Plants vs. Zombies is a strategy game. Your garden is a grid, and in each slot, you have to place units (plants, in this case) that all serve different purposes, destroy all the zombies that approach your house and do everything within your power to avoid having your brains eaten. Much like a real-time strategy game, everything hinges on managing your resources, which, in this case, is sunlight. In order for you to build anything, you must collect little orbs of sunlight, which can be found falling from the sky (daytime stages only) or are produced by some of the plants that you grow. Once you have resources, it's all about setting up the perfect defense.
Unlike most tower defense games, where enemies move around a twisting, winding path and you end up placing towers out of harm's way along the path, Plants vs. Zombies is set up in very straightforward lanes. Stages usually have five lanes that need to be handled, and zombies will lurch toward a house on that lane. Most of your plants are also limited to a single lane, so you'll often find yourself in an operation where you need to set up five very similar-looking lines of defense. As the game wears on, you'll get plants that can deal out damage in several lanes, and you'll find that these become absolute lifesavers toward the end of the game.
As each stage begins, you get an overview of the state of the lanes. Sometimes every block will be open to you, sometimes there may be tombstones blocking some routes, you may have to place pots to use up certain spaces on the board, and in one case, there's even a giant pool in the middle of the level. If there's something going on in the level that's out of the ordinary, you'll get a blurb from the only human character in the game, Crazy Dave. He's completely insane, often hilarious and radiates charm.
Next, you'll be shown a screen where you can select which plants to bring into the stage with you. You need to select carefully here, as there are several dozen plants to choose from and you need to pick in accordance with the kinds of zombies that will be appearing in the stage, which is also shown on this screen. Once you've made your picks, the gameplay will start up. Any items that you've purchased at Crazy Dave's shop will go into effect, such as the incredibly useful rake that decapitates the first zombie on each level. Then you must rely on your talents at setting up plants in a defensive formation versus the zombie onslaught. As the level proceeds, you'll be given warnings that, "A massive wave is approaching," and the zombies will suddenly throw everything they have at you, and this is really where your defenses are most likely to get breached and your brains removed from your virtual skull. When the final massive wave is finished and you've successfully defended your home, the last zombie will drop an item, which can be a new plant, a note from the zombies, and even … a magical taco.
That's how the majority of the stages in the main adventure mode play out, but every now and then, the formula changes changed to break up the flow of Plants vs. Zombies. Some levels remove the sun and slowly hand you plants with which to set up defenses, and it's up to you to use what the game gives you effectively. Even these start to get some variety toward the end of the game, with one level having flashes of lightning as your only source of light and another featuring a boss battle against a single mega zombie.
Adventure mode goes through five different stages, each with 10 levels. Each stage introduces a new element to the gameplay, such as needing to determine pot placement, swimming pools, the lack of sunlight, or some heavy fog that covers half of the stage and creates visibility issues. If you've ever played any games like this before, you'll find Plants vs. Zombies to be a bit on the easy side, as it doesn't present much of a challenge until the final few stages.
The other game modes are where you'll find most of the challenge and replay value. A more difficult version of the main adventure mode is available, but the main offering here are the new gameplay modes that you unlock as you play. The biggest and most original of these offerings is the Mini-games mode, where you'll find several twists on the original formula to keep things fresh. . My favorite one is where you're basically playing Bejeweled with your plants. Zombies are attacking and the plants attack back, but you will only win once you've made a certain number of combos. Making combos earns you money that you can spend to upgrade your plants or fill in holes created by zombies.
Puzzle mode hands you a set amount of resources and a very specific goal to accomplish. Some of these are OK, but the big draw here is that some of the puzzle stages have you taking on the role of the zombies and breaking through the defenses so you can munch on some brains. According to Crazy Dave, he was asked to help them train on invading homes.
After you beat the game, you'll probably end up spending most of your time in the Survival mode, where you'll be asked to survive for a certain amount of time on each of the maps. If you can pull it off, you'll unlock an endless mode, where the goal is to last as long as you can, which could keep you occupied for days, weeks, months ….
Popcap once again proves itself as a force to be reckoned with as far as artistic charm is concerned with Plants vs. Zombies. All of the graphics in the game are 2-D sprites, but they are all incredibly charming and inventive. Watching a Michael Jackson zombie moonwalk on-screen, summon his support dancers and do the "Thriller" dance toward your home never ceases to be amusing. This seems to be a trend popping up in gaming, and it's wonderfully effective: If we can't make you fear the zombie, we'll make you love it.
Popcap also seems to know exactly what it's doing with sound. Zombies are very fond of mumbling, "Brainssssssssss" as they shamble toward you, each plant has a unique sound effect to let you know when it's fired and when it's hit something, and the soundtrack is simple but wonderfully effective. The final reward for beating the game is actually the biggest part of the soundtrack, which would have been more impressive if the song and video hadn't already been used as a previous trailer for the game. (If you're interested, look up "Zombie on Your Lawn.")
Plants vs. Zombies is a wonderful take on the tower defense sub-genre of strategy gaming. Popcap has successfully boiled down the formula into something that the casual gaming crowd can enjoy, and while experienced gamers may find it easy, more challenge awaits once you've already beaten the game. The game may drag on for a little too long through the middle sections of the campaign, but the rest is a blast and comes highly recommended to anyone who loves zombies or strategy games. You'll get a much better deal for the game if you purchase it on Steam, as it's priced to move at $10, while it's listed on the Popcap Web site for $20.
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