Review | Plants vs. Zombies
Format: PC | Genre: Casual | Publisher: PopCap | Developer: PopCap | Out now: £14 (Steam)
By Ben Barrett
I start thinking about build orders: “If I plant four of these and then switch to these as soon as the zombies come, I can get five more of these before I have to switch to these – and fast. Although, if they start coming from there I’ll be unable to defend my northern lane…”
This is not your average casual game. This is not Peggle’s shoot-the-ball-randomly-for-profit or some other guess-for-prizes falsehood of a game. This is as close to hardcore gardening as you’re going to get. And it’s absolutely terrific.
//Not a shambles
For anyone with his head under a rock or buried under a heavy pile of work (right there with you), Plants vs. Zombies is the latest of a recent trend in commercialising WarCraft III custom maps (see: Defense Grid and Demigod). You protect your delicious, cholesterol-heavy brains by placing plants – plants OF DEATH – on your lawn to fend off the encroaching zombie hordes.
Oh, and what a horde. A simply wonderful cavalcade of zombified pop culture references eating, pole-jumping, dancing, bungeeing and flattening their way past your seeds and into your skull. The artistic direction present here really is a masterpiece. The shamble of the zombies, the bounce of the sunflower and the recoil of the peashooters are perfectly formed. Every plant and every zombie is unique enough to be easily distinguished from its peers, but enough alike that they are clearly related. Visual cues are used very well to display which zombies are toughest and which plants hit the hardest. This results in a visual style that allows you to understand what’s going on at a mere glance. On the audio side, things are less gold-plated. While there is nothing particularly wrong with the music and sound effects, they all seem a little samey. Simple is good, particularly when so much can be going on at once, but this amount of repetition detracts from the experience as a whole.
//Columns and rows
With regard to game design itself, there is very nearly a wonderful balance. Each zombie has very specific counters that are amazingly effective. Anything metal? Build a magnet-shroom. Problems with seaborn undead? Drag them under with tangle kelp. The strength of combined arms cannot be understated here – simply one type of plant will be defeated easily eventually. Upgrades make an exception of this: for a frankly ridiculous amount of sun, basic plants can be customised, enhancing their abilities. For example, the Repeater, a classic “fast shooter”, can become the Gatling Pea – firing faster and looking a damn sight cooler. There’s an intricate dance played between investing in permanent shooters and the one-use insta-death plants that can make or break a defense. Sadly, in the main adventure mode it is usually possible to get away with the same build on each level of the same type – and with only five types of levels, this is not as many as perhaps it could have been.
There are good sides to this, though. It seems possible that situations where a certain “tower” is vital could be exceedingly frustrating – a situation which occurs once or twice already within the game. However, the way you play could differ from mine at the most basic level – I build in columns, you may do so in rows. I assume there must be other ways to play, perhaps in diagonals or using many more instant damage plants than I. Finding a playing style you like will be quick; finding the one you enjoy the most could take weeks.
Although this will likely go down in history as a tower defense game (what with the towers and the defending), there are striking similarities to standard RTS titles. Resource management plays a key role, each tower requiring a certain amount of Sun to produce. This falls slowly from the sky as well as being produced by certain plants. The management of such becomes a great concern in mini-games as well as a constant bedfellow during the campaign. Working out how to spend your first few hundred sun of a level becomes a min-maxing task of epic proportions – Plants vs. Zombies’ own “build order” conundrum.
The comparisons to standard RTS can continue. This is a game of adaption, turtling, the balance of resource production and firepower. Different combat “zones” require different units and tactics. For example, sun production at night is (as you might guess) much lower, so one has to be much more careful with their units – getting as much bang for your buck as possible, cheaply. There are random elements, some zombies being able to “pop up” half way into your battle-line or use other special tricks to bypass defenses, so you must be able to adapt with single-use plants with destructive effects. All of this in the adventure mode plus the frankly ridiculous number of mini-games results in something that is truly easy to learn, hard to master.
Talking of mini-games: holy crap. The diversity and number of extra features here puts Peggle’s challenge mode to shame. My favorite so far is a mode which allows you to switch sides and control the zombies to defeat preset gardens. It’s the perfect implementation of strategic factors into the game – particularly resource management as you only have a certain number of zombies with which to penetrate. No mode seems to be only for fun, although each has something to laugh at. One runs at hyper-speed with music to suit – more difficult than it sounds in a game entirely about precision. Another replaces the heads of zombies with copies of your plants: hilarious art ensues. The icing on the cake is a gardening mode in which you water, fertilise and play music at plants so that they give you money or can be sold for more of same.
There are, as with everything, problems. While the environments are, in general, interestingly varied (the last of which is arguably the best), one is closer to annoying than different or challenging. Minor niggles include your classic “one concept, expanded” problems of eventual boredom and the fact that the adventure mode itself is perhaps a little too easy – although the endless survival mode counters that, along with some of the harder mini-games.
Overall, this is the epitome of what is known as the casual genre: more skillful than Peggle, less repetitive than Bejewled and simply a better game than both. This will be money well spent and you’ll be addicted for weeks.
I’d close with something witty. But Plants vs. Zombies has eaten my brain.