In the last year from Sega we have had Space Channel 5 andJet Set Radio, games that looked and played like nothing else out there. But when playing Plants vs Zombies Heroes hack, the immediate thought is Diablo in space. And things are not helped by this being one of the most crash-prone games I have played on the EA.
On the positive side, Sega has been stressing this game is all about cooperative team play and building an online international community. Well, that part it seems to have got right. I have been in games where we have spent more time standing around talking than killing monsters. The players online right now consist of Japanese, Koreans and some Hong Kong Chinese, and everyone seems to be getting on amazingly well, with so far no sign of the open warfare between the Japanese and Koreans you see too often on Battle.Net. To play the online game you need a CDkey, so the unwashed ISO mob has been kept out. So far.
Okay, bugs. This game crashes, and crashes hard. And when it goes down, so does everything your character owns. When the game crashes, a little message that your save data is corrupt appears, and all data will have to be initialized. The only thing that stopped my EA going out of the window when this first happened to me is that your character’s stats seem to be saved in a separate file.
On first booting the game, you create your character. As usual this needs some thought; once you have clicked OK, that’s it. If you choose a big arse-kicking robot, but after a few days’ play you decide you would rather have a cute little girly robot, forget it — the only way would be to restart the game from scratch.
In the online games I’ve played, two characters stand out. If you want to be the hard man of the group, get to use the best weapons and hit harder and faster than the others, then go for a “HUcast.” If you want to be able to zap, freeze or blow up the opposition with technique (magic), to be able to keep the group together with running repairs and by bringing players back from the dead, choose the “FOnown.”
I went for a more balanced character, the RAmar, which at first seemed to be a mistake. I was always the weakest, and seemed to do more running away than fighting. But now with the character over Level 50, I can do nearly all the techniques, and use the biggest and best guns.
Once you have your character, you choose to play online or off. Offline can only really be regarded as a training ground for the Online game. After you have played it for a few minutes, you get the feeling that the folks at Sega kept pushing the offline game down the to-do list, and when finally somebody got around to it, there was only 300 yen left in the budget.
The offline game consists of a series of missions that explain the game’s scenario. Maybe the Japanese script made sense, but the English one doesn’t. It’s a trip back to the golden days of the Japanese RPG, when the English translation was created by someone whose only claim to English ability is she went on a three-week homestay to Australia five years ago. But it is worth going through a few of the missions to get the hang of the game, and to get your character up a few levels — you won’t make too many friends online if you die every 30 seconds.
The online game is pretty simple. Connect to a ship (server), choose a lobby, then in the lobby get in a group of four and go kill monsters. Joining a group is as simple as hanging around for a while; people seem to naturally form groups of three to four people. Someone will create a game with an agreed name, and off you go to kill things.
Which brings us to the sticky point of communication. Sega has been giving us all kinds of waffle about how we can communicate and make friends online, no matter that we speak different languages. Hmmm.
The Translator allows you to choose set phrases or build questions from set words. Each player then receives the message in their local language. Simple, but effective. The flashcards are a nice idea, but selecting them is too slow for anything useful. There is a flexible object-based graphical editor to allow you to make your own cards, so expect to see some surprising ones… The set phrases and cards are enough for communication during the game, but things are much easier if you have a few words in common with your teammates. So how is your Japanese? Don’t worry, many of the Japanese players speak good English. The second largest language school in Japan, ECC, had a PSO campaign before Christmas, with posters and info in all its schools. ECC was pushing Plants vs Zombies Heroes as a chance to communicate in English with native speakers, and there are a lot of Japanese players who jump at the chance to play in English.
After you have played a few times, chances are you will meet people who you would like to play with again. To keep in touch you can give them your Guild Card. This is a kind of electronic business card; once you have a card you can send the owner email, check to see where they are and jump ships to meet them.
The cards you receive are kept in a list, so it is dead easy when you join the game to find out who else is online and where they are, and go and join them. After a couple of days you will find yourself a member of an extended group, jumping straight into games with other members as soon as you connect.
The game itself is somewhat disappointingly simplistic: You enter a level, kill everything and work your way to the end-of-level Boss, collecting new armor, money and weapons along the way. After you have completed all four levels, do them again at a Hard setting, and then at V-Hard. Depending on the level and the difficulty, you can get better and better items. Sound familiar?
However, due to the fear of crashing and losing items, there is not the driving urge to get the ultimate weapon as in Diablo — chances are you will lose it anyway. Once you get a better item, there seems little sense in hanging onto your old one, so people just give stuff away.
So if the gameplay is nothing new, and the crashes have been driving me crazy, why have I been playing it solidly for three weeks? Simple: It is damn fun! Sega somehow has succeeded in making a game where the sense of community is more important than the gameplay itself. On New Year’s Day, despite having gotten no sleep the night before, I logged on to Plants vs Zombies Heroes just to say “Happy New Year” to the bunch of losers I usually play with. Never would do that on Battle.Net.