Initially (hastily) typed as Pants vs Zombies. What a game that would have been!
Anyway, Plants vs Zombies.
The latest title to come from the Blizzard-of-indie,* Popcap, Plants vs Zombies has gained a following based solely on its music video trailer. And, y’know, the fact it’s a game about plants fighting zombies. In both respects it brings to mind the disappointing Stalin Vs. Aliens – another game selling on its amusing premise and absurd music video – the question is whether Plants vs Zombies manages to do justice to its setting.
From the off, this was an intriguing one: initially looking like it was to be Popcap’s take on the tower defence genre, later impressions began to paint a slightly different picture: it might have the sheen of that genre, but Plants vs Zombies seemed at least as enamoured with mini-games as it was with turret placement.
The game opens with Adventure mode. This is the mode closest to a tower defence game, and on cursory inspection appears to adhere to the standards expected of one: zombies enter the screen from the right, your job is to set up an array of plants (turrets) to stop the horde before it reaches the opposite side of the screen and eats your brains. Delving a little deeper (i.e. actually playing the game), it is immediately apparent that Plants vs Zombies is not a typical tower defence game.
For one thing, it’s much more linear – literally. The zombies only approach from right to left – they do not deviate from their path to avoid the plants, but instead munch their way through them. Similarly, the vast majority of plants are only capable of firing from in their own lanes – only a very few can target zombies that aren’t already heading right for them. While the end of the game does herald the arrival of a little opportunity for mazing in the form of garlic bulbs (Zombies can’t stand the taste of garlic, and will avoid them where possible), most of the time the player will be forced to play a reaction game, waiting to see which lanes need immediate support and installing plants on the fly to deal with the threats.
Secondly, it features a hands-on resource harvesting method. Rather than following the tower defence staples of recouping costs from fallen enemies, the game sees you harvesting sunlight. In the day, sunlight falls from the sky, as well as being supplemented by any sunflowers you build. At night, all sunlight is provided by plants; either the aformentioned sunflowers, or the cheap, but slow-to-build-up sun-shrooms. No matter the method of its production, however, the player has to stay engaged: rather than constantly ticking into your balance, sunlight appears in the garden periodically and must be collected manually by clicking on it. Not a problem to begin with, but as production ramps up and the zombies flow in, keeping your attention focussed on harvesting as well as dealing with the enemy can get pretty hectic.
Despite this, Adventure mode is forgiving, to say the least. It should take maybe six hours to complete, with defeat a rare occurrence. As already hinted at, however, Adventure mode is only half the story. As the player progresses through this core mode, aside from unlocking the huge number of plants on offer (each supplied with amusing, often absurd quotes in the game’s almanac), they begin to unlock new modes of play. Aside from the stalwart Survival mode (the player set to defend themselves over the course of repeated, ever-heavier waves of zombies), the Mini-Games and Puzzle sections are unlocked.
The former fills up with 20 different mini-games, ranging from bowling (wall-nuts – see what they did there? – vs zombies) to perfect knock-off Be-ghouled, which sees the player matching plants to eliminate them and earn sunshine, even as the plants are fending off hordes of zombies. Some of the mini-games offer a real challenge (particularly one which sees the player bombarded with pogoing zombies, able to jump over all but the towering tall-nuts), and all are a joy to play – short, but very sweet. The puzzle section contains only two games, each with ten levels (the final level being endless): one is rather uninspiring, seeing you smashing vases which contain either zombies or plants. The trick is to go slowly, and make sure you’re ready to deal with whatever pops out of the chinaware. Far more entertaining is the I, Zombie mode, which sees the player ordering zombie hordes onward, making sure to counter whatever preset defences are being fielded. It’s a real brainteaser at moments, and very satisfying.
The final ace up Plants vs Zombies‘s sleeve is its metagame: through every mode, the player is able to earn money – indeed, one of the plants unlocked is the marigold, which is entirely useless in defence, generating as it does nothing but money. All in-game money is used to buy various extras: new plants, items to assist in the different levels – and items for your Zen Garden.
The Zen Garden is an interesting idea, to say the least. Introduced as a way to make money, it will in fact turn into a massive money-sink. Working on a real-world clock, the Zen Garden sees you buying and earning plants, which gradually provide you with money. With this money you can buy various items for the plants – fertilizer, bug spray, a record player to cheer them up (no, really) – and gradually expand your garden so that it can provide for nocturnal and aquatic plants. What starts as a little earner on the side can quickly grow into an obsession, as the player looks to fill their garden with colour and life. And this highlights the real strength of Plants vs Zombies - its beauty.
The thing is, while the mechanics of the core game are solid enough, it’s the presentation that holds everything together. You want to unlock every last plant not just because of their usefulness in game, but because you want to see them in play, you want to read their almanac entry. The mini-games are good fun, as are is survival mode and I, Zombie, but even with all of this Plants vs Zombies is a slight game, particularly for the asking price ($20 on Popcap’s website, though you can grab it for half on Steam). Without the presentation to carry it, this would be an entertaining game, but not much to write home about.
But it does have the presentation, and that counts for a lot. The happy sunflowers, rabid jalapeños, gormless starfruit, the wide variety of zombies, and even your in-game neighbour are filled with character (in the lattercase, the character of a gibbering lunatic, yet somehow endearing). This is an easy game to like, and many people will take it to their hearts. I’m happy to find myself in that camp.
Lovable out of Seven
*which is to say, both follow a similar business model: take an existing genre, polish to within an inch of its life, release to wild acclaim.