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. boatorious says:

    Great review. I played the game last night, it is also great.

    What’s going on with the price? I keep hearing $19.99, and then I go on Steam and it’s $9.99.

    Also, sunflowers still work at night.

  2. MD says:

    I found no joy in that ‘cute’ trailer everyone seemed to love, and wasn’t really interested in the game itself. But I gave the demo a try anyway, and it’s really rather charming! The majority of the first hour was ridiculously easy, except that it wasn’t really ridiculous at all… it was gently enjoyable. I have no idea if it gains any real strategic depth, but I’ve seen enough to realise that it won’t be a complete walkover (for me, anyway; I’m rubbish). The fact that I played it for the full hour says a fair bit — I’ve got tired of plenty of so-called ‘AAA’ titles quicker than that. It was a bit of a Peggle experience really, but lower-key. No ‘best game ever!’ moment early on, but it feels like the kind of game that could interest me for longer than Peggle did.

    But $US19.99! That wont give me much change from $30 Australian fun bucks. I don’t go for the whole ‘well it’s a little casual game, so it’s clearly worth less than big-name, big-budget game X regardless of how enjoyable I find it’ line of reasoning, but I could only justify a $30 spend if it was either the greatest thing ever while it lasted, or the kind of game that would stay fun for hundreds of hours.

  3. Ian says:

    “I found no joy in that ‘cute’ trailer everyone seemed to love”

    So… did you SELL your soul or was it stolen by some sort of demonic entity?

    ;-)

    Also: I assume that’s the PopCap price, rather than the Steam price you’re looking at?

  4. John Walker says:

    MD – how much is it on Aussie Steam?

  5. Ashurbanipal says:

    Steam price for Aussies is $US19.99. Which is odd, because as far as I know, for everything else, we just pay the American prices (which are typically steep in other cases, excepting the weekend sales). They don’t even bother to convert the prices to our own currency.

  6. Ginger Yellow says:

    MD + Ashurbanipal – don’t most boxed games cost AUD80 or even AUD90 over there? So AUD30 for PvZ doesn’t seem so outrageous.

  7. bmorr says:

    No one wants to mention the 5-machine-limit-internet-requiring DRM then?

    Fantastic game though – spent most of this morning playing it at work.

  8. bansama says:

    I wonder if the AU price is a mistake, seeing that it’s only 9.99 in NZ and they seem to always follow the AU pricing on Steam. May be worth hitting up Steam support or Popcap support to see if you can find out if it’s a mistake or not.

  9. Wulf says:

    RE: Australian prices.

    I did a little amateur research on this, which basically comprised nosing around an AUS games retailer:

    http://www.gameswarehouse.com.au/pc.asp

    It seems that ‘crap’ games (trivia nonsense, the kind that goes for £3-5 in the UK) sell for $10-20, the indie market ranges between $20-50, with rare examples of $60, then there’s a jump to $80 for cheap games/Wii games, and $80-100 being the average price-point for PC/XBox games. PS3 games were even over $100, so apparently £40 is equivalent to $105/110 AUS bucks, as the market goes.

    So if AUS $105 is about £40, then consider what $30 AUS bucks is equivalent to and all becomes clear. The AUS price isn’t unreasonable at all, and actually it’s pretty close to the UK price (which is £7). If $30 ‘AUS fun bucks’ is too much for an AUS buyer, then I can only imagine that that person doesn’t like paying more than £3-5 for a game, which is amusing.

    I mean, really, is such a person’s definition of gaming restricted to crap trivia games, or has piracy slanted their view?

    I can only speculate anyway, based on amateur research, but from what I see, once the mysticism of a foreign currency is removed, what we actually have is someone basically moaning about £7-9 being far too much to pay for a game, and saying that a game that costs that much needs to be the “BEST THING EVAR!”.

    A tad unreasonable, perhaps? If not borderline ludicrous.

  10. Oddtwang says:

    Wulf: That only holds up if games are the same price in Oz relative to everything else, which I gather is not the case. Where £3-5 will buy you a pint and a half of beer, say, or 3 or 4 loaves of bread, I don’t think you’ll get the same from your 30 AUD.

    Also, another recommendation for Plants vs Zombies from me, and put me in the “polygamer” category too :)

  11. Phyllis Semple says:

    This is your mother–good job! Are you going to send my little people a copy?

  12. abhishek says:

    It’s worth looking at the price of the game on the Popcap website itself. John mentioned in the review that it was more expensive there than on steam for him, but for me (in India), the price is ~4$ when converted from the local currency. That’s less than half what it costs on steam, and I had no issues buying it instantly from there.

