Discussion Review: Plants vs. Zombies

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The tower defense genre has really been booming over the past year, and I’ve become a big fan of the genre in a very short period of time. However, many of the more hardcore titles generally fall into the category of “generic sci-fi” and are a bit too bland for my tastes, so for me it’s only the more offbeat tower defense games that really grab me. Games like PixelJunk Monsters, Lock’s Quest and now Plants vs. Zombies, the latest entry in the genre from the casual game whizzes at PopCap.

Read along as Mike and I discuss this delightful new game!

Matt: Plants vs. Zombies actually simplifies the standard tower defense formula quite a bit, yet somehow manages to do so without sacrificing the tactical depth this type of game needs to thrive. In this game you are defending your home from waves of invading zombies with plants and flowers as your towers, and instead of the zombies spawning and advancing towards your house through maze-like maps they walk across your lawn in straight lines. Your front and back yards are laid out sorta like a checkerboard, with 5-6 horizontal rows the zombies walk down and 9 squares in each row for you to place your plant towers in.

Although the map layouts are much more streamlined than other tower defense games, Plants vs. Zombies still manages to surpass the competition in a number of key ways. First and foremost, the game is wonderfully addictive. It’s so easy to pick up and play that it becomes hard to stop playing once you start, more so than any tower defense game I’ve ever played.

Secondly, this game is loaded with variety. There are over 40 different plant types to acquire throughout the course of the game’s 50-stage Adventure mode — the standard peashooter turrets, sun flowers for producing resources, lily pads to place on water for other plants to sit on, wall-nuts that serve as barriers, cherry bombs and potato mines that blow up nearby zombies, different types of mushrooms, and plenty more — and nearly 30 zombie types, most of them hilarious including snorkeler zombies, “Zomboni” zombies, football player zombies, zombies carrying screen doors as shields, and of course my favorite, the dancing zombies parodying Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. The maps are pretty diverse too, with varying environmental factors like fog, day and night settings, and the backyard pool forcing you to adapt your strategies accordingly.

And last but not least, Plants vs. Zombies is bursting with charm and personality. The Flash-style graphics jump off the screen and the various plant and zombie models and their different animations are just so much fun to watch as you play. And Crazy Dave — he serves as your teacher and shop manager throughout the game — is straight up hilarious with his ridiculous comments and gibberish dialogue.

I think I’ll leave it at that for now and give you a chance to chime in. So what do you think of Plants vs. Zombies, Mike? I’ll be shocked if you aren’t loving this one as much as I am!

Mike: I am also amazed at what has happened with the TD (Tower Defense) genre recently – I did a review of Defense Grid: The Awakening last year, and have recently been replaying the DS gem Lock’s Quest myself. It seems like a genre that fits perfectly into the ‘casual game craze’ while also offering developers an opportunity to add plenty of depth and individualization. As Matt says, there are still too many Flash-type web-based TD games that are generic sci-fi fluff, but every now and then a gem comes along. Like Plants vs. Zombies!

Matt doesn’t mention the twist to our reviewing of this game – he was taking the PC version and I was taking the Mac version. Popcap has always been great about supporting the Mac so I was thrilled to be able to grab this one to play concurrently with Matt on the PC side – one reason I mention this is that too often Mac versions lag the PC release by several months. The other reason is even more telling … by the second day I had the game I had already bought the PC version on Steam. Why? Well, first off so I could have it on my netbook, and second because from the first moment they watched me playing my kids wanted a piece of this game!

So this took me longer than I figured because I was concurrently advancing on the Mac and PC. I remember explaining it to my wife – there is your house, there is your yard, and there are a bunch of zombies out in the road; all you have to do it stop the zombies from reaching your house. After the blank look remained on her face, I said ‘let me show you’. A few minutes later she was sold – she hasn’t played yet, but loves when the four of us crown around my Macbook Pro yelling at the screen while one of us takes control.

Aside from thoroughly enjoying the adventure mode that Matt detailed, there are also Mini-games, Puzzle, and Survival modes. These are unlocked gradually as you progress through the adventure and offer even more fun ways to assault or defend your house. Mini-games are unveiled one at a time and are singular events, such as Wall-Nut Bowling, where you get to roll Wall-Nuts (large stones that block the path of zombies until destroyed) into the onslaught of zombies. The Wall-Nut will strike a zombie, doing a certain amount of damage and then take off at an angle, allowing you to hit multiple zombies with a single Wall-Nut.

Puzzle Mode unlocks a specific type of challenge, and by completing that challenge you can unlock further levels of that challenge. Of course each level is harder than the last – but it isn’t just more difficult because of more or tougher zombies. Each level of a puzzle offers a different twist on the same core gameplay idea, forcing you to adapt to something new and use some alternate strategies in order to make it through. Survival mode is about, well surviving an onslaught of zombies for as long as possible. There are multiple waves, and you get to select different plants between levels, with the plants already in place remaining.

