Plants vs. Zombies (PC) review
"The addictive nature of Plants vs. Zombies comes as a bit of a surprise given the generally repetitive nature of its design. There are several available modes of play that switch things up with varying degrees of success, but they almost all come down to the same basic task: keep your brains in your cranium! Even the generous assortment of zombies that you'll face and the extensive cache of weapons at your disposal wind up feeling limited after awhile, but there's a good chance that you won't even care."
Imagine for a second that your home is about to be invaded by zombies. What would you do? Me, I'd run for the hills! Suppose that retreat isn't an option, though. Instead you must stand your ground. How would you defend yourself?
Plants vs. Zombies, the latest offering from PopCap Games, places you on the receiving end of a zombie assault and arms you with an unlikely weapon: a zen garden. Now you'll have to keep the undead horde away from your suburban abode using a wacky assortment of fruits and vegetables. Win the battle and you'll live to see another day. Fail and the ghoulish thugs will eat your brains. That's perhaps not as wholesome a concept as you'd expect from the people that brought you cheery fare such as Bejeweled Twist and Peggle, but the important hallmarks of casual gaming remain in place. As such, it's easy to start playing and difficult to stop for things like food, water and bathroom breaks.
The addictive nature of Plants vs. Zombies comes as a bit of a surprise given the generally repetitive nature of its design. There are several available modes of play that switch things up with varying degrees of success, but they almost all come down to the same basic task: keep your brains in your cranium! Even the generous assortment of zombies that you'll face and the extensive cache of weapons at your disposal wind up feeling limited after awhile, but there's a good chance that you won't even care. After something like 30 hours spent playing the game, I still cheer (inwardly, of course, in manly fashion) after completing a stage and I still make regular visits to my zen garden to see if anything needs to be watered or fertilized.
I'm getting ahead of myself, though, so first I'd better explain how things work on a nuts-and-bolts level. Essentially, what you get is a real-time strategy title executed as a casual game. That odd combination works much better than you might expect.
Levels consist of a single screen that represents the zombie approach route. The unwelcome visitors wander into sight from somewhere to the right. To win, you must keep all of them from exiting out the far left side of the screen. You'll have a final line of defense in the form of lawn mowers, pool sweepers and the like, but for the most part you eliminate the threat by placing plants so that they provide automatic protection while you plot your next move. Sheer firepower isn't enough to win the day, since you can only utilize the handful of units that you choose to bring with you (though upgrades do eventually expand that number, if you have the in-game currency to purchase them). Similarly, you can only plant a new ally if you've gathered enough rays of sunlight or harvested energy from sunflowers.
As the zombies approach, you'll probably be surprised by how good they look... for dead guys. Their movements are fluid and their expressions are comical. Someone definitely spent a lot of time animating the scoundrels and it was worth every minute. Many foes shuffle across your lawn in a predictable fashion, but there also are more athletic sorts like a former football star who tries to rush you and an apparent pole vaulter who can leap over the hazards you put in his path... or perhaps smack right into a high wall (THUD!) and collapse to the ground in a heap. Others drive vehicles or bungee from above with deadly effect. There are more than 20 zombie types, many quite distinct with humorous profiles available for your perusal, so you'll probably have a lot of fun watching for new ones to make an appearance.
Of course, the game isn't really about watching the assault. If you do that, you'll find yourself overwhelmed in no time at all. The later stages in particular can get pretty crazy, with so many decomposing bodies arriving on the scene that you'll be wondering how the action keeps from slowing to a zombie-like crawl. The only way that you can possibly win is to make the most of your plants. Even if you limit yourself to the more standard equipment like peashooters, lily pads, mushrooms and nuts (a strategy that would deprive you of the joy of watermelon catapults and corncob cannons), the number of strategies that you can employ is satisfactorily ridiculous. Although there certainly are a few standard procedures that will save you a lot of grief, no two stages can be tackled in precisely the same way thanks to the different approaches your adversaries take.
Constant zombie bashing can be fun, especially when it's handled so effectively, but the developers were clever enough to realize that sometimes a person needs a break. That's where the zen garden enters the equation. Partway through the adventure, you'll gain access to a space where you can raise seedlings. Between stages or after you've returned to the game following an absence, you'll be able to interact with your growing crop. Plants will reward you with coins that you can use to invest in fertilizer or improved tools. These include a glove that lets you slide things around to different spots and a watering can so that you can tend to several plants at once. You can also buy chocolate so that your pet snail will dash around and grab loot for you. The zen garden is a nice diversion that somehow doesn't feel out of place, plus it's a good way to raise money so that you can buy more gear before returning to battle.
Though the garden is interesting and occasionally rewarding, it never really reaches a point where it becomes exciting or dangerous. The default 'Adventure' mode is also pretty simple overall and shouldn't give long-time gamers any difficulty. Fortunately, there are three remaining modes where you can get your thrills.
If you're anxious to experience the zombie battle with some slight changes, the 'Mini-Games' mode is quite enjoyable. You'll unlock new challenges as you go and some of them are terrific. One, called 'Beghouled,' plays out like Bejeweled, with zombies marching through the battlefield and (hopefully) getting slaughtered as you match up three icons in a row. Another, called 'Portal Combat,' sees you playing a standard stage with one exception: portals appear throughout and send your shots in new directions while also allowing the zombies to warp around. You have to really think quick sometimes if you want to survive. Not every game is that unique or changes things up that much, but there are several neat options.
'Puzzle' mode also is interesting because half of the stages allow you to actually play as the zombies. These give you predetermined units and you must choose carefully so that you can penetrate the defenses that the computer-controlled opponent has established. It's not quite a versus match, since all you have to do is dismantle everything without fear of new enemy units arriving, but it's an intriguing option that serves as a nice change of pace. The developers also deserve credit for naming one stage "All your brainz r belong to us." How cool is that? The other style of play in 'Puzzle' mode features a yard littered by vases. Breaking them open reveals either useful items or unwelcome zombies and you only clear a stage when you've smashed every last one. If you choose poorly or get caught in an explosive chain reaction, it's easy to lose, so the strategies required change a bit even though your ultimate goal of stopping the zombie advance remains constant.
Finally, 'Survival' mode is more like the main stages, except that you have to face several consecutive phases. The later conflicts can prove especially demanding and there's almost no room for error, particularly early in the proceedings. Even if you've built yourself a nearly impenetrable line of defense, random luck could throw a wrench in your plans and then you'll have to scramble to recover before the zombies press their advantage. No matter how good you get, you should find scenarios to challenge you, even if that moment doesn't arrive until you unlock everything.
PopCap Games could probably just keep making new versions of Bejeweled and do just fine for itself, but it chose not to. Though it's every bit as polished and addictive as the simpler fare for which the company is known, Plants vs. Zombies represents the sort of bold experiment that I love seeing. It eventually does grow repetitive, like any game, but before that occurs--and perhaps even after, if you like the concept and presentation as much as I do--you should have a great time using veggies to slaughter zombies. I'd close with a witty comment about how this isn't your garden variety zombie battle, except it sort of is. Excellent!
Staff review by Jason Venter (May 05, 2009)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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