little_socrates's Plants Vs. Zombies (iPhone) review

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A Great Little Handheld Title

[This review is for the iPhone version of the game. For the PC version, read my review here.]

I've liked tower defense at times in my life. Generally, my preference is for maze-based tower defense games; Wintermaul, along with its various spin-offs, was my favorite multiplayer mod of WarCraft III, and this particular version kept me occupied for quite a bit of time. However, I've also reviled tower defense many other times, and whenever it's simply shoehorned into a major title, I feel jilted and upset. Usually, when mazing is not involved, tower defense boils down to an inactive "wait until I have the resources to build another tower, then add one more tower in the optimal location" waiting game that simply bores me to tears.

However, Plants vs. Zombies finds a unique balance between the activeness of Wintermaul and the traditional structure of tower defense titles. Plants are deployed by earning enough sun; most fire projectiles at the zombie invaders, who want to get past your lawn, into your home, and at your juicy brains. Gameplay takes place on a horizontal line-based playing field, with zombies moving along straight lines directly at your plants. As a result, decisions must be made as to which plants will be planted in which order as well as to which line needs the most support.

Plants vs. Zombies also works around the general inactiveness of tower defense by invoking the sunflower and the "explosive"-class plants. Each sunflower you plant drops sun onto the playing field at regular intervals; the player must actually click the sun icons that drop next to the sunflower (or from the sky and sporadic intervals) to collect the resource, keeping the player continuously active in the game's progression. Meanwhile, explosive plants such as the "cherry bomb" are planted and quickly kill any zombies in a limited space. It's an effective way to keep the game moving, and if things are getting hectic the player can easily drop an explosive to make things a little easier for themselves.

There are a total of five chapters in Plants vs. Zombies, each with ten levels. Between the five levels, there are three different lawns that implement many gameplay mechanics; meanwhile, a day/night cycle restricts the player's access to sun on the nighttime worlds. Nighttime also opens up access to mushrooms, another class of plant that is generally cheaper to produce and slightly weaker. Nearly every level completed opens up a new plant or ability. By the time the game gets difficult, though, the player will have access to the plants they are likely to use for the rest of the game. While the game definitely offers a wide variety of options, most of them are either too expensive or too weak to actually impact the player's strategy significantly.

The game also has an in-game shop that unlocks during the second world. The game consistently makes jokes through Crazy Dave, your crazy neighbor who runs the shop. There are humorous bits in other parts of the game, but Crazy Dave is by far the highlight, a weird character who brings a whole lot of life to the game. Money is earned for a perfect run on the level or occasionally by killing zombies. The shop opens up some "mutations" that allow you to change the way certain plants function, but these changes are mostly too expensive to be unlocked in an initial playthrough. The game does not unlock an ability to replay old levels until a completion of the "adventure mode", which unfortunately restricts one's ability to customize their garden or experiment with design philosophies in alternate levels. It would've been nice to allow this feature from the get-go, especially for casual players who aren't enjoying the later, more complex worlds.

However, Plants vs. Zombies is ultimately pretty easy. Intelligent use of sunflowers makes resource gathering a cinch, and proper use of explosive plants, defensive plants, or specialized pea shooters make most scenarios especially easy. The game's biggest challenge is its final boss, a long encounter with a very mediocre enemy. This encounter also echoes some other sections of the game that remove sun as a resource, instead forcing the player to use a conveyor-belt queue of plants to defeat the oncoming horde. These sections are less-than-exciting, and the final boss is a major disappointment at the end of what is otherwise an entertaining game.

Aesthetically, the game carries a lot of charm. The plants and zombies are consistently designed attractively, with many of the plants being notably so darned cute, and the music loops are enjoyable while they last. The iPhone version allows for you to play other music during your game without constant pauses or interruptions, so longer play-sessions can be facilitated quite easily. The sprites also look a bit grainy on the iPhone version, but the animation generally keeps up, only allowing for slow-down when the player has planted WAY too many shooters on the screen. The game's ending song is kind of a disappointment after some of the excellent credits songs we've received over the years, but it's a fine song. The ending song also boots in a weird, low-resolution video on the iPhone version that seems to be streaming from another source, which is rather unfortunate as it looks worse than everything featured in the game.

Plants vs. Zombies is a great game to have on the go; while it doesn't support short play sessions like Tiny Wings or Angry Birds, its levels are certainly shorter than the longest sessions of Dungeon Raid or Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery. However, the iPhone version has a few small downgrades from the PC that keep it from excelling beyond its PC counterpart.

Ultimately, Plants vs. Zombies is still a great game. This new take on tower defense is energizing, and intelligent decisions have been made to open up the genre to new fans. Its aesthetic is eminently charming, and its humor is often pretty great. Taking sum of its parts and noting some rough edges to be refined, I'd still be excited to hear if a sequel were on the way, and Plants vs. Zombies helps make PopCap a developer I look forward to hearing more from soon.

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