Zombies. Along with Nazis and aliens, they have to be the most overused antagonists in videogames. I’ve lost count of how many rotten heads I’ve blasted apart with shotguns over the years. However, it’s obvious just from the title that Plants vs. Zombies from PopCap Games is something different entirely. No shotguns or chainsaws here - your only weapon against the hordes of the damned are a bunch of flowers and mushrooms.
Each level of the single-player campaign features an army of zombies that advance on your position in waves. At the beginning of each level, you must choose what plants to take into battle. Strategy here is vital - you have a limited number of slots, and a poor choice will see your brains in the colon of a corpse in no time.
As soon as you’ve chosen your arsenal, the level begins. Zombies begin to shuffle in from the right of the screen and it’s your job to stop them reaching the left. Sounds simple, but it takes careful micro-management to build up a formidable defence. You need glowing orbs of sun to plant flowers, but these only fall occasionally from the sky during the day - and not at all during levels set at night. You’ll need to plant sunflowers to create more of the orbs, but the sunflowers also need sun themselves to be planted. Balance is the key, and it’s easy to get wrong.
Then there’s the sheer variety of zombies to consider. At first you’ll only encounter the typical, slow, dumb-as-nails type. Halfway through the game, you’ll have to fight back zombie bobsled teams and Thriller-style dancers that can raise their own zombies as backing dancers. Things get frantic in a hurry.
Luckily, you have an impressive variety of plants - over 40 in all - to kick some decomposing arse with. The bog-standard pea-shooters are quickly upgraded to rapid-fire sentries, while aquatic weeds can pull zombies to their watery graves in the pool level. Some of the plants can even be combined to devastating effect. Stick a pea-shooter before a flaming log, and the bullets will turn into flammable missiles. Mmm, flambé zombie. Some of the zombies will drop coins when killed, which you can use in a store to buy further plant upgrades.
Controls are as simple as you’d hope. Drag a plant to an empty spot, then release to place it there. Click on the shovel icon, then an unwanted plant to dig it up. Click on a sun orb or a coin to pick it up. That’s pretty much it, and that’s definitely a good thing. As soon as you advance past the first few levels, things pick up in pace and you’ll be clicking manically to get everything set up in time. The learning curve is pretty much perfect however, thanks to the gradual introduction of new plant and zombie types. You’ll have plenty of time to try out different strategies, without ever getting frustrated.
The graphics in Plants vs. Zombies are an absolute joy. Their basic, colourful and cartoony nature fit the tongue-in-rotting-cheek atmosphere perfectly. Your plants bob to the music while they fight off attacks, and the zombies themselves look suitably grim. They’ll gradually fall apart, losing limbs and chunks of flesh as they’re pounded with bullets, until finally their heads pop clean off. Of course, in true zombie fashion they’ll still stagger on a step or two before collapsing in a rotting heap. My only complaint is that most of the plants don’t show any damage, so it’s hard to tell how close they are to death. The only real exception are the nut shields, which look increasingly more miserable as zombies munch on them.
Sound is also fitting, with sinister cartoony tunes playing over the zombie attacks. Each wave is accompanied by a series of grunts and calls for ‘brrraaaaains!’ It may be cliché, but it’s hugely fun and adds to the atmosphere. The only thing that’s missing is the fantastic song from the trailer - I’d quite happily listen to it on repeat in every single level.
As you progress through the campaign, you’ll unlock mini-games and a survival mode which provide a good bit of variety. Some of the minigames are variations on standard levels - such as the conveyor belt game, where you can only plant what comes along on a belt at the top of the screen. There’s also a fun puzzle mode, which lets you take the role of the zombies as they try and fight their way through a pre-set defence. It’s a simple twist but perfect in execution.
Plants vs. Zombies is well worth your time and money. I’ve sat here trying to think of negative points, but the few that come to mind are nitpicky at best. It’s the kind of game you can stick on for either five minutes or five hours, thanks to its simple nature and addictive gameplay. Even if you somehow tire of the campaign, the puzzle modes and mini-games are enough to keep anyone amused for some considerable time. Put it this way - while I’m writing these very words, I’m thinking about strategies to beat my record time in survival mode. Something that lodges itself in your (delicious) brain like that is well worthy of the highest recommendation.