Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Plants vs. Zombies

Name: Plants vs. Zombies
Developer: PopCap Games
Platform: PC
Genre: Casual--Tower Defense
Release Date: May 5, 2009

The Premise: Plants vs. Zombies is the latest release from PopCap Games, the masterminds who brought us Bejeweled and Peggle. Your neighborhood has been invaded by zombies, and they all seem to be gunning for you. The only defense you have against them is your wits. . .and your inexplicable collection of battle-ready garden plants. With the occasional "help" of your neighbor Crazy Dave, you mount a defensive against wave after wave of frighteningly funny undead.

The Gameplay:Your beautifully maintained yard serves as the battlefield, and is divided into a grid within which you place (er, plant) "weapons." Prior to each level, you choose which plants you'll use to defend your home. Your best friend is the Sunflower, who spits out little orbs of sunshine at regular intervals. These little bits of sun are what you use to buy your seedlings. If you run out of sun, kiss your brains goodbye; If a single zombie makes it into the house, you lose.

When a level begins, you're given about 30 seconds to start planting, then a small progress bar appears at the bottom right of the screen. This, plus text and sound cues, lets you know that the zombies are approaching and that you'll need to move quickly to keep up your defenses. When a zombie comes in contact with a piece of vegetation, he chomps on it until it's fully consumed or he falls apart from damage created by cannon fire. Once you've eliminated all the zombies from each wave, the level ends and you progress to the next section.

This may seem a little too easy, but don't be fooled: These shambling schmoes are a lot smarter than they look. Once they realize that daytime battles aren't their strong point, these guys start attacking after sundown. Fog, grave stones, your pool, and a lack of natural sunlight can work to their advantage, and you'll have to adjust your game play accordingly. If you defeat them here, they'll move to your backyard, and later your roof, in order to get what they want. As such, you're forced to change your fighting approach accordingly, which keeps things from getting monotonous.

The Finer Details: With 48 different plants to unlock or buy (defeated foes sometimes drop money as they fall), and 26 types of zombie, you'll probably never play a level the same way twice. In addition to the 50 levels of Adventure Mode, you can play through 20 mini-games, 20 puzzles, and a Survival mode. There's also the strangely compelling Zen Garden, where plants you collect from fallen zombies reside. If you care for them properly, they'll reward you by dropping coins, which you can use to purchase items from the shop your neighbor, Crazy Dave, runs out of the trunk of his car.

The level of humor in Plants vs. Zombies is a lot higher than most other casual games I've played, too. All the weapons and zombies have clever and witty names which add to the fun. There's something satisfying about using a Threepeater and a Torchwood to send flaming peas at the enemy three at a time, or a well-placed Cherry Bomb to take out a whole group of undead at once. At the same time, some of the zombie classes will make you wonder what the design team was smoking. While the Thriller-esque zombies are a no-brainer, who the heck came up with the Zomboni and the Zombie Bobsled Team? (Incidentally, those two are my favorite simply because they are just so incredibly random.) Even the Help section is somewhat comical in nature, as it was written not by the designers, but by the Zombies.

Also, this game has some of the most solid mechanics I've ever seen. Nothing seems contrived, or out of place, the difficulty is well-balanced, and everything works fluidly. The autosave is FLAWLESS. The only time I lost any game progress was during an unexpected power outage. In all, I have but two issues with the entire game. Firstly, while a few plants show degradation visibly (seeing a stoic Tall-nut cry while being eaten is heartbreaking to behold), there's no health indicator for most of them. I somehow prevent one of my Peashooters from being consumed, only to see it disappear in a single chomp from the next zombie that comes along. It can be very frustrating. Secondly, the final boss seems so. . .well, random. And I don't mean that in the "wow, that's clever," sense, either. I won't spoil it for anyone who has yet to play, but his appearance leaves you scratching your head wondering, "If this guy was in charge the whole time, why did it take so long for them to get a clue? And why were the notes they sent me so badly written?"

Even with those tiny flaws, PopCap has created an addictive little game that makes time fly by with disturbing speed and gives you a whole new appreciation for the greenery around your house . Plus, you'll find yourself humming the song from the ending credits for DAYS. . .and yet not be bothered by it. (Speaking of which, said ending credits and song can be seen/heard here.)

The Bottom Line: I installed this game at 9:30 pm on a Friday, and the next thing I knew it was 4:30 am Saturday. That was more than a week ago, and I'm still playing. Best not-quite $20 I've spent so far this year.


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