I would've loved to have been in on the pitch meeting for this game - “yeah, zombies are cool, but we need something that'd make our game stand out from the thousands of generic zombie games out there... oh yeah, let's have plants that fire at zombies - genius!” I mean, this has to be one of the more out there premises for a game. We're not exactly dealing with Attack Of The Mutant Penguins or the last third of Indigo Prophecy here, but it's not exactly a concept that has any basis in reality, almost like... a video game. Yeah, remember when video games weren't about trying to be realistic? Well, this game does a fine of job of reminding us of this fact, as well as just being fun.
The idea is to set up lines of plants so that they can either shoot down or stall the zombies, making sure they never get to the left side. If they get past your defenses via eating your plants (mmm yummy plants) and make it all the way to the left, they'll eat your brain and it's game over! It's a simple concept and for a strategy game, it's a rather simple affair. You won't need much more strategy than sheer numbers, maybe stall a group of zombies if you can't take them down quickly enough if you have enough resources (or sun, in this case) to summon something that can stall them or slow them down whilst damaging them. At the same time, it's a concept that, nevertheless, *bleep*ing works because of its simplicity and how Popcap executes it.
Everything is laid out on a 9x6 square grid and your plants only take up one square each, so it really is a matter of having the numbers to take down zombies while protecting your brains. Plants range from simple pea shooters (no, literally, they shoot peas) to ones that fire two at a time, three peas in three different directions and then some that fire melons like a catapult firing large rocks. That's not to mention Wallnuts, walnuts that stall zombies so you can build up some sun to plant more offensive plants. If you prefer to turn zombies against other zombies, there's a plant – or rather, a mushroom (which are often the nighttime equivalents of daytime plants although there isn't a plant that turns zombies against each other) that'll let you do that. Simply put, you'll never be starved for variety. Given that this is a strategy game, you'll wind up mixing and matching groups of plants to find what'll work best for your playstyle. Whether you have a mostly offensive force with one plant for defense and another to acquire more sun more quickly to grow more plants to destroy the zombie onslaught. The only thing is that you'll unlock a plant after every level, so while you'll get time to aquaint yourself with the ones you do have, you'll either get a little too aquainted with them or you'll need to be experimenting a hell of a lot at the beginning of each level just to see what this new plant has to offer and how you can best utilize it on your team.
Hell, variety doesn't stop with our shit – zombies also have plenty to offer. At first, you'll have you stereotypical droning zombies that wouldn't be out of place in Resident Evil if it had a cartoony visual style (as opposed to a cartoony playstyle with Chris Redfield punching boulders with his overly muscly arms). Eventually, you'll have zombies with buckets on their heads, footballers, old grouchy newspaper readers and even dancing *bleep*ing zombies that wouldn't be out of place in the Thriller music video (hell, in the older versions of this game, the zombie even looked like Michael Jackson – how fitting), among others that not only have visual differences, but also practical differences. From higher defenses requiring more/better firepower to faster movement speed (whether they're quicker on their feet or just chewing on your plants) and even some flying in the air so you can only hit them with catapults, you'll need to make sure you're adequately prepared to take them down. That's when the plant variety I was talking about before comes into play.
Don't confuse this for a complex strategy game because this really is about as simple as it gets and it's at its most evident in the story mode. It starts off at a very low difficulty level and even the later levels are maybe moderately challenging at best. Even then, a lot of that has more to do with terrain than anything else. Every second world will take place at night, meaning you won't get any free sun – it all has to either come from sunflowers or sun generating mushrooms. The last world takes place on your roof, which means the left side will be angled lower and thus you NEED catapults, as well as pots because there's no soil on the roof. The third and fourth worlds take place in your backyard, with a long swimming pool taking up 2 rows, meaning you'll need water based mushrooms, weeds that'll drag zombies down to drown and lillypads for your grounded plants to float on the water. After a little experimentation, you'll be able to easily figure out the most efficient means of taking down waves of the walking dead.
The post-game content is where things get more interesting. The one that you'll really get into is survival mode as it basically takes the formula used in the story mode, but instead of there just being a wave or three of zombies, you'll have either five, ten, twenty or infinity sets of waves to take down. You can change your lineup of plants every five sets, and the further along you get, the more you'll need to be a bit strategic as you can't keep low costing yet weak plants forever – you need more firepower! But once the zombies become more plentiful and powerful, you'll find that you'll need to spend more sun on plants than you may have, requiring you to get some lower level plants. From there, it's like “what the *bleep* do I do!?!?!?” as you try to figure out the best means of survival, but then you realize that you have other plants that you can use before the beginning of every fifth set and from there, it really becomes a matter of predicting what may happen. That's easily the best that's on offer – not that Wallnut Bowling and Pot Smashing aren't fun either and the latter certainly requires a lot of strategy to make sure you use the plants you're given to quickly kill the zombies that you break out of the pots, but survival pretty much takes the story mode and injects it with steroids.
Plants VS Zombies sports a very cartoony style that'd make all but the most insecure of men and purist of zombie movie fans look at it and go “damn this is pretty *bleep*ing cool”. It's simplistic in nature much like the game itself with some basic shapes used to construct each of the models and plenty of reused heads for the zombies. The animations mostly consist of that old Flash technique where you have each limb as its own layer and simply move them along instead of painstakingly drawing each bit of movement on each frame, although the plants bobbing around like bobble head dolls is a rather nice touch. But it's the vibrancy of the color scheme that stands out. This game is very colorful, making it stand out on your computer screen. In particular, the plants are so vibrant that they stand out even in the daytime stages, let alone the nighttime stages when it ought to be dark. Hell, even when it's dark, it's brighter than the light at the end of the tunnel!
The sound design, like the graphics, are simple in design, but pretty damn effective in what it actually does. The soundtrack is mostly calm and upbeat, yet it's pretty much in the background for the most part, really only existing to give you a friendly hello when you start up the game and then to try and keep you calm while you take down hordes of the undead. There is an attempt at a haunting atmosphere during the screen where you select the plants you want to use for that level (or set of five in surival mode), but it's still decidedly upbeat and calming. It's not an issue because Plants VS Zombies isn't supposed to be scary – just a fun time waster – but it is in there nevertheless. The finest detail is in the zombies' groaning. It not only serves as a great audio cue for you to wake up and keep an eye out for zombies, but it sounds so goddamn cheesy and cartoony that it works!
Where Plants VS Zombies ninja kicks you right across the face is that its simplicity compliments what it strives to do. It's not an artistic reflection of society or an epic RPG; it's a *bleep*ing simple strategy game that was originally meant to be played on the go either while you're on a train, on a family trip or you have a spare few minutes in your day... only to be insanely addicted to it! These colorful, cartoony graphics reflect that – you ordinarily wouldn't have any time to appreciate fine details in your presumably busy schedule, you just want to play a video game to pass some time. Conversely, you wouldn't care much if at all about graphical fidelity or technicality once it has your nuts in a vicegrip with its addicting gameplay! That's the take home lesson for the day – Plants VS Zombies is simple, fun... and refreshingly addicting, so practice caution before you start playing this game. You might never come out of your house again...