It’s About Time for Zombies

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Part of the Pirate World in PvZ2

Plants Vs Zombies 2, Popcap, iOS, Free

No game on my iPhone engaged me as long or as deeply as the original Plants Vs Zombies. A tower-defence game blessed with an abundance of humour, impressive cartoon visuals and a catchy score (including the best end credits song since Portal), it also had the benefit of a developer that continued to enhance and upgrade the game for several years after it came out, with new game modes and other add-ons.

Well, the sequel has finally landed, in the form of Plants Vs Zombies 2: It’s About Time, a punning, double-meaning subtitle that reassures fans of the original that the same twisted brains are still in charge. The big change this time around is that PvZ2 is free-to-play. The game itself comes without charge, but players can decided to pay more for extras within the game itself.

Free-to-play is rightly viewed with some suspicion. It’s a new business model for the games industry, and earlier efforts to make it work have resulted in crippled games that frustrate players. Luckily, PvZ2 takes another tack: the game offers an abundance of content, all of which can be accessed for free, but players can spend some coin to make their passage through the game easier or to buy some new plants to improve the variety of the experience.

As far as gameplay goes, the winning formula hasn’t been altered: the player places plants on the left of the screen and zombies attack from the right in waves of increasing intensity. There are some new elements thrown in, such as new plants and new zombies, but if anything the variety is a little bit down compared to the state the first game reached with all its expansions in place.

Tweaks have been added to the gameplay in the form of new special powers. Plant food supercharges plants temporarily and coins can be spent to activate special powers that will squish, electrocute or fling zombies offscreen. For an old-school player, these powers can seem a little like cheating, but the game is balanced so that while plant food is often necessary, the special powers rarely are. However, the in-battle currencies of plant food and coins do add complexity to a game laden with currencies (the familiar sun for buying new plants, stars for completing new levels and keys to unlock new routes).

These routes are the big change in the presentation of the game world. The first game took place in a back yard, by day and night, with a pool and without, and occasionally afflicted by fog. The player progressed from level to level, in a linear fashion. In PvZ2, the game is split into three worlds (Ancient Egypt, Pirates and Wild West, with an upcoming Far Future world having been announced). Each one is completed by following a linear path, but keys gained during battles allow the player to unlock side paths and gain extra plants and abilities thereby.

It’s a slightly more graphically intense game than the old one (only iPhone 4 and above need apply), and the graphics designed for retina displays take a little adjusting to, but everything is in order gameplay-wise. It’s as addictive as the old game—I’ve already completed the first world and made my way through part of the second, at a time when I really shouldn’t be playing games (or writing reviews of them).

The one niggle I’d point out? Although the side routes in each game world do offer different challenges akin to the mini-games of the first game, there’s no way to tell which one is which from the isometric world map. It’s a bit of an odd design decision, and one that I suspect will be fixed in further updates. If nothing else, Popcap’s reputation breeds confidence in the fact that this will be a well-supported game for a long time to come.

Recommending this game is a no-brainer (ahem). For no money at all, you get the same great gameplay of the original PvZ, and you can happily play through it without spending a penny. My only worry is that a lot of people will do just that, and that PvZ2 won’t be the financial success it deserves to be. Because, honestly, we could all do with more games like this.

(A quick reminder to clarify: the Android version of PvZ2 isn’t out yet, but it isn’t likely to differ too much from the above.)

Beauty, not Brains?

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Hairy arm: model’s own.

Pebble Smartwatch, $150, iOS and Android

As people smarter than myself have already pointed out, taking part in a Kickstarter funding campaign is like buying a present for your future self: by the time it arrives, you’ll have forgotten that you paid for it, and be pleasantly surprised that it showed up at all. That and the feeling of actually participating in a product rather than just buying it are all the reasons you need to know why Kickstarter is still huge.

To date, I’ve participated in five Kickstarter campaigns, mostly for small amounts. In each case, it was clear that I’d be waiting a long time for the results, something I didn’t mind at all. Well, in recent months my currently impoverished self has been reaping the benefits of my affluent former self, in that two of the results have shown up (in one form or another).

My biggest Kickstarter contribution to date was for one of the site’s most famous campaigns: the Pebble ePaper watch. A customisable bluetooth watch for Android and iOS phones, the Pebble raised $10,000,000 through Kickstarter, far above an original funding goal of $100,000. Due to the fact that I opted for a grey watchface rather than black, red or white, mine took a little longer to arrive than it might have otherwise, but a few weeks ago I wrested it from the hands of Irish customs and onto my wrist.

For the first wave in a new breed of smartwatches (Kickstarter is already hosting its more ambitious next-gen brethren), the Pebble has a definite retro, plastic feel to it. Which is not to say it’s not solid: the plastic case keeps it watertight while allowing charging through a USB lead and keeps the body light despite the its bulk.

The ePaper screen is basic but readable, with a motion-activated backlight, and can be modified with a multitude of watchfaces. Figuring out how to do so can be a bit of a chore: the online setup process is straighforward enough, but for more expansive options, you’ll need to use your phone’s web browser and the app that manages the Pebble itself.

In use, the Pebble is a handy accessory. I often don’t hear my phone when it’s in my pocket, but I can feel the Pebble’s vibration on my wrist without a problem, alerting me to calls, texts and mails. I can even read the mails and texts, or at least the first few lines of the mails, on the Pebble’s screen, though this only works in the moment—there’s no way to browse older messages.

At the time of buying the Pebble, my main reason was to have it as a running accessory. I’d just started recording my running with RunKeeper, and the idea of having a watch that would tell me my pace and distance covered sounded pretty good. Well, mission accomplished on that front: the Pebble keeps updated throughout a run

There are only three issues with the Pebble, all of them technology based. The first is that it drops the bluetooth connection occasionally. This is an issue because the Pebble isn’t a smartwatch. It’s a terminal for your smartphone, and lacking the connection, it can tell you the time in various pretty ways but not much else (there are game apps for the Pebble, but the chunky buttons don’t allow for sensitive control).

The second issue is battery life. I’ve averaged around five days so far, which isn’t too bad for a bluetooth device, but the phone software doesn’t do a great job of indicating when you need to recharge, so there have been a couple of times when I’ve looked at my wrist and found a blank screen looking at me. Annoying, but some of those multitude of watchfaces promise to fix that issue.

The last issue is probably the biggest one for Pebble: this is a first-generation device, cute and functional, but staring down the barrel of technological innovation. As stated, Kickstarter is already hosting second-generation devices, and Apple and Samsung look set to enter the space before long, bringing all their engineering know-how to the field. When that happens, Pebble’s retro looks may become all-too apt.

For now though, I’m wearing a watch for the first time in a couple of years, and I’m more than happy with the present my former self bought me. Runkeeper functionality, message and call alerts and a variety of funky watchfaces. It may not be smart, but it sure is handy.