Plants vs Zombies

By Scott Parrino 13 May 2009 0

Author:  Chris Beck

Normally, ?casual games? have had the reputation of being small time wasters that steal people?s coffee breaks and distract the busy homemaker from doing his or her chores. In fact, PopCap?s flagship title was the ridiculously addictive Bejeweled, a game which might be single-handedly responsible for massive backlogs of office work worldwide. PopCap?s latest release, the hybrid tower-defense, mini-game collection, and puzzle-filled Plants vs. Zombies, is a different sort of game from their other puzzle and adventure titles, but happily maintains the signature PopCap addictiveness while adding a wide variety of strategic gameplay options.

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The tower defense is an old and tired genre. All the way back in 1990, arcade gamers were wasting quarters while trying to keep their castle safe in Ramparts. Now tower defense games seem to be making a comeback, with the recent release of the critically acclaimed Defense Grid and numerous free offerings on sites like Kongregate.com. So PopCap had the challenge of finding an inventive way to enter this genre, with an original concept and a quick yet engaging style of gameplay to rival the free tower defense games on the market. Undoubtedly, pitting anthropomorphic ?cutesy? plants against cartoony zombies that could have come from a Halloween episode of The Simpsons in a fight for various parts of a house is certainly unique and original. The question then becomes, is the gameplay worth the hard earned cash, when so many of these games are floating around the internet? The short answer is ? ?Brains!? The long answer is ?Braaaaaaaaaaains!?

Cerebellum munching jokes aside, Plants vs. Zombies is certainly a tower defense game with more brains than most others. Unlike many games in this genre Plants vs. Zombies allows to player to take a more active role in deciding a general defense strategy for a series of very different maps requiring diverse modes of play. Initially, strategic options are limited, as the game ?ramps up? the difficulty and teaches the player how to best employ his or her defensive plants. Very soon, however, the player is given full choice on which ?seeds? to fill very limited seed slots. This forces the player to think about what types of zombies (there are over 25 types with different attacks and skills) are coming and what type of defense would best work. Do you want to bring the expensive quick-firing Gatling re-pea-ters (groan) or deploy several single peashooters? Do you bring the heavy duty wall-nut to hold the zombies off, or grab the single use potato mines and cherry bombs to blow the undead to kingdom come? Building your defense force from 48 different plants is almost a game in itself, and creates a great opportunity for replay, as you can go for straight offensive power or indulge in crazy experimental strategies.

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You have many options for death dealing plants, all of which are covered in pun-filled style in your almanac.

In addition to a tower-defense game, Plants vs. Zombies introduces an aspect of power management.  Plants are deployed with sun energy which falls from the sky (luckily much slower than the actual speed of light) and must be clicked upon to catch it. This adds a little more frenetic movement to the action, and the collection of sun means that the player never has to passively sit as his or her defenses do all the work (a criticism of many other tower defense games). Further, sunlight can be generated from special plants, sunflowers (har har) and sun-shrooms. Again, sun collection and generation leads to some tough decisions on resource production vs. generation, and precious lawn-space. Each sunflower you plant is 50 sun energy points that could go for a weapon, and further the sunflower takes up a square on the grid-based field that might be needed later for defense. Zombies will quickly munch through most plants (brain with side salad?) so protecting your resource generators becomes a priority. 

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Plants vs. Zombies has humble beginnings but quickly enters a frenetic pace on multiple unique grids.

Lastly adding to the strategy and complexity of Plants vs. Zombies, are the multiple changing boards, which represent parts of the house, such as the front and back lawns. Each board is different, the front lawn is a standard rectangular grid and the back lawn adds lanes of water with a pool, which requires special aquatic plants or plants floating on a lily pad (which takes up a seed slot). Further, you have to defend each board during the day and night, and night-time adds a completely new set of problems, as sun energy no longer falls from the sky. High priced peashooters can be traded out for cheaper and less powerful mushrooms (which sleep during the day), but the player must balance the lowered resource generation with costs, offensive power, and limited plant range. These changing boards mean that gameplay rarely gets stale, just as you get acclimated in defending one part of the lawn, the board radically changes.

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There are several minigames, including Zombie Bowling and one where you get to play as the zombies!

In many ways, Plants vs. Zombies answers all the criticisms routinely leveled against the tower defense genre. Players are asked to be constantly on-their toes, a huge amount of options are available for types of defense, the board changes frequently and radically, and the different enemies are clearly demarcated and unique (hard to miss the road cone on some zombies? heads). Additionally, thrown in among the lawn defense are several mini-games (zombie bowling, anyone?) that provide a break in the action. As the player defeats these games, they are opened up to the main menu for play at any time, allowing to player to blow off some steam and collect coins. Coins are used to buy more plants, plant upgrades, and extra seed slots from the players highly insane neighbor (aren?t they all?) Crazy Dave.

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Crazy Dave has a store? in his trunk? but why is he so Crazy, he had a Zen garden?

Some players, however, might find all of this strategic planning confusing, but this seems hard to believe. In fact, most will probably find that there really are few wrong ways to proceed. Sure, you almost always need a sunflower or sun-shroom (making one wonder why they do not just auto-add to your seed slot) but otherwise most any choice provides some level of success. Many players might feel that the game is too easy, but once played through, the game can be set to higher difficulty or to a custom difficulty, imposed by the choice of certain plant combinations. Still, the game, while tense at times, does lack some of the challenge seen in Defense Grid, particularly since each lane of the lawn is protected by a mower that not only blocks zombies from your tender brain, will also kill an entire lane of enemies (do note players receive more coins for surviving mowers, so there is incentive to keep them standing).

Each part of Plants vs. Zombies adds up to a highly entertaining whole that provides a much more cerebral style than many other tower defense games. Certainly some people will be turned off by the art direction, which is zany, cutesy, and very cartoony. Others will find a certain artistic and funny quality to the visuals, the often appalling and horrific tropes regarding zombies are included in the game (eating brains, heads and limbs popping off) but rather than be disquieting like Left4Dead or Resident Evil they are endearing (like a plush H.P. Lovecraft monster). Heads fly off with a Warner Brother?s ?pop? and zombies enter the field with a high pitched ?Brains!? There is something satirical in the presentation (and certainly in the music video used to market the game) and once you see a zombie hit in the head with a pat of butter hurled by an ear of corn, well, you just might have seen it all.  

If you're interested in a discussion of the game, head over to our forums where a thread is already underway: Plants vs. Zombies getting surprisingly high marks.

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