Hands-on at E3: PvZ 2 Edition

If we’ve learned anything from pop culture over the past few years, it’s that zombies are not going to leave us alone. Like ever. Our only solace is that our flora friends have our backs, and they will prove it again this summer in Plants vs. Zombies 2: It’s About Time. EA’s mobile suite had a playable version on display at E3, and yours truly got to spend some quality time with PopCap’s latest effort.

The basics that made the first PvZ so popular haven’t changed too much. In each stage, you can choose from a selection of plants to defend the left side of the grid from zombies who attack from the right. Strategic considerations include placement and timing, as more powerful plants can’t come into play until you’ve collected enough sun. Zombies still don’t like sun.

Plants vs. Zombies 2: It's About Time

What the sequel gives you is more of everything. There are 12 new plants to master, each one giving you new options on defense. My favorites were Bonk Choy, a melee fighting cabbage, and the expensive but powerful Coconut Cannon. The Peapod, a ranged unit that can be purchased and stacked on itself multiple times for more firepower, was also a lot of fun.

Want more flexibility to deal with the shambling hordes? You’ve got it. Some levels have carts on tracks so you can slide plants between lanes. Sun can be collected by swipes instead of individual taps, something another E3 attendee said will save him from carpal tunnel syndrome.

Then there are the power-ups. Flashing zombies will drop plant food (also available for in-app purchase) that can give any plant a brief but significant offensive burst. Buttons at the bottom of the screen activate powers you can use to pinch the heads off of zombies or zap them with electricity – at the price of quite a few coins – and the developers said they intended some levels to be tough to beat without using them at the most desperate times.

Plants vs. Zombies 2: It's About Time

On the undead side, both old favorites and new zombies are among the attackers, and they change appearance with the four new zones that support the game’s time travel theme. Why time travel? I don’t want to spoil anything, but it involves Crazy Dave, and possibly his taco too.

The gameplay in the main adventure mode is slightly less linear thanks to gates that can be opened with special keys you can win from the zombies. Behind the gates are branching paths with three bonus levels that offer specific challenges to change things up. One I played allowed no sunflowers, granting only a large initial pool of sun that had to suffice for the entire stage. Needless to say, I failed.

Sequels to wildly successful games have a tricky balancing act to pull off between the familiar and the new, but Plants vs. Zombies 2 looks like it’s on track to get it right. It’s an iOS exclusive when it launches on July 18, though it’s destined for other platforms (probably a bunch of them) down the road. Between that and the Xbox-bound Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare, the plants are going to be working overtime keeping us safe. And thank goodness for that.