It's an absolutely insane premise, but it works. Zombies are invading, the only other human around wears a pot on his head (hiya, Crazy Dave!), and as for weapons … well, those plants mean some serious business! We're talking about PopCap's Plants vs. Zombies, of course, which took the PC by storm last year (as well as the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch). A zany and hilarious take on the tower defense genre, Plants vs. Zombies is finally making the jump to consoles, with an XBLA release scheduled for September 8.
If you've never played Plants vs. Zombies, be sure to check out our review of the PC version, which covers the basics. Everything that's in there will also be in the XBLA version, but as they say on late night infomercials, "That's not all, folks." Plants vs. Zombies for XBLA features a host of new goodies, including co-op and versus mode. Yep, you can now play as the zombies.
Sitting down with the game at a zombie BBQ, versus mode was definitely the highlight of the night — with the possible exception of the live dancing zombies and sunflower girls. Hey, it's PopCap; that's how they roll. Back to the game, versus mode pits you in a one-on-one battle against a friend. One player takes on the traditional role of the plants, while the other mans the zombie hordes. For the plants, the goal is the same as in single-player: keep the zombies away from the house. The zombie side simply has to get one man, er, undead, inside the house to win.
In order for the plants to win, they must eliminate three of the zombie targets. Do that, and the zombie hordes go down in defeat. Why the zombies have seemingly supernatural bull's-eyes that they carry around cannot be explained, but just go with it. It works.
Playing as the zombies is similar to playing as the plants, but with a twist. First off, your play field area is smaller. The zombie hordes only get three columns to build in; the plants get the rest. Secondly, the zombies don't use sun as a resource. Instead they use brainz. Brainz are gathered from tombstones, which also double as walls. While they're protecting your magic targets, they're also giving you a constant supply of brainz.
The team at PopCap has put a lot of effort into balancing the two sides, ensuring that neither player has an advantage when dropping into versus mode. They may play differently, but both the plants and the zombies are evenly matched. When playing quick play, each side gets a random selection of troop cards dropped into their available army, but if you switch to a custom match, you can select which troops you want to have available. Plants choose first, and then you alternate back and forth with your selections. This way, if your opponent chooses a particular plant (or zombie) you can be sure to add the correct counter to your army.
If you're not the competitive type, Plants vs. Zombies XBLA offers a drop-in, drop-out co-op mode. You can have a second player join the adventure at any time. When playing co-op adventure mode, both players fight as a united front. Standard levels have you collecting sun resources and planting troops as normal, while special modes, such as wall-nut bowling, switch things up a bit.
In bowling, the available wall-nuts appeared automatically on a conveyer belt. Either player could fire off the wall-nuts, but you also have the option to choose another seed packet. If a standard wall-nut is up next, but there is a red one queued up behind it, you can skip to the explosive red one, which is a great way to take out a crowd of zombies.
Using butter in co-op is another incredibly useful technique. When the zombie hordes get too close, sometimes you just need to take a breather. Either player can freeze a zombie in place by putting a slab of butter on its head. Doing so blinds the zombie and prevents it from moving, but it also ties up the player who's holding the butter button. How many games do you know that have a butter button? Didn't think so. It's wacky, but like everything else in the game, it just works.
Puzzle mode makes a reappearance in the XBLA version of the game, as does the minigame mode, though there is a console-exclusive minigame. The PopCap XBLA title, Heavy Weapon, has been re-imagined for Plants vs. Zombies. In this mode, your pea shooter is mounted on a lawnmower at the bottom of the screen. Rather than planting troops, you move your pea shooter left and right, shooting zombies with the right stick and collecting sun power. When you use a seed packet, it upgrades your solo shooter, giving you increased firepower to take on the hordes.
Coming from platforms with mouse and touch-screen support, it was important to get the controls right for Plants vs. Zombies XBLA, but after playing for an hour, it's safe to say that PopCap has nailed the controls. Core movement is done with the joystick, seed packets are selected with the bumpers, and they even added an automatic sun collector button. Just hold the right trigger to automatically gather any suns (or brainz) that are on-screen. It's a nice touch that allows you to focus on strategy rather than collection of resources.
Visually, the art assets have gotten a boost, with the game looking sharp as tacks on big HDTV displays. Due to a request from the Michael Jackson estate, Thriller Zombie has sadly gone the way of the dodo, but he's been replaced by Disco Zombie, who handles the dancing duties well. One other XBLA specific tweak worth mentioning is the custom house, which serves as a sort of leaderboard. The house reflects your progress, so you can see how you're doing with a quick glance.
Plants vs. Zombies for XBLA is looking like it's going to be another home run for PopCap. If you've never played the game before, it's a highly addicting single-player experience. If you have played the game, versus mode is going to draw you back in for more, and for now, both co-op and versus modes are exclusive to the XBLA version of Plants vs. Zombies. We'll have the final verdict once the game plants its seeds next month.
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