Thursday, May 21, 2009

Plants vs. Zombies Review

Plants vs. Zombies, developed and published by PopCap Games.
The Good: Intuitive gameplay, many weapon and enemy types, lots of alternative game modes, strategic limitation of available plants, nicely animated graphics
The Not So Good: Repetitive maps, not terribly challenging, new items and modes unlock slowly
What say you? A fantastic theme and plentiful content elevate this casual tower defense game: 7/8

Who will protect us against the inevitable zombie attack? That dude from Batman Begins? In trying times, we must turn to our green defenders, producers of oxygen and pretty smelling flowers. This casual take on the tower defense game features plants vs. zombies, which is fitting considering the game is called Plants vs. Zombies. Other examples in the genre include the less esoteric Defense Grid and the equally outlandish Immortal Defense. Astute regular readers will also notice the similarities between this game and another eternal struggle that has rarely been highlighted: Stalin vs. Martians. Irregular users probably need some Metamucil.

Despite the game’s 2-D graphics, Plants vs. Zombies looks great thanks to pleasing character designs and excellent animations. The high number of plants and zombies in the game each feature a nice attention to detail and operate in a very fluid manner. There is also great little touches, with zombie decapitations and the various armor they employ. Watching the increasingly concerned look on Wall-Nuts face as he becomes consumed is priceless. The developers took the theme and ran with it, crafting a visually stimulating game. Watching the game in action is far superior to any generic screenshot, which does not do the game justice. Sound design is less outstanding, using a subtle soundtrack and humorous but repetitive effects. Audio notwithstanding, Plants vs. Zombies compares favorably to other casual games in terms of its visuals.

For a budget-priced game, Plants vs. Zombies features a large amount of content, rivaling most full-priced titles for variety. The main game takes place in the adventure mode, where you will defend your house from the incoming zombie raid by placing plants. Typically one new plant type is introduced in each level, arbitrarily slowing your progress and leading to some repetition. This is especially the case because the game features a small number of maps that only have day and night variations: you get the distinct feeling of déjà vu as you grind through the adventure mode. I would have halved the number of levels in each group and introduced two new items each time you successfully finish a particular level. The extra game modes are also very slowly unlocked: there is a lot of content here that is certainly not apparent when you first start playing. It frankly takes too long to unlock everything, and I suspect most casual players will miss out on the cool variety the extra modes offer if they only invest a couple of hours in Plants vs. Zombies before getting bored. The 18 (!) minigames focus on introducing alternative rules, like randomly introduced plant cards or portals, or using the game’s theme with a completely different gameplay mode, like the Bejeweled replica. The minigames are a great vacation from the repetitive nature of the adventure mode, it’s just too bad the game hides all of this wonderfulness from you. Also making an appearance are puzzle modes that have you randomly collecting items or taking the role of the zombies: a neat role reversal. Survival mode lets you last (or, you know, survive) as long as you can against an increasingly difficult zombie onslaught. Along with the adventure mode, the minigames, puzzle, and survival modes round out a complete package.

You’ll be spending most of your time with the “normal” adventure mode part of the game, so I’ll be discussing that now (plus, I don’t want to ruin some of the minigame surprises). In order to successfully defend your house from the zombie attack, you will collect sun in order to purchase new plants to place on your lawn. Plants fall into several categories: resource producers, ranged shooters, one-use melee, and plants designed to combat a specific enemy (like cactus for balloon zombies or fume-shroom for zombies armed with screen doors). Plants vs. Zombies features somewhere over thirty different plant species, but you are limited in how many types you can bring into the game (initially six, but eventually up to nine). This is a significant strategic decision before you even start planting, and there is a large number of viable strategies you can develop to combat specific enemy rosters. The game shows a preview of which zombies are coming (although there is no indication of where or when), so if you do not see the zomboni (obviously a zombie driving a zamboni), you probably don’t need to bring a spikeweed. Plants vs. Zombies also features somewhere over fifteen different kinds of zombies, and some of the advanced varieties are quite nasty, burrowing beneath (or jumping above) your defenses. Like the plant species, zombie types have a great sense of humor, especially one inspired by a certain zombie-inspired music video (complete with the dance moves). Complicating things is the introduction of night, where mushroom varieties become more useful, and non-soil surfaces like pools and the roof that must be compensated for. As you unlock additional plants and are introduced to new zombie enemies, some older types become obsolete and replaced with newer, faster, younger versions. A cooldown time on placement limits spamming particularly useful plants, so planning ahead is of paramount importance.

Plants vs. Zombies gives you a good deal of freedom to design your own defenses, from the order they are introduced to their placement and which ones to actually use. Once you find a good strategy, though, later levels in a series can get quite repetitive, since you’ll be recycling the same effective strategy until a new, problematic zombie type is introduced that necessitates a new plant. The game is more interactive than a typical tower defense game, since you are placing new defenses in real-time as the invasion occurs, in addition to collecting resources and coins to purchase upgrades. There are no difficulty settings in the game, so while casual players will find the game to be moderately difficult, veterans of the genre will find Plants vs. Zombies to be a bit on the easy side. Even when the chaos is at a maximum and the sneaky, tricky zombies are all over the map, a solid plan will always prevail. Plants vs. Zombies is an intuitive game, though, with linear attack patterns and an interface designed for beginners. It’s a well designed game that rewards careful planning over quick reflexes. The game is best played in short spurts, and since each level only takes a couple of minutes and progress can be saved at any time, this can be accomplished. If things become too monotonous, you can always change things up by trying out a minigame, assuming, of course, you have played long enough to unlock them.

Plants vs. Zombies injects a great theme into the tower defense genre and appends a ton of content as an added bonus. The gameplay is straightforward enough for casual gamers to pick up, yet it maintains a strategic depth because of the limited number of plants you can use at a time in addition to the restrictions on placement space and how quickly you can plant new freedom fighters. Resource gathering is a simple clicking action that keeps you busy while your plant forces automatically engage the enemy. You will have to make choices regarding which plants to place where, and there is a wide variety of viable strategies you can employ based on what plants are available and which zombies are scheduled to invade. The cute graphics and robust additional game modes complete the package. Games in Plants vs. Zombies can get repetitive, as games take place on the same map for ten consecutive levels, and new items unlock slowly, keeping the engrossing extra elements of the game hidden from players for too long. Plants vs. Zombies is not that challenging for veteran tower defense players, but casual users will find a wonderful introduction to the genre. There is definitely enough here to justify a budget-level price, and the result is a notable casual tower defense game.