The Plants Vs. Zombies Review

By John Walker on May 5th, 2009 at 4:11 pm.

Yet another plants against zombies game - is there anything original left?

PopCap’s latest, Plants Vs. Zombies, certainly won our attention with its lovely promotional music video, and drew us in further with an intriguing and hilarious trailer. But what about the game itself? Can it deliver on the giant pile of cute promises? Find out wot I think below, in Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s review.

The world of casual games works like this: Every couple of years someone comes up with an especially engaging and catchy game idea. Everyone else copies it as fast as they can. Then PopCap comes along and does it better, selling seventy trillion copies. Whether you’ll consider Plants Vs. Zombies better than other Tower Defence games you might have played (or even a Tower Defence game at all), there’s no way you’ll be able to claim anyone has made a strategy game more adorable.

Awwww!

The premise is super-simple. You have a lawn, and zombies are invading it. The creatures attack from the right, and your house is on the left, your lawn divided into six horizontal lines along which the zombies will travel. Using an array of various plant types, you must defend your lawn and prevent a single undead beast from crossing the threshold of your porch.

This is all about balancing resources to grow exactly the right sort of defence appropriate to the attack. And your primary resource is sunlight. By planting Sunflowers you generate sunshine (shush, just accept it), which along with the sunshine that falls out the sky is collected and spent on planting everything else. First and foremost, this will be Peashooters.

Everything about this gorgeous cuddle of a game is a daft pun or visual gag. Soon after the pea-firing Peashooter you’ll get Cherry Bombs (obviously exploding cherries), Wall-nuts (barriers that slow zombies down as they chew through them), and Potato Mines (root vegetable-based explosive danger). Later there’s a Squash (of course a marrow that squishes anything that comes near), Torchwood (a flaming stump that sets your Peashooter peas on fire), and by far the most painful, the corn or cabbage flinging Kernel-pult and Cabbage-pult. You get the idea. (No, I can’t resist one more! Marigold! A plant that produces gold coins!)

Everyone loves a pool party until the zombies show up.

You’ve got to plan carefully how you’ll spend your sunshine. At first it’s important to get a decent number of Sunflowers you’ll have a steady supply of spending power, but this could be at the cost of enough defence for when the zombie hoards arrive. This is all while taking into account the varying recharge times of different plants – even if you have a stock of sunshine, you can’t just spam the screen. The rotting ghouls start off pretty simple to take out. The standard lumbering zombie is a slow-coach, unable to put up much of a fight. But soon they arrive with their own improvised armour: a traffic cone or a metal bucket on their heads, perhaps. Then there’s the Pole Vaulting Zombie who can leap over a Wall-nut or any other defence. There’s zombies with screen doors, dressed in American football gear, on pogo sticks, riding dolphins (for later levels when you have a pool), riding lawnmowers, and, er, dressed as Michael Jackson with an entire Thriller-themed entourage. Each is beautifully designed, smothered in clear, simple details, and so precisely animated.

In the early stages you have six slots to fill with plant types before you begin a level. You’re warned what varieties of zombies will be attacking, so if you see one floating on a balloon you’ll know you need your spike-spitting Cactus, or wind-producing Blover. But as you progress and have a choice of 42 different plants, and at most around eight or nine slots, these initial tough choices can define your fate, if not just your tactics.

To mix things up, after you’ve completed a series of levels in your front yard, it switches to night time. This means your Sunflowers are of little use, instead having you rely on the slow-growing Sun-shrooms, mushrooms that spit out stored sunlight. You also get access to a whole new collection of night-dwelling plants, including some fantastically violent bomb-based shrooms. These night missions feel tougher, with less access to sunshine at the start, meaning you’re forced to learn more advance tactics that you can apply the next morning.

Once it’s daytime again you’ll switch over to defending your back garden, which means two of the six lanes down which the zombies attack are now filled by a swimming pool. And so, of course, this means yet another new collection of aquatic plants, as well as Lily Pads for floating the regulars, and a bunch of new zombies. And there’s more twists to come.

Seems perfectly safe to me. Mmmm, meatloaf!

The point being, the game is incessantly varied, constantly changing things up. Not only are there the alternating day/night sections, but mixed in are occasional minigames. These often remove your choice of seeds at the start, instead forcing you to rely on those that slide in on a conveyer belt at the top of the screen. Another has everything hidden in breakable clay jars, either containing a plant you can use or a zombie to attack. And another has you use Wall-nuts as bowling balls, smashing them into the zombies as they trudge toward you.

