PopCap Hits Vol. 2 Review

by on March 12, 2011

Game: PopCap Hits Vol. 2

Developer: PopCap Games

Publisher: Mastertronic Group Limited

Available On: Xbox 360 Only

Indie publishing legends Mastertronic have been in the budget videogames lark for many years now. Hell, we fondly remember their often excellent budget C64 and Speccy cassette releases from the 1980’s that you could pick up from seemingly anywhere, even petrol stations and newsagents. These days they are still rollin’ deep in the game, currently pimping out four-strong compilations straight from the barrel of casual gaming overlords, PopCap.

We have already taken a gander at the first such volume of titles, and found it to be a bit of a mixed bag. There were problems in that only two out of the four games on the disc were genuinely worth the outlay on the whole package, and caution was advised with a side order of “purchase the decent titles seperately”. Does the same apply to PopCap Hits Volume 2 though, or is it a better compilation?

PLANTS vs ZOMBIES: Tower defence games have been around for a fair few years now, popularised by Atari’s still-awesome 1990 arcade classic Rampart. We have seen the simple, yet winsome, strategy formula implemented in many forms; as the memorable Fort Condor minigame within Final Fantasy VII, as free Adobe Flash games available on the internet, and latterly as standalone releases on many different platforms.

The premise should be familiar to gamers by now, you defend your “tower” from oncoming marauders by tactically placing units in their path. There have been some excellent variations on the theme released in recent years (for example PixelJunk Monsters or Ninja Town), but none better than PopCap’s 2009 classic, Plants vs Zombies.

Tower defence isn’t the only idea in gaming to have enjoyed something of a renaissance lately, zombies are also a big hit with the kids, as the success of fare like Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising will attest. Where Plants vs Zombies differs is that instead of gunning down or battering to death the hordes of the undead, here you effectively take on the form of a kick-ass Mr Fothergill, equipped only with packets of seeds to waste the brain-hungry scum in a tower defence style.

You take control of a grid which is being attacked from right to left by wave after wave of zombies who are attempting to reach your home on the opposite side. The enemies in their myriad forms move in a straight line, and you defend yourself by planting seeds, which in turn bloom into all manner of fantastically bonkers flora, each with their own unique abilities. These abilities vary wildly and are designed to counteract the various types of zombies. Exploding spuds, projectile spitting peashooters, fire-bringing chili peppers, ‘shrooms that cause your attackers to freak out and attack their own kind, hungry carnivorous flytraps and many more, all fantastically and beautifully realised.

The zombies have equally inventive abilities! Some are clad in armour, helmets or wield ladders (this neccessitates the use of handy magnetic plants) and others can leap over your defences or even fly, which is where you employ plants with a handy windmill-like effect.

Seeds are limited in supply with a set number available at the start of each level. You get a pre-level warning of what sort of stumbling beasties to expect, and pick your biological weaponry accordingly in the limited slots in your arsenal. As with all of the best PopCap titles however, you are rewarded for your progression through the game, with new types of triffid badassery available after the completion of a level. You can also purchase different seed packs with the in-game currency (sunlight) which is collected by plants that generate sunlight.

There is also a natty day/night mechanic which causes some plants to be more effective at nightime, other obstacles to take into consideration such as levels that include bodies of water (you can only plant seeds atop the floating lily pads) or levels set on the roof, where one can only deposit seeds into the plant pots provided.

Let’s not beat around the bush, this is not only the best game on PopCap Hits Volume 2. It is also PopCap’s best title, full stop. As well as the gameplay being almost criminally addictive with a genius difficulty curve, the whole package is fantastic, with single and co-op modes (on and offline respectively), unlockable minigames (anyone for Zombie Bejewelled?) and many, many delightful touches that will make you grin like a loon. It also looks the business, keeping just the right side of cutesy! What is not to like about the sight of an anthropomorphic vegetable setting fire to a zombie dressed up as Thriller-era Wacko Jacko?

HEAVY WEAPON: Twin-stick shoot ’em ups are ten-a-penny on Xbox LIVE Arcade, with many titles to choose from for your precious Microsoft points. Heavy Weapon, despite it’s ridiculous 80s throwback Soviet Invasion setting, is one of the better titles out there and a welcome addition to this package.

