How the zombies have fallen. Once they were a terrifying, cannibalistic reflection of our basest impulses, but decades of B-movie hackery have reduced them to an iconic geek totem, like ninjas or pirates or nuns. The Return of the Living Dead plastered them with a goofy catch-phrase ("BRAAAAAAAIINNSS"), and now, except for a couple of attempts to resurrect them as drooling sprinters, they're pretty much a joke. Just look at them here. They've literally been turned into plant food, getting pelted to bits by peas and cabbage.
Plants vs. Zombies is the strangest, most original game from PopCap yet. If you missed the teaser, starring an adorable sunflower voiced by Laura Shigihara and an entire rave party's worth of zombies, you might want to watch it now. It's one of the greatest promotional videos for a game in history.
You play the part of a home-owner in the midst of a typical zombie apocalypse, but exaggerated to a cartoon fever pitch. Beyond the suit-wearing regular zombies, you'll face zombies in football gear, zombies on pogo sticks, pole-vaulting zombies, and many more. The undead starving hordes are on the march, but your back yard is standing in the way, covered with fresh, fertilized topsoil. By planting various types of seeds, you must raise a crop of warrior vegetation that can defend your brains from the imminent devouring.
In gameplay terms, you have five lanes to defend (six on some levels) against the zombies, who enter on the right side of the screen and lurch slowly towards your home on the left. You select six plant types from your arsenal at the beginning of the level and then place them strategically on the lawn where they can fire on the approaching undead, who will fight back by munching on anything in arm's reach. You will gradually unlock a wide variety of plants (nearly 50!). Most of them act as stationary guns, periodically shooting peas or watermelons or what-have-you. Some protect the others, like the lovable Wall-Nut, some explode, like the Cherry Bomb, and some serve more specific purposes. Certain plants are effective against certain zombies, and vice versa.
Each plant costs a certain amount of sunlight to create. Actual globs of sun will fall periodically to the earth, and you must click on them to add to your supply. The sunflower will be your staple crop, providing another source of sunlight globs that can be used to power the rest of your vegetable army. Watching for and collecting sun occupies your time between planting, much like the resource-gathering of Popcap's own Insaniquarium.
There are 50 levels in the main Adventure Mode, spread across five different settings and about seven hours of gameplay. Each area requires a slightly different approach. At night-time, for example, you'll need to deploy bargain-price mushrooms to offset the lack of sunlight. In the pool, you'll need to support your plants on lily pads.
After completing the main storyline, there's still plenty left to do. The Survival Modes are like extended versions of a regular level, while the Puzzle Modes mix things up by hiding a variety of enemies in breakable vases, or by casting you as the zombies against a pre-figured squadron of plants. The real treat, however, is the Mini-Games, which riff on the main theme in just about every way imaginable. Look for bizarre hybrid call-backs to PopCap's previous games, like Bejeweled (here titled Beghouled) and Hammer Heads.
Having trouble with Zombies eating your brains? Are you always running out of lawnmowers? Don't miss our Plants vs. Zombies Strategy Guide!
Analysis: The surprise of Plants vs. Zombies is how much sense the match-up makes. Zombies are slow, but plants are immobile. Zombies can be decapitated, but plants can be eaten. It's like they were just waiting to co-star in a video game.
If you still shiver from dopamine withdrawal when you think back on the "Ode to Joy" from Peggle, you can get ready to kiss your social life goodbye for a few days. Plants Vs. Zombies rewards you constantly. The entire adventure mode is a parade of gifts—new plant seeds, new gameplay modes, threatening notes from your more literate zombie opponents. Each present comes right at the end of a level, so the desire to instantly hit the Continue button and play with your new toy is irresistible. The zombies even drop coins, which can buy upgraded plants and other goodies out of the trunk of your insane neighbor's car.
Because the plants are so specific in their look and animation, each one is not only a unique weapon for repelling the zombie horde, but a whole character, complete with a biography. Both the plants and the zombies get well-written, often hilarious entries in the Suburban Almanac, which is a source of both entertainment and valuable information.
The shine doesn't come off the game until you've completed ALL the mini-games, and ALL the puzzle levels, and ALL the survival modes, earning of course a golden trophy for each one. Even then, there are a handful of high score modes, and the surprisingly addictive Zen Garden, a mellow side pursuit which may awaken a gardening version of the Pokemon catch-em-all ethos in you. If I could cross-breed plants to produce new mutated soldiers for battle, you would not be reading this review right now, because I wouldn't have been able to physically tear myself away from the game to write it.
The only real problem is that Plants vs. Zombies never does get very difficult. This is partly due to the silky-smooth learning curve. You barely notice the increasing challenge, since your skills and resources grow perfectly to match it. The other reason is that there isn't really a very wide range of strategy. Many of the later plants are just slight alterations on earlier ones, gauged to the needs of the current enemies. Despite a massive effort to inject variety by mixing mini-games right into the main adventure, many levels feel too similar to each other. This is especially true at the start of a level, when you're setting up the first few sunflowers the same way you did the last twenty times.
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But these minor hiccups pale in the face of the endless barrage of cheerful absurdity. The fact that a zombie's first choice of armor is an orange road cone hat. The way a potato mine explodes with a deep-fried SPUD-OW! The angry eyebrows on a powered-up pea-shooter. Of course a zombie comes in riding an ice-making zamboni; it's a ZOMBoni! Of course a zombie bobsled team comes in after that; there's ice for them to slide on!
Without a doubt, this is one of the defining casual games of this generation. If you're a fan of Insaniquarium or Farm Frenzy, this is a no-BRAAAAIIINer (sorry), but there is enough quirky appeal in this title to seduce practically anyone. PopCap proves that following a goofy idea to ridiculous extremes can be a winning proposition. There won't be any Plants vs. Zombies clones, because you could never copy its force of personality. Highly recommended.