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Defense-type games are common, particularly in the casual games market. Enemies move from one side of the screen to the other, or go from a start point to an end point along a path. Zombies are also nothing new to games, from free browser games through to Valve’s Left 4 Dead.
So it looks like PopCap is going to be treading some rather derivative ground with Plants v Zombies, which is, essentially, a zombie defense game. But I guarantee you haven’t seen a zombie game like, or a defense game as good as, PvZ.
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Plants v Zombies is easy to pick up, a must for a casual game, or one that a kid can play. Cartoonish Zombies make their way from screen right to left. If one penetrates the defenses you set up, he gets into your house and eats your brain. So far, nothing all that new.
But there isn’t a firearm to be found with which to stave off the hordes. You will have to rely on your gardening skills to survive this undead apocalypse. Specifically, you collect sun, which you spend on planting seeds. The seeds turn into plants that provide specific functions to help eliminate Zombies. Most plants are automated: you set them up and they do their thing. Some, like the Cherry Bomb or Icy Mushroom, will act very shortly after planting, delivering their effect and disappearing in the process. Others will lie in wait once deployed, like the Squash, which will squash the first zombie to get near it, consuming itself at that time.
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Day, Night, and Pool Party of the Living Dead
Sun, which you click on to collect, falls from the sky periodically, but that really isn’t enough to get a good tan, let alone fend off hordes of undead flesh-eaters. You can plant Sunflowers to get more sun though. In the night levels you have to rely on Sunshrooms and Sunflowers entirely, as the sky doesn’t drop sun at night. The game takes place in different sections outside your house, some levels during the day and some at night. You can use different plants at night: Mushrooms.
You can use Mushrooms in the day but you need to wake them up by planting a coffee bean on them. If this is starting to sound like a lot of plants and abilities to keep track of, don’t worry. You start the game with one plant and get a new one for almost every level you complete of PvZ’s Adventure mode. By the time you have a whole pack of plants to choose from, you have a good idea of how to use them.
The Zombies follow a similar pattern. You start out fighting one kind of zombie, and they become more varied as you go on. The depth of strategy achieved in choosing which plants to use based on the enemies you see in each level’s brief introduction is really satisfying, but the gentle introduction of these elements keeps the game very accessible. It’s easy to pick up and hard to put down: the addictive properties which are another hallmark of great casual games.
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Game Modes and Replayability
When you have something clever like Plants v Zombies, it would be really disappointing to have it come to an end. The main mode, Adventure, offers a nice variety of terrain, and even mini-games of its own. Every tenth level is a challenge-type board where you place the plants you are given as they scroll across the top of the screen (see screenshot), instead of choosing them and paying sun for them. Every fifth level, except on the tens, the board will take on a different play mode, such as Zombowling.
Playing through the main mode once is about twenty hours, but that is in no way most of the game’s content. In playing through the Adventure mode, you will not just unlock dozens of seeds, but Mini-Game, Puzzle, Survival, and Zen Garden modes. Each of these offers almost as much game time as the Adventure mode.
Playing through Adventure levels a second time will earn you more cash (which you can use to buy upgrades in the shop), or plants for your Zen Garden
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Next Page: Graphics, Sound, Writing and Conclusion
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Graphics and SoundThe visual elements are just about perfect, but not “you can zoom in and see a cavalry unit’s horses swish away flies with their tails in nigh on photo-realistic graphics” perfect. The graphics in Plants v Zombies are pleasant, colourful, and clear, top notch among casual games. But they are also just so apt, funny and emotive that it is hard not to love your plants, and even develop a soft spot for the Zombies trying to eat your brain. Sound is a similar example of doing more with less. I love a full symphonic orchestral recording, but getting the Prague Philharmonic together isn’t cheap. While obviously the product of electronics, PvZ’s soundtrack and effects are rather good. Sound effects are not intrusive but let you know what’s going on: if you hear something munching, it’s probably a zombie eating one of your plants. The soundtrack is also unobtrusive, and quite varied, so you won’t have to turn it off to preserve your sanity, which unfortunately isn’t the case in many casual and lower budget games. One of the tracks I particularly enjoyed was reminiscent of Jon Carpenter’s disco horror soundtracks.
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Plot and Writing
While PvZ adds nothing new to zombie attacks, the Plants are a nice twist. But a nice twist doesn’t make a great game. Luckily, this game will keep you grinning with comical graphics, but more importantly gags are stuffed in just about everywhere. Your Almanac contains descriptions (some hilarious, all amusing), of every Plant and Zombie you come across.
The first page of help you come across is from the Zombies, who don’t have your best interest at heart (see screen shot). They will threaten you every ten levels, which is always good for a laugh. The funniest element is without a doubt Crazy Dave though.
Crazy Dave, wearing a pot on his head, shows up from time to time in all his cell shaded glory with tips on new game elements. He also runs a shop out of the trunk of his car, full of upgrades from which you can choose. His dialogue is brilliant: he is easily one of the funniest supporting characters in any video game (screen shot of Crazy Dave below).
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Zombie games aren’t new. Defense games aren’t new. Heck, even Zombie defense games aren’t new. And while pitting them against plants is certainly novel, alone it would be no more than a gimmick. What makes Plants v Zombies shine is the almost perfect execution of every facet of the game. The gameplay is tuned for an incredibly good balance of being easy to play and offering strategic depth. The graphics are entertaining and very pleasant; the writing hilarious.
PopCap really came up with a winner here. It's a huge amount of fun for twenty bucks. To beat that, Steam.com has it on for a measly ten bucks right now. The only thing I can say against this game is no multiplayer, and that really isn’t fair. So many games at or above $50 offer no, limited, or terrible multiplayer experiences. The dev time to make a solid multiplayer component would be too much to ask for a game that already offers so much else for twenty, let alone ten bucks.
We’ll just have to wait for a sequel and hope PopCap will let Plants v Zombies fans square off in it. For now, I just heard a noise outside: I’d better check on the Cabbage-pults.