramp up trying to tap at my phone’s screen fast enough to complete these irritating and obligatory levels.)