Thursday, November 15, 2012

Farmville 2 - Just another spammer?

FarmVille 2 is the long-awaited follow-up to one of Zynga’s most consistently popular social games. Promising all-new 3D visuals, a fundamental rethinking of the farming genre’s gameplay and a specific effort to be more player-friendly, hopes are high for the new game — but does it deliver on its lofty ambitions?
Like its predecessor, FarmVille 2 casts players in the role of a custom avatar who has inherited an overgrown, abandoned farm. Through harvesting crops, caring for animals and purchasing various new items, it’s up to the player to take ownership of the farm, make it their own and make as much money as possible along the way.
So far so FarmVille — so let’s look at the differences between the two.
The first and most obvious difference is in presentation. Rather than the soulless cartoony graphics of other Zynga games, FarmVille 2 makes extensive use of 3D graphics, but deliberately keeps the models simple so the game will theoretically run well even on less powerful machines. In practice, a lot of the “3D” objects are, in fact, 2D sprites overlaid atop a basic polygonal landscape, but since it is impossible to rotate the view away from its default isometric perspective, this fact remains well-hidden to all but the most observant. The change to 3D doesn’t make a particular difference to the gameplay in and of itself, but it does give the game a distinctive aesthetic that sets it apart from its predecessor.
Another difference is in the way the player interacts with their farm. While FarmVille required players to click on everything they wanted to interact with one at a time, FarmVille 2′s “paint” system allows players to click and drag to select a whole group of, say, crops at the same time, and then the player avatar will run over and deal with them in rapid succession. There is no waiting for unnecessary progress bars to fill while actions are completed — the avatar simply hacks through crops happily and sprinkles water with gay abandon, meaning that it’s possible to get a lot done in a significantly shorter space of time than in the original. The fast pace is very much to the game’s benefit, and very reminiscent of Supercell’s Hay Day for iOS, which makes use of a similar gestural system.
Thirdly, the game has supposedly dropped the play-throttling “energy” system that has blighted most of Zynga’s games over the years. While this may initially appear to be true, it is in fact still present, just more well-disguised and marginally more player-friendly. Instead of every action costing energy, certain important actions require the use of a “water” resource. The player’s water supply gradually regenerates over time (or may be immediately topped up with hard currency) up to a hard cap — initially 30 units. This limit may be expanded by completing various building projects found in land expansions. While the “water” system is more thematically appropriate to the game, it is still clearly an energy system by another name, designed to throttle progress for non-paying players as it becomes more challenging to level up.
New social features include the ability to hire friends as farmhands, who may then be dropped on various locations around the farm to perform functions such as fertilizing crops and feeding animals. In practice, this mechanic is effectively a “reverse neighbor visit” — rather than relying on one’s friends to log in to the game and visit to help out, this allows the player to use the players they have already invited to their advantage, even if they’re not actively playing. It is, of course, also possible to go and visit friends’ farms in the usual manner, with small daily rewards on offer for players who do so. Many buildings also require friends’ cooperation to complete — or the expenditure of hard currency.
The social mechanics are supported by compatibility with Zynga’s “community” feature, meaning that it’s possible for players who are not Facebook friends with one another to play together and help each other out. The game does not, however, do a very good job of explaining how this works — clicking on one of the “add friend” buttons at the base of the screen simply brings up the usual Facebook invite dialog box.
Speaking of invitations, the game is rather pushy about posting stories to the player’s Timeline, asking them to invite friends and send free gifts. Early in the game, the player is confronted with several non-dismissable “Invite Friends” dialog boxes, and upon completing every quest, the game automatically ticks an easily-missed “Share Rewards” box that silently posts to the player’s Timeline. Even if this box is unchecked by the player once, it automatically rechecks itself with every new completed quest, making it easy for the game to build up a ton of Timeline spam without the player realizing it. Facebook’s new methods of organizing Timeline content do at least collect all these stories together into a single activity box, but in the meantime it’s possible that the game could clutter up a lot of friends’ News Feeds. Players should be able to uncheck the box by default and only share specific achievements that they would like to post, rather than the default being to share everything.
Ultimately, FarmVille 2 tries hard to take a step forward with its distinctive 3D visuals, efficient control scheme and use of interconnected systems to make the farm feel much more “realistic.” But the new title remains mired in the past by the established conventions of social gaming — progress throttling; Timeline spam; enforced “socialization” that is, in fact, not all that “social”; not-so-subtle nudges in the direction of monetization options. Zynga had the opportunity to try something truly different here; instead they have produced a game that, while a worthy sequel to one of its most popular titles, certainly isn’t going to change the minds of any social gaming skeptics.


While a worthy successor to FarmVille and thus likely to enjoy a good degree of success, it’s a little disappointing to see FarmVille 2 relying on so many of social gaming’s least endearing conventions.

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