Last Halloween, it was brought to my attention that I could download Plants vs Zombies on Steam for free. I followed the instructions, downloaded it, and fully expected it to sit on my harddrive forever and be untouched. Like most Steam users, I have amassed a substantial library of games I will probably never play but I keep on the off chance that one day the apocalypse will come and I won’t have anything to do except play through all those numerous games. I thought PvZ would one of those games. It didn’t seem like my kind of game at all. Cutesy and of the tower defence genre, it was very much one of those Facebook/iOS games which don’t take my fancy at all. But I was wrong…oh so wrong. And now with PvZ 2 coming out on iOS platforms soon, I thought it’d be good to talk about why this game surpasses the regular ilk of free tower defence flash games you get online and why I was so addicted to it last Halloween.
For those who don’t know what tower defence involves, the basic premise of PvZ is that you have a lawn consisting of 6 lanes and 9 columns, and you must place plants in good spots to stop the oncoming hoard of zombies who want to eat your brains. The resource in this game is sunshine, which you get randomly but is also generated by Sunflowers. You have a variety of plants which have different abilities and you unlock more as you progress through the campaign. There’s the standard peashooter which fires a pea periodically and its various upgrades (shoot two peas, shoot three peas in separate lanes etc.), there’s defensive structures like Wallnuts, and there’s also traps like the potato mine which activates after some time. The zombies range from your standard, slow-crawling idiots to zombies who wear metal buckets all the way to zombies who ride on lawnmowers and zombies who float by on balloons.
The variety in this game is staggering. There are so many different plants and so many different zombies, that each level of the game feels like a new challenge. There is not just one optimal way to play (though I think most people develop a general style and have their preferences) and there is so much scope for creative manoeuvring. Plus, as you progress through the levels, there is a decent amount of change which increases the challenge. For example, you might switch to defending your back yard which has a swimming pool through the middle of it and only water plants can be placed there (or you have to put down lilypads which normal plants can then rest on). You might also have to defend your house and brain at night, which involves using nocturnal mushroom plants. Towards the end, the zombies are even attacking your roof which is sloped so you must use catapult plants. Overall, the amount of content in this game far surpasses any other tower defence I’ve seen available online for free, and that’s a huge part why it’s so replayable.
Plus, there’s all the stuff outside of the campaign which pad the game out further. There’s a puzzle mode, which contains a variety of different puzzles but all of them are a nice break from the usually frantic, action packed levels of the main story. There’s also minigames which are actually quite fun and good for a short, time-waster. But you also tend a zen garden which is strangely addictive. You buy plants with currency earned in game, and you tend them by watering them, giving them fertiliser and even playing music to them. You can then sell fully grown plants for a profit and use it to buy new plants. After a few weeks, I had a full zen garden growing and there was just something very cathartic about methodically watering each plant, fertilising the ones that needed it and collecting all the gold they spit out as a result of your good care. I wish I was as dedicated to my plants in real life as I was to these virtual ones! But even if you don’t care for all these extra gubbins, the story mode is more than enough to keep you occupied for a good couple of hours. Plus, given the variety, there is a lot of replay value and you can experiment with different combinations of plants and figure out the most effective ways (or fun ways) to deal with the increasingly diverse hordes of zombies.
What really sets PvZ apart though is just the extremely high level of polish in this game. The graphics are adorable and each plant has so much personality. The zombies, of course, are suitably grotesque looking in that very cartoony way but even they can be pretty amusing. For example, there is a dancing zombie which cracks me up every time he comes into play, as he’s a bad parody of a 60s disco diva. I almost feel bad blowing him up with a cherry bomb. The levels, as I said, switch it up occasionally and that keeps a high level of fun throughout. Even though the plots are laid out the same way, the extra challenges and restrictions gives this tower defence game a lot of depth. Also, the addition of lawnmowers at the end of the row (one use insta-killing machines) adds an extra layer of strategy (do I give up a lawnmower or do I sacrifice a plant? Should I use this lawnmower to instantly clear the whole wave of hard to destroy zombies, or save it for a tight spot?). The sound is suitably cheery and quite addictive, though it can get very repetitive. The sound assets though are wonderful, and all the little sound effects throughout the game are very charming. The zombie noises are spot on and the satisfying clink of a pea bouncing off a metal bucket helmet is just very rewarding. The general design aesthetic is both cute and hilarious. When you lose a level and the splash screen comes up that says ZOMBIES ATE YOUR BRAINS, it’s hard not to laugh the first time at just how comical the situation is. Furthermore, there’s random cultural references in places such as the Monty Python reference (Dead Parrot sketch) on the gravestones on the main menu. Altogether, this makes the game feel like a well-constructed, high quality game whose creators put in a lot of love and effort into it. It is difficult to play for only a short amount of time because it is just so charming.
You see, this game is all about the slow trickle of rewards to keep you addicted. You unlock a new type of plant every level you complete, which adds to that whole feeling of ‘Must play one more…just one more…’ and keeps the game very fresh. Unlike other tower defence games which feel stale after you’ve established one optimal set-up, Plants vs Zombies encourages you to try out new combinations. I nearly always incorporated the newly unlocked plant into my line up, just to see how it would fare. My general strategy was to plant so many Sunflowers to get so much sunshine that I could effectively play whatever plants I wanted. At the start, this involved using the bare minimum of cheap plants to divert the zombies away from my growing Sunflower plant. Once I had two columns established, it was time to unleash my more powerful plants and decimate the zombie front lines. Of course, this strategy wouldn’t work all the time. Some levels overwhelm you at the beginning. All levels contain moments where a zombie swarm is incoming, forcing you to use a lot of resources immediately to try to dissipate the crowd. The levels are well-paced, and the constant threat of being overwhelmed by a swarm forces you to make smart decisions. The design is just so addictive, and it’s something which PopCap have honed to a tee in this game.
Now, with the announcement of Plants vs Zombies 2, I am eager to get back into this thoroughly addicting game, except this time on my iPhone. I am disappointed that it won’t be coming to PC (or at least, it hasn’t been announced), but I think it will still serve the same purpose: being an addictive, light and thoroughly entertaining game designed to be played when you have a bit of time to spare. From the details leaked so far, the developers look to be expanding the stages into new territories such as Egypt and the Wild West. I’m looking forward to just more of the same game, with more variety and new plants/zombies to deal with. Plus, the game promises to be free to play with in-app purchases but the developers have clearly stated that you can complete the whole game without spending a dime. As someone who has never paid for in-app purchases, I hope they stay true on that promise, and I look forward to playing Plants vs Zombies 2, given how much fun the first edition was.
For now, whilst you wait, I highly recommend checking out Plants vs Zombies 1. It’s available on a whole heap of platforms ranging from the DS, PC, Chrome app store to Android and iOS, so whatever is your preferred method of game digestion, you’ll probably find some version of PvZ on there. It’s a very cheap game (I see it’s only a $1 for a HD iPad version, though you’ll have to check individual platforms for their prices) and it really does offer a very meaty package with hours and hours of horribly addictive game play. It’s a game which appeals to people of all ages, so you could give it to your 6 year old little sister to play or you can gift it to your 70 year old grandma, and I’m sure they’ll love it. Even as someone who is an avid gamer and doesn’t usually buy into very casual fare, I think this game will appeal to even those diehard Call of Duty players because it is just so whimsical and fun.
Make sure to protect your brain and go have some fun!