If there’s a complaint to level at this main campaign, it’s the difficulty level. Of course, PopCap’s primary audience is a casual one, and there’s never been a desire in any of their games to be fiendishly difficult. But as someone with barely any previous Tower Defence experience, it didn’t offer any thwarting challenge for me until well into the final third. When it does get difficult, it’s not so much because of a lack of tactical application on my part, but because the night-time garden with a pool is half-concealed in obscuring fog and damned mining zombies I couldn’t see coming are attacking my sunshine producers. Importantly it’s never frustrating in these stages, but the increased difficulty does feel somehow artificial. Finding this jigsaw puzzle too easy? Now do it if I poke out one of your eyes!

However, not being enormously challenged didn’t mean I wasn’t having a completely lovely time. It’s just so idiotically pleasant to play. Everything bobs and sways so elegantly, the cute, cartoon style is always engaging, and the ever-increasing swell of undead attacks are inventive and often hilarious. In fact, the game didn’t lose its ability to make me laugh out loud at any point, with fantastic gags scattered throughout. Then there’s Crazy Dave, your guide through the game with a saucepan on his head, who gurgles insanely at you while offering tips, and selling you items from his shop (the boot of his car).

Well the joke's on them, cos I kept my brain deliberately small.

Coins are collected during levels, often produced when exploding zombies, and can be spent on buying special bonus plants or items, including extra plant slots, and most importantly, devices for seeing off the first zombie that might get past your defences and into your house. Crazy Dave also sets you up with your Zen Garden, yet another extension of the game where you can grow and care for your own plants, then sell them back to Dave for more coins. There’s three different gardens, and other surprises to go with them.

I mentioned the minigames. There’s twenty of these. Twenty. At the time of writing, after finishing the main campaign and playing for stupid numbers of hours, I’ve unlocked fourteen of them. While there are a few variants of the conveyer belt challenge mentioned above, there’s also even spoofs of other PopCap games, including a properly decent Bejeweled (Beghouled) and Insaniquarium (Zombiquarium).

Not enough? There’s two types of puzzle game, with ten levels each (the final of both being an endless version to keep you going forever). The first is based on the vase breaking game, the other where you get to play as the zombies, trying to get past pre-planted defences. Oh, and there’s eleven Survival modes, where you attempt to outlast a series of zombie invasions with a persistent defence. This last mode is fantastic, letting you switch up your tactics as you go through, changing which plants are in your arsenal once you’ve got others established.

Night time sees a whole different bunch of plants to defend with.

The sheer tonnage of game is quite remarkable, and the gleeful entertainment of it all makes every bit worthwhile. It’s possible when just playing through the early stages of the main campaign to wonder if the fuss is earned. It’s cute and all, certainly funny, but perhaps too simple. But by the time you finally emerge from its grip, it all makes sense. Unlike other PopCap classics, it’s unlikely you’ll go back again and again to play it through once more, but the ludicrous amount of extras, on top of a lengthy main adventure, means the £15 is well spent.

Any complaints other than the difficulty levels? Well, the music is disappointing. After the promise of the gorgeous music video, the hope of similarly catchy in-game tunes is not kept, and I quickly switched them off. Um… I’m genuinely struggling to be annoyed by anything else. I just have things that I love to report. I love how the zombies’ arms fall off when you fire at them. I love how the grumpy old Newspaper Zombies get all cross when you knock the paper out of their hands. I love how the Dolphin Rider Zombie is wearing a skin-tight wetsuit. I love how after firing a Jalapeño pepper at an entire row of zombies, they turn to black powder with blinking eyes, then collapse, in true Wile E. Coyote style. I love that in the plant bios in the Almanac there’s backstories for each plant that have no bearing on the game, nor any grounding in logic or reason.

It’s mindless to compare it to Defence Grid, or your other favourite TD game – it stands on its own as something unique, daft, and special. Once again PopCap have managed to find that place that spans casual mainstream and specialist hardcore audiences. Like Peggle and Bookworm Adventures, Plants Vs Zombies will be loved by your mum as much as your angry brother. Too easy? Yes, definitely. But it’s damned hard to care. There are zombies on your lawn, and they want to eat your brains!

The word Powie is inherently funny.

Plants Vs. Zombies is available from PopCap right now for £15. There’s also a demo available at that link. But it’s due to unlock on Steam at about 6pm today for only £7. Which is odd. And cheap.

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78 Comments »

  1. Grawl says:

    Played the trial a bit yesterday. Can’t wait for the final game in a bit less than 2 hours.

  2. The_B says:

    It is indeed awesome. Highlights for me are the almanac with such gems like the bit about the Zombie with Road Cone on his Head: “He loves to party.”

    Party on Road Cone Zombie, party on…

  3. Xagarath says:

    Hate to be pedantic, but Little King’s story is at least as adorable.
    They have little else in common, mind.

  4. RLacey says:

    Good stuff. Looking forward to the Steam release (since, bizarrely, it costs less than half the price of the one direct from PopCap, and comes with another game for free)…

  5. Linfosoma says:

    The demo was great. Im going to pick this up.

