A Ravenous Distraction
Tower defence has certainly had its fair share of incarnations over the years. Waves of enemies come towards a spot you need to defend, and you build some units in between to try and fend off the attackers. At first, it will be PopCap's trademark charm that sinks it hooks into you. Basically, your house is about to be overrun by a shambling zombie horde, and the only way to stop them is to plant both offensive and defensive plants in your front garden, backyard, and eventually your roof. These range from pea-shooters, to defensive wall-nuts, to area-of-effect items like cherry bombs and jalapeno peppers. The only way to buy more plants is to collect sun energy from sunflowers which must also be planted and protected, lest you lose your source of income.
It's all very cute and visually appealing at first, but digging under the surface reveals a surprisingly strategic game that can also be hectic and tense. There are dozens of zombie types in the game, and knowing how to build a garden to best defend against them is key. Bucket zombies, as you might expect, wear metal buckets on their heads to make themselves far more resilient than normal enemies. However, planting a magnet shroom or two will pull the bucket right off his head, allowing your offensive units to more easily pummel them. In a set of brilliant moves, all zombie types in an upcoming level are shown to you before you pick your plants, eliminating needless guesswork in planning for what will never come, and all plants and zombies are contained within an Almanac that you can pull up at any time for quick reference. With all of these handy features present but not detracting from the strategy or fun, Plants vs Zombies feels more tightly put together than most any other, similar game.
The best part about the game is variety. The designers of the game polished the core game to an amazing sheen, and then designed over a dozen variants on it. It doesn't feel forced, like they're trying to add some spice into something a bit lacking. All of the changes and curveballs the game throws you feel natural and keep within the spirit of the gameplay. For example, mushroom plants are nocturnal and will not work during day levels – until later on when coffee beans become available to wake them up. But is it worth the drain on your sun economy? Another variant comes late in the game when you are defending your roof. Not only do you have to face the most difficult zombies in the game, you must also buy and place pots filled with soil down before you can expand your army of plants. Clay shingles can't sustain life, after all. Constantly enforcing and then lifting limitations makes you step out of your comfort zone and little and try out some new plants and strategies, while still allowing you to keep a standard build order that you've come to like. It really is quite a masterful balance, and experimenting with plants and strategies really sustains the game long past its conclusion.
The main adventure mode lasts about five or six hours, although it definitely won't feel that long at all. If this was the only distraction available, Plants vs Zombies may have been a dubious value, even if the game lets you play through the adventure again with a few constraints on your abilities. However, there are tons of extra material, most of which is unlocked upon beating the main attraction. They are divided into Minigame and Puzzle menus and have you doing things like using wall-nuts to go bumper-bowling against zombie hordes; matching three plants in an already-built field (in a nod to PopCap's monstrously popular Bejeweled); and my personal favourite, playing as the zombies. Here you attempt to strategize your way past dangerous gardens to harvest the tantalizing brains beyond. This adds hours onto the game's already impressive value and gives you over 50 trophies to collect, as well as a few endless versions of minigames that challenge you to simply go for as many waves as you can without losing. A zen garden also opens up, allowing you to peacefully plant flowers and take care of their food and water needs to help them grow and sprout some coins for your trouble.
For the last few nights, I have been playing Plants vs Zombies late into the morning. It also distracted me from writing this very review; every time I went to check on some names or other facts, I'd end up hooked for another few hours, and consequently away from my word processor. That should really tell you what kind of game this; simple, cute, fun, and addictive to a mind-boggling degree. The video game industry could probably stand a break from the dozens of zombie games released recently, but PopCap's latest is an exception, giving us a clever and deceptively sublime experience.