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Crazy Dave eating a taco in the new Plants vs. Zombies 2.

Seattle’s PopCap Games has long stood for excellence in casual gaming, and this week’s release of Plants vs. Zombies 2: It’s About Time is no exception.

As the game’s tagline suggests, it’s about time we got a sequel. After almost four years since the first release of “PvZ” for PC and Mac, fans have been waiting a while for a successor. The good news is: It was worth the wait. “PvZ 2” has all of the charm and energy of the first game, with a few nifty additions that make the game worthy of the “Plants vs. Zombies” moniker.

pvz22As I noted earlier this week, the core gameplay patterns haven’t changed much from the original “PvZ.” Once again, you control a nameless homeowner, gathering sun, laying down a layer of weaponized plants, and defending yourself from a growing onslaught of cel-shaded zombies.

And if that’s all “PvZ 2” was, it would probably be good enough to keep people interested, at least for a little while. The good news is that PopCap didn’t stop at a simple expansion pack.

Right from the start of the game, something’s different. Your neighbor, Crazy Dave, making a return appearance from the original “PvZ,” has eaten the greatest taco of his entire life. So naturally, he wants to go back in time (with the help of his souped-up RV) to eat it again.

And that’s when you end up in Ancient Egypt, the first of three different themed eras in “PvZ 2,” each sealed by “star gates” that you can either pay to open, or earn the right to open through completing challenge scenarios for levels that you’ve already been through once before.

In addition to a new focus on time, the other marquee feature of “PvZ 2” are the trio of superpowers that you can use for a limited time in game with the purchase of some in-game currency that you can earn by playing through the game, or get restocked with a microtransaction.

pvz555The superpowers, including the ability to pinch zombies’ heads off or zap them with lightning, feel impactful, and somewhat like you’re a god reaching out and meddling with the battlefield.

At the time of this review, I’m two thirds of the way through the game, having just wrapped up the “pirate ship” section, and I have to say that I’m happy with the way things have played out so far.

One of my favorite additions to the game are the various themed mini-games that have been added in to each area, including a concentration variant that I can’t get enough of.

PopCap’s move to free-to-play with “PvZ 2” caused a lot of consternation among gamers. As his interview with GeekWire yesterday indicates, it’s clear PopCap CEO Dave Roberts and his team put a lot of effort into getting the game’s free-to-play economy to work for both players who will and won’t pay.

As someone who hasn’t spent a cent on “PvZ 2,” I’m perfectly happy with my experience, and I don’t feel like I’ve really missed out on anything, or I’m in some way disadvantaged by not putting money in, which often isn’t the case with free-to-play titles.

The game’s user interface feels like it’s built from the ground up for touchscreens, and feels a good deal smoother than the mobile and tablet ports of the original “PvZ,” which I think is a major point in the game’s favor.

One brief note: while “PvZ 2” is technically playable on an iPhone, I wouldn’t recommend it. While the interface design PopCap used for the iPad version of the game technically works on the iPhone, it feels cramped, and working with the precision that you ultimately need to be successful in the game is difficult.

At the end of the day, “PvZ 2” is a good game that just so happens to be free-to-play. The levels are well-constructed, both plants and zombies feel varied and fun, and the gameplay is tight and engaging. Experienced players won’t be bored, and new players won’t feel like they’re in over their heads either.

And hey, it’s free. What do you have to lose, except maybe a few hours?

Previously on GeekWire: Q&A: PopCap CEO Dave Roberts on the ongoing allure of zombies and why free-to-play games aren’t really evil

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