Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Plants vs. Zombies

by PopCap Games

Huh? I review something the day after it comes out? Pure chance. A quick surf around the intarwebs tells me that this game came hotly anticipated, and yet here I was, in my cave, completely unaware.

I logged onto Steam yesterday and literally just stumbled onto to this, still not realizing that I was looking at it on the day of its release and that a gajillion people everywhere else were slobbering all over it. I just thought, "Hmm, could be fun," and downloaded the demo.

Thirty minutes later my wallet unhinged and money changed hands. 10 dollars is a hard price to argue with when the game is so damned fun.

I have never played tower defense games before, so the concept is still fresh to me. Someone with more experience in the genre might find this game a little less exciting, but from what I hear, it's got enough innovation to please even the most jaded stalwart.

The concept and gameplay go as follows: You defend your cartoony house from hordes of cartoony zombies through the cunning placement of plants. Vegetable-flinging hilarity ensues.

It has a lot of the elements of ye olde real-time strategy game, but the resource management and tech-tree aspects are simplified, while strategic focus is on defense and careful positioning.

Where this game really suceeds is in its immense variety. Playing through adventure mode yields five different environments, each with their own rules and considerations. Every ten levels, just when things are about to get repetitive, you change scenarios and the game changes dramatically. Outside adventure mode are even more gameplay options. In fact, the game's 50 levels are really just prelude to all the other modes of play, (Yes, I already played through adventure mode - I got that hooked. I haven't devoured a game like this since 5th grade when all I played were rentals).

In all you have up to 48 different plants to fight with. Yes, with that many weapons there is some overlap and imbalance, but PopCap really has done a good job spreading out the utility. They found an awful lot of design space in what is a terribly straightforward genre. It helps that the Zombie horde is similarly varied, offering up new problems to be solved and anticipated by the player.

With all that said, the game is a little, well, casual, which doesn't bother me but might bother others. It's really not very hard and for all the variety in the game certain basic strategies still emerge as dominant. Most of the game's problematic units can be solved with emergency one-time-use explosives or something similar, leaving you to wallow in your repetitive horde strategy if you want to. It isn't until you play survival mode on hard difficulty that you are thrown enough curveballs to actually necessitate playing a more well-rounded defense.

And yet I'm still hooked. This might be a product of it being my first tower defnse game, in which case I'm still thrilling with the discovery of a fun new genre.

Certainly the demo could be better. It sucked me in because the concept was so fresh to me, but I think it is a huge, almost arrogant risk to limit your player to 30 minutes (Total! Forever!) when you could just give them the first ten levels and let the game sell itself.