It’s hard not to admire a developer like PopCap Games. In a time when most games continue to strive for realism, they consistently make cartoony games that are both fun to play and exude charm from just about every aspect imaginable. Their last title, Peggle, is a good example of what to expect from them. It combined humorous, over-the-top characters with an enjoyable and challenging modified version of pachinko. Thankfully, Plants vs. Zombies continues in this same vein, providing players with both a solid tower defense variant while also entertaining through its design, writing, and aesthetic.
In Plants vs. Zombies your goal is simple, to keep the advancing zombie hordes from coming inside your house and eating your brain. However, rather than just breaking out a gun and going for headshots, players will need to rely on a different kind of green thumbs. As waves of zombies continue to approach your home, looking for an afternoon (or late night) snack, the only thing standing in their way is a yard full of weaponized plants, as long as everything is going according to plan.
The first thing you’ll notice is just how cute everything is in this game. Everything from the humanized looking plants (read plants with faces) to even the zombies will bring a smile to your face, even if you are unaware of it. However, while this title comes off as being so sweet that it seems like it has been dipped in chocolate and then in sugar in the visuals department, don’t let that fool you. Although this game could likely be played by anyone, as it is easy to understand and get into, it hides an incredibly serious, deep, and difficult game beneath its diabetes inducing exterior.
Plants vs. Zombies is clearly based on the tower defense genre, however, there are some important differences that make it more unique. In most tower defense games, you are tasked with placing towers in strategic locations, optimizing their position in order to land more blows on enemies as they waltz through labyrinthine levels where they’ll essentially walk two miles to get to a destination no more than twenty feet away. However, in this title, you’ll be placed in rectangular environments and need to make use of the available squares (positioned in lengthy horizontal rows with up to six rows vertically) between your door on the left and where the zombies are streaming from on the right.
This helps to take out much of the ambiguity inherent in other tower defense games. You won’t ever have to worry about which direction the enemies will be coming from or if they’ll wander differently, allowing them to sidestep your defenses. Instead, zombies will come out of bushes on the right (usually, there aren’t bushes in some of the later stages) and continue to shamble forward along the horizontal path in which they started. Not only does this make the game feel less about needing to fail once in order to learn where foes will be coming from, it also creates a more claustrophobic intensity that continues to ramp up as more and more zombies stream towards your home.
Besides a zombie chopping lawnmower (or other devices later on) as your last ditch line of defense, you’ll need to plant a slew of seeds in order to stop the zombie onslaught. You’ll start the game with a limited number of plants, unlocking more as you beat levels or purchase them from Crazy Dave’s car trunk, which doubles as a shop, with coins you’ll earn during play. As these are plants and not towers, you’ll need to use sun power in order to plant more seeds (read deadly, zombie-killing plants). You’ll get this from both the sky (during the day) and various plants that produce it, running over the gobs of bright yellow with your reticule when they appear to collect them, and then use it as currency to plant all manner of offensive and defensive vegetation.
However, you won’t always have unlimited access to every plant you’ve unlocked, as you will be limited by the number of slots in your seed pouch (which can also be extended by Crazy Dave for a price). So instead of just being able to plant whichever seeds you’d like, you’ll need to pay attention to the different types of enemies and the environment before starting your level, making sure to take the plants that give you the best chance at victory. This is another aspect of Plants vs. Zombies that helps it to feel unique amongst other entries in the tower defense genre. Because of the way it is set up and the limitations that are applied, you tend to create a build order, much like you would in an RTS game. For instance, I would typically fill the last two rows with sun flowers or sun producing mushrooms, then put a row of frozen pea shooters next to help damage and slow the incoming zombies, and then fill in the front lines with cheaper and more expendable plants.
This isn’t to say that every level will play out in the same way, however, as there is plenty of variety thrown at the player in the form of different environmental situations, as well as a large variety of distinct zombies. Aside from the basic zombie, who is rather slow and weak, you’ll find zombies carrying screen doors (making them stronger), zombies who tunnel under the ground and attack your plants from behind, and even a zombie who rides a Zamboni. There are honestly too many zombie types to mention, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and strategies that, when combined with environmental differences (such as water, daylight, and night), make playing each level different than the last.
However, this is all just for the single-player adventure, as Plants vs. Zombies also comes with co-op, versus, survival, puzzle, and mini-game modes. Survival is self explanatory, pitting you against a never ending onslaught of zombies. Mini-game mode offers up a variety of interesting options, such as walnut bowling (approaching zombies being the pins) and defending your house using only what you get from pulling the arm on a slot machine that uses sun power like silver dollars. Puzzle mode presents the player with challenges, such as breaking a series of vases whose contents are a mystery (it could be a random zombie type or a plant to help defend), which require a bit more thought in order to survive.
The versus and co-op modes are probably the most interesting, providing significantly more replay value than the others. In co-op mode, you and another local player (sorry, no online for co-op or versus) each get smaller seed pouches and must work together to take out the approaching zombie hordes. Since your pouches are so small and you don’t share sun power, deciding who will take which seeds and who needs to collect sun power provides for many interesting matches. However, in versus mode, two players go head-to-head, with one manning the plants and defending the house and the other sending the undead on a seek-and-eat mission. This mode is a blast to play, although it does seem a tad easier when playing on the zombie side of the equation.
If you have even a passing interest in the tower defense genre, Plants vs. Zombies would likely be a good place to start. Due to the way it is set up, getting into the game and knowing what is expected is easier than in most other titles in the genre. However, if you’re a longtime fan of the genre, don’t let the games saccharine exterior fool you; there is a deep and difficult game underneath. In either case, Plants vs. Zombies is a fantastic and entertaining experience and has a wide variety of modes to keep players coming back.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.5 Graphics
While clearly not going for a realistic look, this game’s cartoony look is beautiful and charming. 4.0 Control
Switching between plants using the left and right bumpers seems a tad clumsy at times. 4.4 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Everything from the groaning of zombies to Crazy Dave’s unintelligible grunts fits this game perfectly. 4.6 Play Value
With all the modes and the differences caused by changes in the environments and zombies, this game will keep you coming back for quite some time. 4.4 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.