Then there is the Zen Garden. This is something you gain access to after completing Adventure Mode – there are no zombies, no battles, nothing but growing plants to gain more money to buy more upgrades and equipment for your further adventures. It is like a whole different world – the very feeling is completely different from the main game. Yet it is no less addictive – you will go there even when you no longer need the money.

One thing I will say is that there was no skimping on the extras – if you love the adventure mode there is loads of replayability there; the mini-games and puzzles get increasingly more challenging each time you replay them; Survival takes the core game and drops you into it with a no-holds-barred attitude; and the Zen Garden is the perfect complement to all the frantic zombie-mania. None of these modes feel tacked-on; each offers a unique style and approach within the context of the theme of ‘plants vs. zombies’. It would have been easy for the developers to cut back on any of these modes, but instead we get an amazingly full and rich experience.

Enough gushing on the other modes … Matt, do you have any favorite mode, plant or zombie you’d like to share?

Matt: Excellent recap of all the different mini-games and side modes, Mike, and I definitely agree that this game is loaded with replayability. Games in the casual/budget market generally get away with skimping on play modes, but not here. With Plants vs. Zombies, PopCap has really set a benchmark for how much content can be stuffed into a casual/budget game without jacking up the price — it’s $20 on both PC and Mac through PopCap, and even cheaper at only $10 on Steam. The Adventure mode is long and addictive enough to warrant those prices alone, so the fact that you get so many extras to unlock makes this pretty much a no-brainer of a purchase.

As for favorites, Wall-Nut Bowling and the Survival mode come to mind first. Survival mode is particularly fun because it allows you to get deeper into your arsenal and unleash some of the more powerful plants that you generally don’t get a chance to use a whole lot in the Adventure mode since many of the levels end before you can build up a ton of resources. I especially love being able to whip out some Gatling gun upgrades for my Peashooters and pump all those pesky zombies full of lead, ermmm… I mean peas!

The zombies are all really funny, but my favorite still has to be the Michael Jackson “Thriller zombies”. I can’t help but chuckle a little every time they start moonwalking out onto the yard with the choreographed backup dancers and everything. How about you?

I do have one small complaint about the game, though. The first couple minutes of every mission play out exactly the same way every time. You get your Sun Flowers going to start the resource harvesting and plant a couple cheapy turrets as needed to keep your yard clear until the first big zombie wave begins and you have enough resources to defend against the onslaught. All tower defense games (and resource-driven strategy games in general) have this issue, but I don’t know, it seems more pronounced to me in Plants vs. Zombies.

Other than that, the only negative thing I have to say about Plants vs. Zombies is that all its clickiness wore out my damn left mouse button!

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Mike: Talking about survival made me think of something: I was playing Survival Mode during one of the recent basketball playoff games, and for a minute I just stopped and looked at the screen … I had a back row of three-shooters and a front row of Gatling guns with fire-barrels in front of those and during the final onslaught there was just an amazing amount of pea-fireballs screaming across the screen! It was completely insane and a total blast. Yet as you say, it started the same as every other wave – I establish my ‘resource builders’, create some early offensive and defensive units, continue to build my resource capacity alongside offense and defense until … victory.

I can understand how you would feel that might feel repetitive – whereas most strategy games have battles that last longer and most tower defense games have more interlude space, this one just dumps you from battle to battle to battle. For me it was interesting to see how I’d have to twist those strategies as the levels got harder and as the setting changed from day to night and from front yard to back yard to roof.

One more note on replayability – when you complete Adventure Mode and restart again, Crazy Dave starts making some of your plant choices! So instead of just rehashing the same levels at a higher difficulty, you get your whole inventory but three of your slots are already filled. This can drastically alter the approach you take.

In an era of a constant stream of $60 games that last four hours and offer me-too multiplayer, Plants vs. Zombies offers an amazing value: hours of core gameplay, loads of added content, tons of reasons to keep coming back for more, and Crazy Dave! I liken this to Portal … but better! Not that the core game is necessarily better than Portal, but because it offers a wonderfully addictive experience that won’t be over in a few short hours.

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Pros:
+ Loads of content and replayability
+ Lots of plant types to experiment with and hilarious zombie types to thwart
+ Effectively streamlines the standard tower defense formula
+ Extremely addictive gameplay
+ Extras are fully developed, not cheap add-ons
+ Bursting with charm and humor
+ Zen Garden

Cons:
– Every wave tends to start the same way
– Eventually, if you don’t eat, you will die

Game Info:
Platform: PC and Mac
Publisher: PopCap Games
Developer: PopCap Games
Release Date: 5/5/09
Genre: Strategy/Tower Defense
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!