  13. Heliocentric says:

    I get angry about limits when its a game i’ll want to play for years. Then i pause and wonder if thats the case here. How do you unsub a game on steam anyway? Burnout paradise had an option in the launch menu (installed it on a pc that couldn’t handle it) but games without de-auth tools would be dead after a few installs of windows.

    PvsZ is a game i’d be interested in playing a long time from now. I tend to crack popcap games and stick them on usb drives. Probably an option here with the non steam option.

  14. Wolfox says:

    Are you sure that Steam’s version has such limitations? They usually put some note when that’s the case (see the Steam page for Far Cry 2, for instance), but there is no such note in the Plants vs. Zombies page on Steam.

  15. -Spooky- says:

    I got many games via Steam and no limits right now.. “Braaiinnzz..” 10 € is ok, imo.

  16. Moth says:

    It’s worth noting that the campaign plays differently on the second time through. I won’t spoil how, but it’ll put a kink in a lot of the later stages.

  17. MD says:

    @ Ian and John: $19.99 USD is the Australian Steam price — the currency conversion is done at payment. Just checked the Popcap website, and it’s $19.95 there, in what I assume is US dollars. (Our exchange rate is all over the place, incidentally: 10 months ago the AUD was close to parity with the US dollar, peaking at about 98c, then it plummeted to the low 60s and sat there for a while, and now it’s back up to nearly 75c. So $20USD doesn’t actually equal $30AUD at the moment, but Paypal would probably see to that with its conversion rate.)

    @ Wulf: Firstly, I’m right here! There’s no need to address me in the third person, nor to take such a smug tone. But basically all you have demonstrated is that new games are sold for ridiculous prices in Australia — not just in absolute terms, which is obviously a subjective issue, but relative to other countries. Equating $30AUD with 3-5 pounds is absurd, and your revised estimate of 7-9 pounds is still a long way off. The official exchange rate puts $30AUD at just under 15 pounds, i.e. ‘more than twice as much as seven pounds’. As Oddtwang pointed out though, the buying power of a given amount of money is probably more relevant than the official rate of exchange. $30AUD could buy me twenty-seven and a half loaves of bread at Woolworths.

    So claiming that $30AUD is “pretty close to the UK price (which is £7)” is very silly, and the content of your post certainly doesn’t justify its tone.

    Obviously $30 is still much less than ‘full price’ here, but that’s not really relevant to me as I don’t buy new games for full price. Plenty of great games end up in the $10 bin for those of us who are prepared to wait (and my rig is getting to the point where there are a lot of games it can’t even run, let alone with the graphics set to ‘better than games looked a few years ago’), and there are lots of big-name, relatively recent games available for decent prices online, especially if you wait for the sales. So no, my opinion on what constitutes a reasonable price isn’t based on straight-to-the-bargain-bin trivia games, or clouded by piracy. I certainly don’t put a $90 premium on getting something as soon as it comes out, though, and the fact that I can buy great games for $10 has more relevance than the fact that I could buy newer, equally good games for ten times that amount.

  18. MD says:

    I should mention that my original post wasn’t actually meant as a complaint, as such. I was just pointing out that a) $20USD is a bit much for me at the moment, and b) I had hoped it would be less than that, based on past experience. They are welcome to charge whatever they like (I certainly don’t subscribe to the ‘I have a right to buy games at what I consider to be a reasonable price’ school of thought), and I’m sure that the game will be worth it for a lot of people — these things depend as much on the amount of disposable income we each have at any given time as they do on notions of what constitutes a ‘fair price’.

  19. jk says:

    FUNNY, EASY AND WAY TO EASY.
    I wish they would atleast have thoughed about some combo’s or strategic depth, now it’s just about planting a much sunflowers as possible.
    My tactic, buy sunflowers until first zombie comes place mine, continue sunflowers, second zombie place walnut-mine, and from there you usually got enough advantage to win any level.
    NOT WORTH THE MONEY

  20. geldonyetich says:

    Personally, I don’t think it’s a “Then PopCap comes along and does it better, selling seventy trillion copies” thing.

    It’s more like “Then PopCap comes along, does a capably-executed 640×480 resolution version that’s marketable to casual players, and uses their extensive publishing connections to pitch the game to seventy trillion potential players (the majority of them casual) and consequently sells seventy trillion copies.”

    Quantity of players playing a game does not equal quality of the game – PopCap’s success has a lot more to do with them understanding their audience and being able to reach them.

    PopCap games generally aren’t very deep. PopCap gets their moneybags from selling to the casual player, and the casual player fears really deep games.

    That said, I enjoyed Plants versus Zombies. It’s true, it’s not hard, I had the gold statue before 2 days were out, but it was deeper than the usual PopCap offering and I enjoyed the journey if not the challenge.

    Best $9.99 I ever spent on Steam. Heck, the cute music video alone was probably worth $2.50. It nearly approached a level of Portal’s “Still Alive” in unexpected awesome.

