Semi-Review: Plants Vs. Zombies (PC, Mac)

Ever heard of Bejeweled? It’s not much of a stretch to call it one of the most popular games of all (internet) time, if the 25 million copies sold since 2001 are any indication. Think about that for a moment. Twenty-five million. It’s a staggering number, one that attests to the growing popularity of ‘casual’ gaming among kids and adults alike.

With that kind of cash rolling in, you’d think developer Popcap Games would take it easy for a bit. That’s a lot of money to count, y’know? But the company has been churning out a ton of delightful new titles since that initial success, with huge hits like Peggle, Bejeweled 2, and Bejeweled Twist hitting that sweet spot between popular appeal and addictive gaming. Their latest title, the goofily-named Plants Vs. Zombies, continues the tradition, eschewing towers for a flower-defense game that has completely consumed my life.

It’s awesome.

I’ve labeled this a semi-review for the simple reason that I haven’t finished the game yet. It’s a pretty big package, all things considered: fifty levels in the main Adventure mode, twenty surprisingly diverse minigames unlocked over the course of the game, a separate section for zombie and plant puzzles, a survival mode for the masochists among us, and a Zen Garden for stress-free gardening. That is a lot of bang for your buck, even if you shell out $20 for the full game on PopCap’s offical site

It’s even more bang when you can nab it for $10 on Steam, probably the most popular digital download service available for the PC. Install the (free) Steam client and you’ll get access to a wide variety of games, Plants Vs. Zombies included. Steam is basically Good Old Games for modern titles, complete with the chance to play your game immediately after you download it, making it a pretty appealing package for lazy gamers like myself. It’s the best way to get PvZ, either way, so why not give it a shot?

Even with how little I’ve scratched the surface of the game, however, I’m already smitten. There’s an undeniable charm to the game that pervades every aspect of the design, from the fantastic 2D art to the appropriately goofy soundtrack. Beneath the clever humor and plant shenanigans is a very solid game, however, and one that’s an absolute blast to play. 

Here’s how it works. The entry stages of the Adventure mode give you an overhead view of your front yard. It’s green and lush, the ideal spot for a bit of gardening, though the sudden arrival of shambling zombie hordes calls for more than just a green thumb. You’ll need quick thinking and even quicker strategy, typical requirements of a tower-defense kind of game, though PvZ’s unique take on the genre comes across as a breath of fresh air.

Right at the start of every level you’ll want to plant Sunflowers, smiley little guys that produce the ever-important orbs of sunlight. You’ll need that sunlight in order to plant more…plants, as each unique type comes with a sunlight requirement before it can be deployed. Initially you’re sent into battle with six different seed packets to work with, though you’ll be able to upgrade that number over the course of the game to better prepare for the hordes. Adventure mode rewards you with a new kind of plant after almost every battle, so you’ll want to upgrade your carrying capacity as soon as possible to accomodate all the delightful new toys.

The zombies you’ll have to fend off grow increasingly more dangerous with each new level. The real threat, however, is not your average run-of-the-mill brain chomper, but the often hilarious special zombies that pop up the further you get into the game. The pole vaulter zombie, for example, is faster than your ordinary undead and can vault over the first plant it encounters, making it a pretty big nuisance for any gardener with only one line of defense. My solution? Plant down a Wall-nut (exactly what it sounds like) two squares ahead of your defenses. The vaulter will jump right over it, discarding his pole as he goes, landing on the empty square behind it with no means of escape from your peashooters (exactly what they sound like) waiting for it.

Remember that sense of humor I mentioned earlier? Popcap nails it. The plants you unlock over the course of the adventure come with hilarious descriptions and often a delightful take on your average piece of produce. The cherry bomb? Two pretty pissed-off little red guys that explode almost immediately whenever you place them, destroying any zombies nearby. The cleverness extends to the zombies, most of whom are surprisingly endearing despite their attempts to eat your brains. The dancer zombie? Dressed in the trademark red garb of a great pop artist and known to break out into a thrilling dance as it shambles toward your plants.

Even the Adventure mode introduces some pretty unique twists on the typical tower defense formula. At first you’ll contend with the undead in your front lawn, free to soak up every orb of sunlight that the day offers, but before long night will fall and force you to adapt accordingly. Survive the night, and the zombies will start to attack your backyard, stealing little yellow duckies as they try to swarm your pool. I’ve read that the environment changes further to incorporate fog and even moves you on to your rooftop, both of which sound pretty awesome, though I’m more impressed by how skillfully Popcap keeps the gameplay fresh and exciting.

Too often tower-defense games fall into a routine: build your towers, watch them kill things, upgrade/destroy/build more, rinse and repeat. PvZ avoids this by mixing things up pretty consistently, providing new plants, new zombies, new environments, and the aforementioned minigames and extra modes. I haven’t really fiddled with all of the additions yet, as I’m still working through Adventure mode, though you can imagine I’m pretty impressed if I’m recommending you run out this instant to pick up the game on the strength of the main campagain alone.

Still not convinced? Check out the demo. It gives you an hour of playtime, more than enough opportunities to get a feel for how the game develops — and more than enough reasons to go buy the thing already. And don’t fret if you’re not overly familiar with the tower defense genre of games! I’m not a big fan of tower games at all, but Plants Vs. Zombies is a remarkably accessible take on the genre, one I’m sure you’ll enjoy.

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