Plants vs. Zombies (WP) Reviews

    05 Apr 2012
    10 4 0
    What do you get when you mix sunflowers, peas, walnuts and mushrooms? Not some weird kind of waldorf salad, but rather the last line of defence against the coming zombie apocalypse, at least according to Popcap Games in their legendarily successful tower defence game, Plants vs. Zombies, which was finally released onto the Windows Phone 7 as part of Microsoft’s ‘Summer of Must Have games’.

    The game is set around a typical suburban household, with different stages taking place in the front and back yard and on the rooftop of the house as the zombies spend day and night trying to find a way past the plants to break in and eat your brains (You can’t say you weren’t warned, they kindly leave notes warning you of their desire to eat your brains in advance, signed ‘the Zombiez’).

    The game plays over 50 levels of standard ‘adventure’ mode as you collect sun drops that allow you put down various plants to defend your house from the invading zombies. The range of plants at your disposal is truly inspired, with peashooters firing pea bullets, wall-nuts to provide a wall of resistance and a squash that…well, squashes zombies. The zombies are equally inventive, using cones and buckets for helmets and scuba gear to advance through your swimming pool, though as zombies they don’t need to breath oxygen according to the in-game almanac, allegedly they wear the scuba gear because of ‘peer pressure’ from other zombies.

    There are also 20 mini-games, from wall-nut bowling to a zombie slot machine as well as the expected ‘Survival’ mode and the unexpected ‘Zen Garden’ mode, where you can grow and tend to your plants to earn extra money that you use to buy power-ups as the game progresses. The standard of these sections of the game is consistently high and taken as a package provide as many hours of play as the standard ‘adventure’ mode, if not more.

    The tower defence genre is ideally suited to the touch-screen nature of the Smartphone market and as such it has become crowded with such games in recent years. On the Windows Phone alone there are several zombie-based tower defence games such as Zombie Attack 2! and Bye Bye Brain. For many casual gamers their first taste of the genre will have come through PvZ and despite the challenges from numerous competitors over the past two years it still holds up well. Its release on the Windows Phone 7 comfortably catapults it to the top as the best tower defence game available on the system.

    The controls handle perfectly and the whole game looks and sounds great on my Samsung Omnia 7 (particularly with my super-duper 4-inch Super-AMOLED screen, but I digress). What Windows Phone 7 offers gamers that no other mobile platform can is the ability to link the game to your Xbox LIVE account and as expected PvZ is Xbox LIVE enabled, meaning it has Xbox achievements and online leaderboards, which also helps justify its slightly higher price compared to the iOS and Android versions. As an aside, it would be good if future WP7 updates would enable Popcap to incorporate the various multiplayer options present in the Xbox Live Arcade version, especially if it meant players on the Xbox could play with friends using their phones.

    The achievements are thought through and balanced, avoiding the tedious ‘Play this 10,000 times’ awards too many games go for and instead using them to encourage you to learn different strategies to win and delve into the various game modes you unlock as you play through the main game. By the time you collect all the achievements you will have explored everything the game has to offer, including hypnotising a disco zombie, which is exactly what achievements should encourage you to do (explore the game not hypnotise disco zombies, though that would be a cool thing to do).

    From the level design to the graphics to the humour, everything PvZ does it does superbly. It’s not even that PvZ necessarily does anything unique with the genre but as with so many of the top games in the market – Angry Birds being another ‘Windows Phone 7 Must-Have Game’ that falls into this category – it just does what it needs to do extremely well.

    Compare it to the clone game Leave Devil Alone on the iPhone. There is nothing wrong with it and it does what it does perfectly well, but you can see from the screenshots alone it is more derivative in nature than PvZ and lacks the originality in its humour and design. It fails to capture an element of distinctiveness in the way that PvZ seemed to so effortlessly upon its original release. LDA is certainly a well polished and crafted game but as Einstein said, talent is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration and that’s the difference between the two – the 1% of inspiration that takes PvZ to a completely different level to its competitors.

    The music is probably the best example of this. Composed by Laura Shigihara, the girlfriend of the game’s director George Fan, the music is filmic in its quality without being unimaginatively derivative. The kooky yet light-hearted creepiness fits in perfectly with the ‘zombies in the suburbs’ image of the game and is reminiscent of films like The ‘Burbs and Beetlejuice. It didn’t surprise me to learn that the intention was to write something in the vein of Danny Elfman, who scored the music for the latter as well as numerous Tim Burton classics such as Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride. Too often today game music, particularly for mobile gaming, seems unimaginative in its scope and is often either a poor imitation of an epic orchestral piece or an irritatingly out of place dance tune. The quality of the music in PvZ is another reason the overall package stands out a mile in the marketplace and it fully deserved its own soundtrack release for download.

    This is not to say PvZ is perfect in every way. The learning curve is probably a little too flat and it’s easy to complete most of the adventure mode without losing a life. The enjoyment the game provides still provides value for money for more hardcore gamers but those looking for the toughest of challenges won’t find it in PvZ.

    While most of the game is pitch-perfect in its use of humour, the character of ‘Crazy Dave’, who plays your helpful neighbour and guide, is a bit of a let-down. The humour falls flat and the overall effect is that the necessary character of a ‘guide’ to help you through the different stages feels a bit wasted given the quality and inventiveness of the humour elsewhere.

    These are though, small quibbles with a mighty package. PvZ is undeniably the premier tower defence game in the world at the moment and the status is richly deserved. The game has been ported over to Windows Phone 7 with the same care and attention that was put into its original creation and its addition to the WP7 marketplace is welcome indeed, although Popcap could do with adding a download link to their own site, which is currently advertising the other mobile platforms but not yet that of WP7.

    Upon its release PvZ perfectly captured the pop cultural zeitgeist of the ‘zombie’ phenomena, which has seen a resurgence in popularity to the point where there are annual ‘zombie walks’ across the world. It successfully captures the comedic aspect of their shuffling assault on society and integrates it seamlessly into the tower defence genre, uniquely turning them into lovable if deadly idiots in the process.

    PvZ was a high-water mark for Popcap Games when it was originally released back in 2009 on the PC and Mac and it is again for the WP7 platform. With the capabilities of the platform about to expand massively with the eagerly awaited Mango update and promises of further integration with Xbox LIVE it’ll be fascinating to see if any other games can match it. At the moment ironically it’s a game called Zombies!!! which in my opinion pushes it closest. For now though, PvZ stands a zombiefied head and shoulders above the competition.

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