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.
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!)
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.
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).
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.
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!