The original Plants vs. Zombies was a casual gaming classic. It had the perfect blend of quirky humor, memorable characters, and just-challenging-enough strategy. Most of all, it was a blast to play. Now, four years later, PopCap Games returns with the long-anticipated follow-up, Plants vs. Zombies 2: It's About Time. Does it hold a candle to its predecessor? Read on, as Gizmag puts it through the paces.

Before we jump into things, note that this is the pre-release version that PopCap launched exclusively in Australia and New Zealand. It's possible that the game will see minor or major changes before its official release. In a sense, we're reviewing the final dress rehearsal, rather than opening night, so take that as you will.

Subtraction by addition?

Like most sequels, PvZ 2 takes its predecessor's core gameplay and builds on it. You'll see the familiar rows of lawn, seed packets, and marching zombies. Many of the same veggies and undead return (along with many new ones), and some of the same catchy tunes. It's tower defense, only with much more charm and humor than military-grade tanks, missiles, and turrets could ever provide.

One of the first things you'll notice with the sequel is a new art style. This is completely subjective, but I'm not a fan of the new look. Compared to the original, it looks childish to me. It looks like animated clip art. I wonder if PopCap and EA chose this more primitive look to make it easier to port to a wider variety of platforms, including Facebook? It looks half a step away from FarmVille.

At the heart of the original PvZ was simplicity. The game's action could get extremely chaotic, but it was all resting on top of a simple foundation. Simple gameplay mechanics and simple rules, with new items and power-ups introduced at a gradual, simple-to-follow pace.

The sequel mistakenly thinks that more of everything will make it better. It basically throws that simplicity out the window. This isn't to say that it's a difficult-to-understand game, but it is cluttered.

Instead of unlocking a fun new plant after every level, the end of the first ten or so levels instead walk you through some unnecessary new gameplay mechanics. Now you aren't just focused on your plants, you also have to worry about several different power-ups, which are separate from your plant collection. There's even a map to navigate outside of the core gameplay. To unlock some plants, you'll need to unlock doors within that meta-world.

It's not that expansion is a bad thing, but we didn't feel like it improved anything over the simpler approach that the original took. Oh, and did we mention the time travel?

Times have changed

Let's do a little time-traveling of our own, and go back to 2009. Back then, PopCap was a highly-successful – but independent – casual gaming developer and publisher. The original PvZ was made for Windows and Mac PCs. It was later ported to iPad, iPhone, and Android, just as mobile gaming was becoming a thing. PvZ was a one-time purchase: you pay PopCap, you enjoy the game. Transaction complete.

Today, PopCap is a subsidiary of Electronic Arts (EA). And like many mobile game developers, EA is in love with the freemium model. So it shouldn't be too surprising that Plants vs. Zombies 2 fits that mold. It's free to play, but the company will gladly take your real-world money for a variety of power-ups and in-game currency.

Unfortunately, it's obvious from the get-go that much of the gameplay was designed around microtransactions. So instead of quickly unlocking bail-out plants like the cherry bomb and squash (handy when you find yourself in a bind), you're introduced to a series of new power-ups. Feed a power-up seed to your pea shooter, and it temporarily blasts a quick round of rapid-fire peas. Feed it to your cabbage-pult, and it takes out zombies in multiple lanes. Or you can use a different power-up that implements gestures: pinch, toss, or zap the zombies with your own fingers.

You can collect a regular supply of those power-ups throughout the course of regular (free) gameplay. But if you get yourself into a jam and don't have any of these power-ups handy, it isn't always as easy as spending some collected sunlight on a plant that will bail you out. Nope, now you either lose the level or spend real money. You can still get bail-out plants, but they aren't as plentiful, and they too are harder to get without spending real money.

Whereas the original was designed to delight and entertain, I left this sequel with an overall sense that the entire game was designed to part me with as much money as possible. Like many freemium games, you can grind it out, and unlock most of the game for free. But progressing through the game isn't quite as much fun this time around. Obstacles are placed in front of you for the sole purpose of making you say "to hell with it," and pay for the quick way out.

Wrap-up

In fairness, Plants vs. Zombies 2 is still a fun game. It's still plants, it's still zombies, it's still much of the same core gameplay. If you can get past the shopping mall feeling to the whole thing, there are some brilliant new plants and zombies that reminded us why we loved the original so much. Short-range beater plants and pharaoah zombies who try to steal your sun are two of our favorites.

And though the game tries to nudge you towards microtransactions, you can get through the game without spending much or any real money. We can appreciate that EA didn't take the freemium model to such an extreme that it's completely unplayable without in-app purchases. There's also a ton of content here, so you'll have hours of gameplay.

But, at the same time, know that this sequel loses much of what made the original so special. 2009's Plants vs. Zombies was like a charming and quirky work of art. 2013's Plants vs. Zombies 2 feels more like a money-making machine. It's your favorite indie band selling out, using auto-tune, and coming out sounding like every other pop star on the radio.

Plants vs. Zombies 2 is available now in the Australia and New Zealand App Stores, for iPhone and iPad. It will launch officially on iOS later this (northern hemisphere) summer. You can expect it on Android some time after that.