The difference between clever and cunning.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Plants VS Zombies

          If gaming has taught me anything, it is that a Zombie Apocalypse is not just likely but inevitable. The dead are hungry, restless, and have no concept of person space. It is only a matter of time till we open our front doors one morning to see them lurching slowlybut determinedly across the lawn, arms extended for a welcoming hug.

          Like many people I like to imagine I would get in a certain amount of shotgun firing, black trench coat wearing, and katana wielding in the face of a zombie onslaught. Realistically I’d probably alternate between hysterical shrieking and frantically flailing with a shovel, and even that's optimistic. Perhaps I should have been working on my gardening skills to protect my thinking meats.

          In Plants VS Zombies the player dispenses with such crude weapons as guns and power tools in favor of fighting off the undead with horticulture. The game traces its lineage back to the tower defense genre, where you place down defensive structures and objects to fend off attackers. Here (as one would expect from the name) you place plants on the grid-like field of your lawn to destroy the waves of zombies shambling across it.

          The campaign doubles as the game’s tutorial. The pace starts off slow and deceptively simple, with slow, weak zombies being mowed down by your long range Peashooters. The basic mechanic is that you spend “Sun” to place a plant in an open square. Sun falls from the sky on most levels, and is also spit out periodically by certain resource generating plants. You need to actually click on the individual units of Sun to collect them, so your mouse hand is rarely idle. The seed packets you use to place plants take variable amounts of time to recharge, so you are constantly balancing available resources, space, and cool-down timers with the types and number of incoming zombies. You only have so long to establish a working defense grid before a massive wave of the undead arrives to end the level.

Never a good sign.
          Plants VS Zombies is easy to pick up and start playing, but has plenty of depth. You quickly gain access to a host of tactical options in the form of your different plants. Some generate resources, other fire different types and patters of projectiles across the lawn. You have plants that act as barriers and others that are expendable bombs. Cherry Bombs destroy every Zombie around them, and Potato Mines detonate the first unlucky undead to shamble over them. Venus flytrap like Chompers devour zombies whole, while Magnet-Shrooms yank metal armor and tools away from better equipped specimens.
          You build up a “deck” of seed packets as the game progresses. There are a lot more types of plants than you have seed slots for, so your selection for each level is a major strategic choice. There are never quite enough slots to bring all the plants you want, so you need to formulate a workable plan with the ones you have. There are over 40 types of plants, each with a different offensive, defensive, or specialized ability. They’re unlocked and introduced across the course of the campaign, and there is no shortage of clever combinations and strategies.
          New zombie types continually force you to adapt and make full use of every plant. Put down a Snow-Pea to freeze zombies and they start to carry screen-door shields to block the icy projectiles. Wallnuts form a sturdy defensive barrier that you come to depend on, until you see the first zombie pole vault over them or prop a ladder against them. A field of Spikeweed shreds zombies moving through it, but not those that can burrow under or float effortlessly over the hazard.  Whatever defense you set up, there is a type of zombie who will be able to overcome it, just as no matter what kind of zombies you find yourself facing there is a plant in your arsenal that can stop them. The system of counters is deep and addicting, and there is no such thing as an impenetrable defense.
          The game continually introduces new elements for you to learn that keep the campaign from ever growing repetitive. Just as you come to depend on the steady supply of Sun falling from the sky, night falls. When you finally master defending the front yard, you get a pool and must learn how to use aquatic plants. The normal levels are broken up with diversions like bowling for zombies, and frantic end-of-chapter battles where you must put together a working defense from random plants that arrive by conveyer belt.
          Plants VS Zombies is bursting with creative and entertaining mini games, some of which are even more fun than the main game mode. You do everything from deal with invisible zombies to deploying zombies yourself to overcome plant defenses. My only complaint is that you need to finish the main campaign to unlock a lot of the really fun stuff, but the campaign teaches you the skills you need for the tougher challenges.

          Indeed, one could argue that finishing the campaign just opens up the real game, with its endless survival mode. The alternate game modes and excellent music video are certainly worthwhile rewards for completing it. The money you earn can be spent on buying upgraded versions of many plants and other perks. Collecting and raising plants for your Zen-garden is surprisingly addictive.

          The game has a humorous and good natured tone. The bug eyed zombies shuffle into your defenses with an endearing combination of optimism, creative determination, and slack-jawed stupidity. Many of your plants have subtle but distinct personalities. Sunflowers bob back and forth to the beat of the background music, carnivorous plants lick their lips after gobbling a zombie, and Wallnut’s expressions become determined grimaces as ghouls chomp away at them. Each plant and zombie has a short but humorous entry in the “Suburban Almanac” that entertains as it teaches you their strengths and weaknesses, and your increasingly crazed neighbor explains new mechanics and mini-games.

Know your enemy.
          I enjoy standing atop a burning heap of my enemies shattered carcasses as much as the next gamer, but Plants VS Zombies is fun and worthwhile for both the “casual” and “hardcore” alike. I know casual is a dirty word for some people, but this really is a game that anyone can play, enjoy, and be challenged by without razor edge reflexes, an expensive machine, and huge blocks of time. Its lighthearted atmosphere and simple mechanics conceal a deeply satisfying level of tactical complexity. Oh, and it's cheap. $10 cheap. Get it.

Holding the line.

Reasons to play: Easy to learn, challenging to master. Charming aesthetic. Just plain fun.

Reasons to pass: If Bejeweled ate days of your life, you may not need another addictive “casual” game.

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