  6. Stense says:

    Nice review. I’m certainly looking forward to playing it upon it being unlocked on Steam.

  7. The Rev Owen says:

    You’re right about it being too easy. I’m up to level 5-7 now and I’ve yet to fail a level. Doesn’t seem to matter too much, though.

  8. Meat Circus says:

    PopCap are a special kind of love.

  9. Dolphan says:

    Anyone else getting ‘we couldn’t add your item’ when trying to order it on Steam?

  10. Supertonic says:

    All my favourite games are 2d right now. This, Braid and World Of Goo, little slices of genius in a sea of brown.

  11. Ben says:

    Why can’t buy it on Steam!? as Dolphan says ‘we couldnt add your item’. I hope its $9.99 with free game still tomorrow…

  12. Matthew says:

    PopCap are awesome people. When I found I couldn’t install the old games I bought in 2003ish, all I had to do was forward my old purchase email to them and shiny new downloads were made available to me. Their customer support is really good.

  13. Doctor Doc says:

    The demo was so booooooooooring. Get Defense Grid instead.

  14. Ian says:

    I forgot to get this pre-ordered. Is £7 the pre-order only price on Steam? Or will it stay at that after it goes live (or whatever the correct term is)?

    If I get home and it’s jumped up to £15 I’ll still buy it, but I’ll be cursing myself.

  15. zak canard says:

    @Dolphan & @Ben: Steam appears to be having a few problems right now, give it another go in about an hour?

  16. Vinraith says:

    I’ve not played much of anything in the tower defense category outside of the demo for Defense Grid. How common is it to have resource generation/management along the lines of sunflowers in one of these games? It seems like adding that element might make the juggling act more interesting strategically than I ultimately found Defense Grid to be.

  17. Dolphan says:

    @zak canard: Yeah, apparently it’s scheduled (but no predicted length) server downtime – can log in to steam but not the store, forums or community,

  18. Ginger Yellow says:

    Stupid question: is there an easy way to find all the pre-order deals on Steam? I’ve missed out on a couple now, simply because I didn’t know they were happening.

  19. Vinraith says:

    @ Ginger Yellow

    If there is I haven’t found it. Honestly, it’d be nice if Steam and Gamersgate would adopt Impulses “On Sale” tab idea in their store so that you could just see everything that’s on discount at a given moment.

  20. Rob says:

    @Ginger Yellow

    The highly informative and regularly updated forum thread here may serve your needs nicely.

  21. Smurfy says:

    I rushed to buy this game before release in order to get the free pre-order bonus game. Also bought Peggle Complete :)

  22. cyrenic says:

    I imagine the cheap price on Steam is the result of some agreement between PopCap and Valve to try and get more people downloading Steam. Especially since the PopCap audience is different than the normal Steam audience.

  23. Cooper says:

    One hour to go until Steam Unlock – I’ll play in the morning (the pub is calling) but I’ve been looking forward to this – if only because how happily daft it seems.

    Also, why are RPS now doing ‘reviews’? I liked the ‘wot I think’ tag line… A bit of word re-appropriation going on? What next, scores in base 13?

  24. Z says:

    nixed for spoilers /z

  25. clovus says:

    I wonder if it is possible for the dreaded “casual” market to have a positive affect on the “hardcore” method. Given that they cater to… umm… non-traditional gamers… they seem to be great at making games that anyone can quickly understand and have fun playing.

    The “hardcore” market sometimes focuses so much on being hardcore that they forget to take the time to make a really good interface and intuitive controls. So, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised when PopCap manages to create a good “game” instead of a good “casual game”. All they have to do is throw in a little more strategy/story to the types of games they already make.

  26. Ziv says:

    wow, I was sure this game would hold a promise and then break it but it doesn’t…

  27. Gl3n says:

    Oh dear, downloading from steam at 6KB/s.

    Ironic considering the filesize is only 25mb.

  28. Dolphan says:

    Buying works now. No free Heavy Weapon unfortunately, but it’s still only £6.99.

  29. zak canard says:

    Looks good so far.

  30. plant42 says:

    Been playing for about a half hour now… it’s cute, it’s mindless, it somehow compels you to keep playing, and it’s retardedly easy. Like ‘Casual Market = it is impossible to lose’ easy.

    Dunno, I was expecting a more desktop tower defense game, and I really miss being able to lay out my towers to create a little maze for critters to walk though. The pure row thing where the pea shooters can’t even hit a zombie in an adjacent row drives me nuts.

    Eh, I give it a B-

  31. abhishek says:

    @Ginger Yellow

    Your best bet is to subscribe to the steam news RSS feed. That will inform you about every deal and new release that happens on steam.