    I probably wouldn’t have gone as high as $20, though, for two good reasons: 1. I’m not a casual player, not even close. (Though I am open-minded enough to try a casual game to see if it has anything redeemable about it.) 2. I’ve been caught jobless in a recession.

  21. Sarajlija says:

    I very much disagree with the review. The game is cute looking and has a cool sense of humour. But it’s also terribly shallow and unchallenging. I played for five hours with the same tactics (two-three rows of sunflowers in the back, cabbage launchers and/or 3-pea shooters in the front, a mine to kill early zombies, some cherry and pepper grenades just in case), and had no problems whatsoever. Even casual players could be offended by this title and frankly I fail to see what all the hoopla is about. Oh, I can kill zombies with my plants! That is surely deserving a 9! LOL.

    Oh yes, and I’ve played deep into the second campaing. Same stuff, and whichever tactics I employed that wasn’t totally nuts to begin with, I succeeded.

  22. Gassalasca says:

    I’ve spent two whole days playing this… I hesitate to call it a game, it’s more like a synthetic drug. I’ve only got a couple of survivals left and I can’t stop.
    I disagree with John regarding the music, and the artificiality of difficulty. However, I do wish it was a bit more challengin. Then again, it would take me a lot more than two days to finish it, and seeing how I’m terribly short on time I probably shouldn’t be complaining…

  23. Daron says:

    The game gets a lot more challenging later on; I especially enjoyed I-Zombie and the Survival Modes. There were so many things to try out after finishing adventure mode that it felt like you could have broken any of those parts off and made them into separate games since they have a completely different gameplay mechanic. I also have to comment that I love the art style; is anyone else reminded of Alien Hominid? It’s colorful and funny and just plain awesome.

    And don’t even get me started on the music. I wasn’t sure what to expect with in-game music after seeing the music video… but I LOVED it. I’ve seriously been getting sick of all the completely forgettable ambient orchestral music that’s in games nowadays, so hearing game music this catchy and memorable is really refreshing. The music that plays during the last level of each stage is absolutely of the best music I’ve heard in a game in a LONG time. If anyone knows where I can get it, please let me know.

    All in all, excellent game.

  24. Daron says:

    One more thing, and I know the rabid fanboys are going to attack me for saying this, but I don’t see any reason why the theme song isn’t as good or better than “Still Alive.” I mean, the singer also wrote all the lyrics and composed the music, which gets an automatic +5 from me. It’s catchy and addictive, and every single person I show it to thinks it’s hilarious whether or not they’ve played the game (basically, it’s standalone good; whereas my friends who didn’t play Portal didn’t find “Still Alive” amusing at all).

    And if that’s not reason enough, I’ve never seen a kid flip out like this before over video game music… it’s like drugs, it’s THAT good:

  25. Daron says:

    One more thing, and I know the rabid fanboys are going to attack me for saying this, but I don’t see any reason why the theme song isn’t as good or better than “Still Alive.” I mean, the singer also wrote all the lyrics and composed the music, which gets an automatic +5 from me. It’s catchy and addictive, and every single person I show it to thinks it’s hilarious whether or not they’ve played the game (basically, it’s standalone good; whereas my friends who didn’t play Portal didn’t find “Still Alive” amusing at all).

    And if that’s not reason enough, check out the 1.5 year old on youtube who can’t pull himself away from it!

  26. peashooter says:

    Awesome in a box. I’m on 4-7 (I don’t play it 24/7). Really fun. Worth however much you pay. I hope Pop Cap has a Zombatar- insted you decorate plants. Can someone give me a link so I can contact them for that?

  27. BooleanBob says:

    Am I really the only person to notice that PopCap put a joke about anal sex in their casual, family-friendly game?

    I mean, I’d be a little bit appalled if I wasn’t so impressed that they’ve seemingly gotten away with it. A quick google search for “plants versus zombies” and “anal sex” (made with great trepidation, as I am familiar with the 34th rule) threw up a comments thread in the Escapist, but, amazingly, only because the two topics came up in the same conversation for unrelated reasons. My second thought was obviously to come here, because if there was anywhere on the internet that such ribald innuendo would be immediately recognised, and then subsequently discussed (and most assuredly celebrated), it would be he good ship Rock Paper Sex-o-filth.

    But nothing! Maybe I just have an inordinately filthy and juvenile mind… but that can’t be right. I’m an insufferable snob when it comes to comedy (amongst other things).

    Oh, and I love the game utterly, by the by. Lost my whole dang Saturday to it! Regretting that now.

  28. Liz says:

    So simple. So addictive. You want challenging? Try endless survival. The price of the specialty plants goes up each time you use one. I die around 26 flags. Red eyed gargantuans are TOUGH.

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