Popcap was once a name which didn’t fill me with confidence. I associated them with Bewjeweled and a thousand-and-one other friendly games that dominated house-wives’ browsers around the world. Since then, however, they seem to have had a change in ethos and have won me over with the likes of Peggle, a game which began to show there was more to casual games than just pattern matching.
The latest release to lurch forth from them is Plants v Zombies. A PC game where you must defend your house from a zombie invasion by planting flora in your garden. Whilst this may not sound like the greatest ever pitch for a game remember these are the people who brought you Bjorn the pachinko playing unicorn, and that turned out just fine.
Zombies moan and stagger on from the right-hand side of the screen, trampling over your grid-based lawn, hoping to reach your backdoor on account of the brains and ice-cream hidden behind it. To prevent your gray-matter from being served with frozen dairy products you have at your disposal a plethora of exotic plants, each with a unique talent. Some shoot peas at the horde, some act as land mines, whilst others resembling venus zombie traps prefer to eat zombies whole, and there’s a whole greenhouse full more, too. These offensive plants are mixed with resource producing sunflowers and defensive plants such as the “wallnut” which will block a zombie until they chomp their way through its tough outer-casing.
This array of choice may seem daunting, but the way Popcap brings you up to speed with the game is to be commended. The tutorial was so subtle and unobtrusive that I hardly noticed that it was going on. You start out with thin strips of land to defend and only a couple of plants but with each success you are granted a new seed and more land, building you up until whole hordes are approaching and you’re just placing down plants like a pro, not even realising the progression you’ve made.
As your seed packet expands so does the ingenuity of the zombies. Looking to adapt they’ll start wearing traffic cones on their heads for protection, undead pole vaulters will try leaping over your plants, and inflatable rubber rings are used to cross water features. Some even lash balloons around their waists to avoid your defensives altogether.
This is where the true genius of Plants v Zombies can be seen as each and every zombie has bags full of character. All vie for your attention with crisp, cartoon stylings and beautifully subtle animations. Furthermore, their invasion is brought to life further with very understated but smile-inducing sound effects. The stereotypical mumbling of “brains” is in there but quite pitifully, said more in hope than expectation. Even the “thwack” of projectiles hitting decomposing flesh sounds suitably wet and satisfying.
The humour runs throughout, as shown by your neighbour Crazy Bob who will sell you extra seed slots and keep you up-to-date with the latest zombie activity. He’ll even take you aside occasionally for games of zombie bowling and the undead equivalent of whack-a-mole.
It’s hard to see who I wouldn’t recommend Plants v Zombies to. The accessibility that is the trade-mark of Popcap games lends itself to all casual players; the strategic elements would be right at home with most gamers who enjoy puzzle or RTS games; and the sight of seeing a troop zombies spring forth from the ground and start dancing a homage to Michael Jackson should be for anyone who has ever laughed at Shaun of the Dead. You’d have had to have your brains sucked out not to enjoy this one.