  32. jsutcliffe says:

    Though I’d preordered it when Steam’s $10 w/ Heavy Weapon deal was announced, I snagged the demo yesterday and loved it. More games should have this kind of charm.

    However, I do wish Popcap would find a better way of doing their demos than the obnoxious 30 minute limit.

    Edit rant: Why do we hear so much about casual/hardcore? I am neither a casual gamer nor a hardcore gamer. I am a gamer. I enjoy all kinds of games. Perhaps a polygamer, if you will.

  33. Ergates says:

    Just Steamed this, World of Goo and Braid.

    Thats the last time I see sunlight for some time then….

  34. Freelancepolice says:

    Well by gum this is quite good

  35. Down Rodeo says:

    I preordered it. I told a friend about it online, he came back a few minutes later saying “I hate you” – he preordered it too. I’ve not had a go yet (I think I will shortly) but have a good feeling about it as that same guy spent 3 hours with the demo this morning.

  36. qrter says:

    @ Ginger Yellow & others..

    Regarding Steam sales – there’s a pinned dedicated thread in the Steam forums, that is edited regularly, to be bookmarked for your eternal pleasure:

    http://forums.steampowered.com/forums/showthread.php?t=518670

  37. Dominic White says:

    @plant42

    The first 45 minutes or so are tutorial. The entire first day is, really. It doesn’t really begin to show its true colours until you’re some way in, and then it just keeps on giving more and more.

  38. Acosta says:

    Yeah, another super easy, simplified, mindless, “cute”, and “addictive” PopCap rippoff that will sell millions. Good for them, I’ll pass after playing the demo. Not for me.

  39. Smurfy says:

    I played it a bit.

    A bit.

  40. Ravelle says:

    Love it , the only minus is that you have to play the game in windowed mode because the graphics become all pixelated :(

  41. Valentin Galea says:

    Zombies are mean but my plants are meaner!

    This game is awesome!

  42. Larington says:

    For some time now I’ve preferred the phrase ‘part time gamer’ because it says more about play habits than ‘casual gamer’ which could mean practically anything…

    “I like to LOUNGE whilst playing my games!”

    Yeah, ok, mr lounger, you’ll be playing that whilst sitting up in the bed next.

    Or maybe “I’ll never play games whilst wearing a suit! I’m such a casual gamer I am”

    Ok, I admit, its just that I hate this whole demographing of different kinds of gamers.

  43. JamesOf83 says:

    I pre-ordered on Steam last week. But then the demo came out and I played it and loved it and wanted the whole game. So I impatiently bought the Mac version for my Macbook, so now I can get a sneaky game or two done at work :)

  44. Schaulustiger says:

    This is irritatingly funny. I bought it for my girlfriend and thought “I’m just giving it a try, might be amusing for 5 minutes…”. And now I’ve played 2 hours straight and can’t stop!
    But objectively seen, it’s just a simple version of Tower Defense. It’s extremely polished, though, and the presentation really stands out. And killing zombies never gets old.

  45. Clovus says:

    @Ravelle: Why can’t PopCap ever make games to handle a higher resolution? Don’t they know that a gamer’s SO might want to play one of their “casual” game on his/her computer? The one with the widescreen high resolution monitor?

    Or maybe I just want to play the game on my monitor. Either way, boo to windowed mode, but fat pixels are much worse.

  46. Owen says:

    Probably goes without saying really but it’s also one of those games that’s good for partners of the female variety.

    And great review John. Good stuff.

    “Braaaains”

  47. Matzerath says:

    I played the demo and enjoyed it, but may wait to buy it. I think the music issue is more pertinent than mentioned — I’ve been spoiled by the excellent soundtracks of the indies I’ve purchased — The Path, Immortal Defense, Zeno Clash. Even if you didn’t like the gameplay, you’d be hard-pressed to complain about the amazing quality of the soundtracks for all of those. The teaser video for Plants vs Zombies suggested that some overly cute but catchy tunes would suffuse the game, but unfortunately that’s not the case. You can’t have us fall in love with a friggin’ Sunflower and then not deliver in the actual game!!!

  48. Ian says:

    Oh my, it’s splendid.

    It’s not greatly challenging thus far (I’m about to go into my first night stage) but it’s utterly lovely.

  49. Rei Onryou says:

    Must…buy….now.

  50. Ginger Yellow says:

    Acosta, I realise how silly this sounds, but don’t judge it on the demo. The game is very slow to get going and doesn’t begin to introduce its more interesting gameplay for a good long time. It’s really, really good, and there is quite a lot of stategy in the later stages. And there’s a ton of content for £7.

    I can’t guarantee you’ll like it, of course, but it’s way better than the demo suggests.

    Oh, and thanks guys for pointing out that sales thread.