Crazy Dave. The vapid, wobbling bounce of the Pogo Zombie. The single tear in the eye of a Wal-nut as it’s slowly mauled to death. The revolted howl as a zombie encounters garlic. The cardboard cutouts of plants in the I Zombie minigame. The almanac blurbs. The half moonwalk, half shuffle of the Dancing Zombie. The details count for a lot in Plants Vs Zombies, and in taking on the tower defence genre, PopCap has splashed spectacular imagination over every tiny element. But it’s only window dressing to a game as robust and honed as any the king of casual has made, built from a simple idea spun out to the furthest extents that can be safely imagined.
The premise is that you’re under attack from processions of zombies coming from the right side of the screen, attempting to cross the front garden to your front door (and your tasty brains within) on the left. Your defence is a variety of specialised flora that, once planted in the six-square-high grid of your garden, can stop them with barrages of peas, cactus spines and cabbages, nuts that block passage, explosive Cherry Bombs and giant Venus zombie-traps. The resource management that follows – of certain types of zombies being susceptible to certain plants, of restricted supplies and of balancing space in the garden against current and potential locations of invaders – is, as ever, pitilessly absorbing.
Where Plants Vs Zombies diverges from the familiar is in how active you are playing it. Plants cost certain sums of sun power, golden icons that occasionally drop from the sky and can also be generated by planting sunflowers. To collect them you must click on them, a mechanic that not only has you watching the zombies and planning and building defence patterns but also restlessly ranging your cursor around the screen. At its most hectic, especially during the large waves of zombies that come during each level, you’ll be managing your time as much as your resources: do you gather that sun power or put that peashooter down first?
And playing poses lots more difficult questions besides – how many sunflowers should you plant? How close do you dare plant up the garden to where the zombies spawn? Should you leave space for a cactus in case a balloon zombie should appear in its row? And then, every ten levels, it changes all the rules, with night falling and severely reducing sun income, fog rolling in and restricting your view, and the fight turning to the backyard, which features a swimming pool. It would be daunting if it weren’t for a PopCap-engineered learning curve, driven by the most minimal of text tutorials, that lets you learn by gratifying experimentation, allowing you to form your own strategies from what becomes a huge set of wildly varying plants and zombies, and environments in which to test them.
And if that weren’t enough, there are the minigames, scattered around the main levels to add spice to the pacing, each expanding on a different aspect of the core design, and all the different bonuses on which you can spend your money. It barely stumbles – sure, each round starts the same slow plant-sunflower-and-wait way, early mistakes force routine restarts, and some plants introduced later on are somewhat arbitrary adaptations of earlier ones – but these are minor blips. In feeding constant surprise, engaging wit and sharply pitched challenge during its course, Plants Vs Zombies proves again PopCap’s incredible knack of taking an established game form and making it all its own.