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. It’s not long before 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.
I’ve started so I’ll finish…
After sitting down with Plants v Zombie for all 50 levels it became apparent that the game’s brightest moments are mostly within its first half. It stacks the deck in favour of showing off all the best items early on, with the majority of new zombies and plants found in later levels feeling either rehashed or uninspired. The zombie armed with a ladder behaves remarkably similar to the pole-vaulter and flowers that spout projectiles in an increasing variety of angles are novel but I always left them on the shelf preferring to stick with tried and tested methods.
And that the niggle that’s in my head trying to get out. Past a certain point it become quite formulaic. You develop a build order and a preferred selection of plants and only a particularly fiendish zombie would ever force you to change it, which never really happened. Up until the final level I had only failed in defending my property once, and I still claim that it was partly because I wanted to see what happened when they did breach your defenses.
In fairness it does hold one gameplay shift back for the final stages. There you are defending your roof; the zombies have claimed the high ground and you must fight uphill to save your brains. The twist here being that plants which shot a normal horizontally moving projectile became useless as their efforts merely bounced off of the incline. Instead, catapults are employed, but ultimately they have the same effect just with a different animation.
The disappointment really comes from the expectations I had heaped upon the game so early on. The creativity and humour is reason enough to give Plants v Zombie a go but for those expecting a game that keeps on giving may find that it just doesn’t have the longevity they desire.