You are placed in command of a tank which can move horizontally across the screen, blasting away at enemies above. Think Moon Patrol on steroids, or taking control of the jeep in 80s classic Silkworm. There isn’t a great deal to it though, put simply, you shoot your way through 19 progressively more difficult, aesthetically lovely levels, uprgrading your weaponry along the way in the armory, either on your own or with up to three trigger happy mates. There is a grand array of different enemies to waste, and the obligatory bosses to defeat.

You can play on or offline, and there is also a superb survival mode. Heavy Weapon harks back to a more innocent age, the times of yore where simple brainlessly excellent shoot ’em ups were king of the amusement arcades, and as such is well recommended.

ZUMA: Puzzle titles are meat and drink to PopCap and the ancient Aztec-themed Zuma is another corker in their highly addictive pantheon. This time, rather than swapping gemstones or becoming entranced by a magical approximation of pachinko, you are placed in a mystical temple armed only with a stone frog idol and a supply of balls, odds which even Indiana Jones would balk at. This is no action romp though, it is a brain teaser loosely based around 1998 arcade classic Puzz Loop; against the clock, your archaic amphibian fires off balls to take out the other balls rolling around the playing field on a given course, before they reach the golden skull you are charged with protecting.

Standard puzzle game coloured ball mechanics apply here, match three or more of the same colour together and they explode and are eliminated. Sometimes this can trigger off chain reactions and more explosions. The aim of each level is to fill a yellow energy bar, which tops up each time you detonate yourself some magic balls. There are other bonuses to consider, such as collectable coins and power ups which have endearingly familiar effects on the chain of balls, such as slowing them down, improving the accuracy of your shots, or simply causing yet more explosive tomfoolery.

As well as an adventure mode in which you attempt to conquer increasingly more testing ancient temples, there is also a “Gauntlet” mode (endless mode to you or I) in which you take on the challenge of increasingly more difficult stages, culminating in the brutal “Sun God” levels, which are the ultimate test of frog-on-ball dexterity.

Zuma is a compelling and enjoyable puzzle game, and being a PopCap release it looks classy, has a great sounding tribal drum soundtrack, and the gameplay is well balanced and highly entertaining. The only criticism you can really lay upon Zuma is that there are only a handful of game modes and this can give the overall package a repetitive feel. Unfortunately, whilst Zuma is a fine standalone game, there is now a far superior sequel available and you have to ask yourself why this was not included, in the same manner that PopCap Hits Volume 1 chose to ship with Bejewelled 2.

FEEDING FRENZY 2: Well, three out of four ain’t bad, as ageing operatic rock behemoth Meatloaf may sing were he to be playing through these here four games. Just as Feeding Frenzy was the arse-whipped ginger stepchild of the first Popcap Hits, the sequel takes wooden spoon honours for Volume 2. That isn’t to say that it is a terrible game, (and it is definitely an improvement on it’s predecessor) it just sticks out like a sore thumb in comparison to the other three titles on offer.

Feeding Frenzy cast you as a small fish in a big pond, charged with eating your way along the food chain in order to increase in size, whilst avoiding other larger predators and obstacles. This sequel sticks to the same formula but has twenty more stages, a larger play area, power ups, and some interesting additions, such as levels where you are engulfed in darkness and can only illuminate proceedings by guzzling flourescent plankton, and the ability to leap out of the water and snaffle unsuspecting prey. The graphics are markedly improved on the original too, and there is a local multiplayer option.

Sadly, whilst credit must be given to make improvements on the original, Feeding Frenzy 2 is still far too simplistic and easy to complete, making it a stark contrast to the comparitively hardcore, higher-quality, all-puzzling, all-shooting action that stands alongside it in this bundle.

VERDICT: The wheat-to-chaff ratio is much better in Volume 2, of that there can be no doubt. With just one clunker. The only other criticism being the omission of Zuma’s much better sophomore effort, this represents decent enough value at a budget price point.

The fact remains though, just like with PopCap Hits Volume 1, if you have access to do so, for only a few quid more than purchasing this compilations you could pick up the choice selections as standalone purchases, which is why once again it has to be advised that you are should be choosy about where you spend your hard-earned cash.

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