Aug. 16, 2013 at 4:46 PM ET
The subtitle to "Plants Vs. Zombies 2" reads: "It's About Time." Like many parts of this new iOS game's corny sense of humor, this is a knowingly bad play on words that gestures towards a deeper truth about what makes "Plants Vs. Zombies" one of the least expected marvels of the modern video game industry. "It's About Time" refers to the interminably long wait we've had to endure since the release of the stellar "Plants Vs. Zombies" in May 2009. But it also points to the time-traveling (get it?) adventure players embark on in the sequel released this week. And, finally, "It's About Time" highlights something that gamers and game developers alike have been awaiting since mobile technology took gaming by storm: A free-to-play, decidedly "casual" video game that's not just good, not even just great, but an instant classic.
And that's exactly what "Plants Vs. Zombies 2" is. The game builds on and improves every aspect of the original gradually enough to keep the core flora-fighting-the-undead experience the same but adding layers of depth and complexity in the process. If "Plants Vs. Zombies" was a fun and quirky distraction that describes even the best casual games, "Plants Vs. Zombies 2" is an immersive and challenging experience in its own right that can hold its own next to popular blockbuster console titles like "Call of Duty" or "Grand Theft Auto."
In genre terms, "Plants Vs. Zombies" is a tower defense game, meaning that the players' core task is positioning defensive units (the plants) on one side of the board to defend against the invading forces (the zombies). You have a limited amount time and few drops of sunlight (the resource required to buy more plants to place on the board) before the zombies begin their relentless search for brains, so the challenge comes down to choosing where and how to place your plants to defeat the undead.
Each type of garden vegetable is just different enough from its seeded colleagues to make trial-and-error a joyful necessity. The "Peashooter" lobs peas at the living dead, while the adorably feisty "Bonk Choy" uppercuts any zombie that steps within punching distance. "Wall-nuts" provide an invaluable first line of defense zombies must literally gnaw their way through, and the less flashily named Sunflowers churn out more sun to fuel your entire army.
"It's About Time" improves on this core "Plants Vs. Zombies" paradigm by introducing power-ups called "plant food," which are sort of like steroids for the already amped-up garden plants.
Giving some extra juice to a "Cabbage-pult" rains down leafy-green hellfire on an entire wave on incoming zombies, for instance. These additions could have been game-breaking if placed in the wrong hands, but "Plants Vs. Zombies" developer PopCap Games distributes them sparingly enough to turn each level into a frantic battle that leaves you praying for one power to recharge in time to defeat that last brain-hungry villain who's stubbornly chewing his way through your defenses, but generously enough to always invite more player experimentation.
The zombies themselves have also been given new life, so to speak. Each portion of "It's About Time's" three-act campaign transports players to a new historical epoch, each with its own unique challenges and hilariously challenging zombies to battle. Pharaoh-like zombies in the Ancient Egypt levels hold up a magic staff that can steal your sun supply if you're not careful. Rope-swinging zombies in the pirate levels can zip across the gap between two ships with alarming speed. And in the Wild West-themed final act, railroad tracks help you quickly shuttle plants between different parts of the board to take aim foes.
Where the new game truly excels, however, is in its application of the often-controversial business model of free-to-play — an approach that many casual game developers on Facebook or mobile platforms use to attract wary or frugal customers to start playing their game before actually spending money on it. Most free-to-play games employ the monetization strategy so artlessly that they're approximately as much fun as sitting through a time-share presentation.
"Plants Vs. Zombies 2" does wall some of its content off between pay gates that gives players the chance to spend a few dollars at a time to advance to a new level or buy some additional powers, but none of it feels disingenuous or exploitative in the process. You may have to collect a few extra gold stars to complete the Ancient Egypt levels without spending $4.99 to move onto the Pirate-themed campaign, but PopCap gives the player enough unique challenges that collecting these extra stars is a pleasure in its own right.
And, really, why wouldn't you want to give a few bucks over to the creators of such an excellent game? "Plants Vs. Zombies" isn't just exciting because it's so much fun to play, but also because it shows how good games like this can be. "Casual" games may still be a marketing term to separate games like "Angry Birds" from nerdish associations we have with games like "World of Warcraft," but, really, everyone should play "Plants Vs. Zombies." That such a game exists proves once and for all that smartphones and tablets are now fertile ground for inspired game developers. And, frankly, it's about time that happened.
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: Yannick.LeJacq@nbcuni.com.