Along with death and taxes, the only other certainty in life is that casual gamers love farming. It’s a good thing too, because otherwise Zynga’s FarmVille 2: Country Escape would be showing up unfashionably late to a party the company started itself with FarmVille back in the halcyon days of Facebook gaming. As it is, this fully mobile installment has much improved graphics and a fair bit of charm, but at the expense of the creative freedom that made the original such a monster hit.
This is the part where I’d usually go into the setting and object of the game, but this one should require little explanation. You’ve got a family farm to fix up, so you’ve got to get busy growing crops and harvesting resources from plants and animals, most of which can be crafted into more complicated and lucrative products at the appropriate stations: the dairy churns out milk products, the windmill can grind grain into flour, etc.
The touch-based controls make all of this a snap, as you simply tap on crops to water them or drag ingredients into a crafting recipe with a single swipe. A constantly updated sales board shows you what price you can get for specific amounts of crops or goods, and successful sales earn you coins and experience points. The obligatory multi-part quests also help a lot in both of those areas.
Compared to the original FarmVille, there’s more thought involved in what and when you grow things, because your storage space is limited (expanding it requires lengthy foraging or spending keys, the premium currency) and can be clogged up by things no one is buying. There’s a definite rhythm to it all, and you’ll find yourself getting increasingly accustomed to it the more you play.
What you can’t do is express yourself too much, and we all want to express ourselves, right? Country Escape does have decorative items, but not nearly as many as the game that started it all, and land expansions are given out in strict increments over time. I suppose that’s the price you pay for more coherent gameplay, but it’s a big part of what attracted people to the series back in the day.
The end result is that while you can go visit other players’ farms (thankfully without the rampant spamming that made non-players rue the day their friends discovered FarmVille), they’re going to look pretty similar at any given point in their progression. That is, of course, unless you’re willing to pay for more keys to unlock things faster, which is something Zynga no doubt hopes people will do.
One thing the Facebook game never had was farms that looked as good as these. Not only is everything rendered in 3D, it’s beautifully animated in ways you don’t even appreciate unless you zoom in and take a careful peak. Birds fly in and land on your scarecrow, trees and grass sway as if they were being moved by a gentle breeze, and your farmhands take turns playing horseshoes when they’re not helping out with quests. In a word, everything feels alive.
Yet the price of that feeling is being forced to color inside the lines with your farm. And while I recall Zynga saying that it wanted people to stop competing to simply acquire the most stuff when it released the original FarmVille 2, some of the magic has been drained away without more room for creativity. As admittedly anecdotal evidence, my wife actually spent a little money to play FarmVille back in the day, but I couldn’t get her to spend more than a few minutes checking out Country Escape. Casual farming is going to live on, but the days when it ruled the roost probably aren’t coming back.