Developer: PopCap Games / Publisher: PopCap Games / ESRB: Everyone 10+ (Animated Blood, Cartoon Violence) / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $15.00
Plants vs. Zombies is like the unassuming meat buns I buy from an Asian bakery near my apartment, though the game doesn’t have an Asian man loudly lecturing you on why you should never use a credit card. It looks bland and predictable on the outside – so much so that you might assume you know everything about it at first glance and pass it up for flashier breads. However, meaty wonders untold lay just below the surface, providing substance well in excess of its modest price.
Oh, and Plants vs. Zombies also doesn’t have the world’s most annoying door buzzer. I’m realizing this analogy isn’t the most airtight.
To call Plants vs. Zombies tower defense carries a lot of unwelcome connotations. Visions of one dimensional flash games spring to mind – the diversion used to kill the fifteen minutes until a significant other is finally ready to go eat, or a game carried by cloying novelties. PvZ is tower defense, but one of the few versions that legitimizes the genre as more than its stereotype.
The premise is suitably simple. There are zombies on your lawn. You don’t want zombies on your lawn, so you must stave them off by sowing plants of various function to stop them before they shamble into your house and eat your brains (resulting in a genuinely terrifying scream). The plants are the game’s “turrets,” automatically firing at zombies in their lane or providing other support roles. To run down the basics: sunflowers generate sun (the game’s universal currency used to seed plants), peashooters file single pea bullets, and wall nuts (get it) provide study barriers that can withstand long durations of zombie gnawing.
So far, so standard, but the game’s genius comes from the broad range of zombies, the plants required to counter them, and the range of battle locales. For instance, you’ll run into zombies holding screen doors that block normal attacks, but Puff Shrooms fire an attack cloud that passes right through. Zomboni drivers eventually assault your lawn as well, laying down a smooth ice trail that can be utilized by the zombie bobsled team, while flattening any plants in its way. Spikeweed will pop the Zomboni tires, stopping the attack flat. The strategy in the game revolves around filling your finite inventory slots with the right seed packets for a level, and planting them in the right spot at the right time.
While it’s possible to achieve that critical mass of plants such that no zombie could ever assail your home, this feat becomes increasingly difficult as the game wears on. Eventually your playing field will shift from a basic lawn to one containing a swimming pool (with aquatic plants and zombies to match). By the time you reach the roof, you’ll have to put down a flower pot for every plant, and bungee zombies constantly pluck random plants from your garden. PvZ becomes frantic, fast-paced, and genuinely challenging – three attributes uncommon with the genre.
That’s respectable enough, but merely completing the main adventure mode is about a third of the game’s total content. Predictable mode extensions like survival compliment some truly bizarre and inventive minigames like a puzzle mode in which you set a finite number of zombies against a pre-set series of plants in an attempt to eat all the brains stockpiled behind, or fully functional versions of “Beghouled” and “Beghouled Twist” where you must rotate/swap plants on a full lawn to line up three of the same kind. You can cultivate plants in the Zen Garden, play co-op wall nut bowling, compare your survival score with others via Xbox Live leaderboards… merely listing all the game’s activities would take too much space, to say nothing of explaining them all. There’s a ludicrous amount of content here, and almost all of it is worth experiencing.
Plants vs. Zombies’ only rough spot is its controls. The analog stick controls the on-screen cursor, used to select the grid to plant seeds, or pick up money and sun (though the latter can be drawn to the cursor with the triggers). This system functions decently, but lacks the accuracy afforded to the PC version with a mouse. Additionally, while the game automatically settles your cursor to the nearest grid, the process occasionally wigs out, causing your cursor to scroll all the way to the bottom left of the screen and stay there until moved in another direction. While it’s annoying to have the cursor occasionally fly out of control, I never lost a level or mis-planted a seed due to it.
With high-resolution 2D art and an incredibly expressive art style, the only contention with Plants vs. Zombies’ visuals would be stylistic. Each plant and zombie is visually distinct, so you’ll never lose a dangerous zombie in the horde or mistake one plant for another. Their design is downright charming as well, from the red stocking cap and shoulder-length blonde hair on the Zomboni driver to the adorably furrowed brow of the kernel-pult.
Sound effects shine (or groan, as the case may be) in Plants vs. Zombies. Each attack plant produces a different sound when it hits a zombie, and the chorus produced by a full battery of plants unloading on a huge zombie horde is joyous. Additionally, the zombie-produced grunts and moans always entertain. I’m still tickled by the addled and angered groan when an elderly zombie loses his newspaper (he was this close to finishing the Sudoku puzzle, as the game relates). Music is more reserved, opting for zombie-appropriate plodding and plunky piano tunes that blend in to the game’s events. The game’s higher tension encounters and boss battles sport more upbeat tracks.
Plants vs. Zombies is genre-defining and genre-legitimizing title, just as I imagine at some point long ago the meat bun quieted all naysayers claiming that a proper meal couldn’t be crammed inside a yeast roll. The game offers deceptive amounts of depth, content, and enjoyment. While control niggles make Plants vs. Zombies a tighter experience on the PC, the XBLA offering is validated by co-op and competitive modes, the ability to play from the couch, and hell, it’s a good excuse to play Plants vs. Zombies again.