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If you listen to our podcast (which you should), hearing that I’m a PopCap fan isn’t much of a surprise. I really dig the way they put so much more into their games than you expect. Sometimes it’s little things, sometimes it’s big things. Sometimes it’s stuff that’s just entirely unexpected. And sometimes, in the case of Plants vs. Zombies, the new (vaguely) tower defense-style game from PopCap, it’s lots of things. For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been playing the review Beta of PvZ and in a word, I think it’s fantastic. Hit the clicky thingie to read why…

Let’s start with the premise, which also happens to be the title: Plants vs. Zombies. There’s no shortage of zombie survival stuff in the world of gaming, but how many times have you defended yourself from the zombie horde with plants?!

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When you first get into the game, you start out only with access to Adventure mode. This takes you through five stages of increasingly-challenging levels, each of which yields a new plant that you have access to, or some kind of upgrade or access to another part of PvZ. The five stages are your Front Yard, Front Yard at Night, Back Yard (with a pool!), Back Yard at Night (with fog!) and your Roof. Through all five stages, there’s one constant:


In fact, keeping them from eating your brain is your primary concern. To do this, you plant a combination of resource-producing, offensive and defensive plants on the playfield. Plants produce resources in the form of sunshine. During the day, there’s also sunshine that occurs naturally, from that big, burning ball in the sky, aka, the sun. You gather sun, which gives you sun points. You spend your sun points on new plants. Sunflowers are an obvious early choice since they give you more sun and, hence, the ability to buy more plants. Early on, you only have access to plants like the Pea Shooter, which shoots peas at zombies to knock off an arm, then a head, then take ’em down once and for all. And so PvZ begins, with a couple of simple, yet important plants. Plants that will keep the zombies from…say it with me…EATING YOUR BRAINS!

Keep in mind that aside from a sun point cost, plants also have a recharge rate. Some recharge slowly and others more quickly. Learning these recharge rates as you plant your plants will help form your strategy on each new level.

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Now that you’ve got the gist of it, get ready for some challenging fun, because as I mentioned, every time you finish a level, you gain access to something new. Usually, this is a new plant that gets added to your arsenal. But keep in mind that even if you have 20 plants from which to choose (eventually you’ll have many more than 20), you only have a limited number of seed packet slots to fill on any given level. You start out with just 6, so you need to make the most of it. As each level begins, you’ll see a quick pan over to the side of your yard to see what type of zombies will be attacking you during the level. Each time you get a new plant or encounter a new zombie type, info about each shows up in the Almanac, which you can reference at any time to help you decide on a strategy. So seeing the types of zombies that you’ll have to face on a level is helpful in using all of that info to pick the best plants for that level.

But don’t be fooled early on in the game…while PvZ is pretty easy at first, it quickly gets challenging, forcing you to carefully decide on a balance between resource production, offense and defense. Sometimes the strategy you have in mind simply won’t work on that level and you’ll have to try again. And even when you finish all 50 levels of the Adventure, there’s PLENTY more where that came from!

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At some point in PvZ, you start collecting coins and gems, which go into a pool of money that you can use to buy upgrades for your plants and other defenses, as well as things for your Zen Garden. Your Zen Garden is activated later in the game, and is a place where you grow and nurture various plants that produce more money for your bank account. With more money, you can buy more seed slots, upgrades and other niceties for use throughout PvZ.

There are also mini-games that you can play, all within the context of the PvZ theme and artwork. Some of these will be instantly recognizable to PopCap fans, such as Beghouled and Beghouled Twist (heh) and Zombiequarium. Others are original to PvZ but no less entertaining. Some of the ones I had a particularly tough or fun time with are ZomBotany (you battle Zombies with the heads replaced with the same type of plants you can use against them…these are tough mini-games!), Column Like You See ‘Em (where you plant an entire column of plants at a time), Last Stand (where you start out with 5000 sun points and pick your plants…and get no more sun for the entire level!) and one of my personal nightmares, Bobseld Bonanza…I still haven’t beaten this level…ugh!

Then there are the Puzzle games, which fall into two categories: Vasebreaker and I, Zombie. In Vasebreaker puzzle levels, you smash open vases that have either plants or zombies in them. Plant the plants you find to keep the zombies you find at bay. A very fun and clever twist on the game. I, Zombie pits you as the zombies against the plants over 10 levels, each with its own theme and challenge. These were a lot of fun as well. The last Vasebreaker and I, Zombie level are “endless” levels where you just keep going and going, collecting a flag at the end of each round and seeing how many flags you can get.

Then, there’s Survival mode, where you build up your playfield of plants over the course of five rounds per level. In other words, you start out a Survival mode level just like you would a normal Adventure mode level: By picking your seeds for the plants you want to use. But at the end of the round, rather than going to the next round, you continue the level by picking new plants…but the plants you already have stay planted. It’s actually a lot of fun and quite hair-raising at times. Once you finish the day, night, pool, fog and roof levels of Survival mode, you move onto the hard versions of each of those. I shouldn’t have to say this, but they’re REALLY HARD. So much so that after a while you might be frustrated enough to EAT YOUR OWN BRAINS!

And if you make it past all 10 “normal” levels of Survival mode, Survival mode Endless awaits you, where you just keep going and going and going, collecting a flag after each round.

So what about the stars of the game…the plants and zombies? Well, there are lots of them. I don’t want to give away too much, because it’ll spoil the fun of discovering and gaining access to them all during the course of playing PvZ, but let me take this opportunity to segue into talking about some of the reasons why PopCap are so successful. As in many of their games, there’s a lot in the way of fun details that make the game even better than the gameplay alone makes it. For instance, the art and animation style in PvZ is so much fun. The plants dance, sway, bob, blink, grunt and more as they work for you against the zombies. One of my favorites, the Squash, is a grumpy-looking gourd who sits where you plant him, bobbing up and down with a permanent scowl, waiting for a zombie or two to get close. When they do, Squash looks  over at them, grunts a “Huh?!” and jumps up and over onto them, squashing any zombie (well, almost any zombie) unlucky enough to be underneath at that moment.

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The zombies, too, are fun and often clever, each serving a distinct purpose. Sometimes even with a porpoise (you’ll find out). Again, I don’t want to spoil too much of the fun and discovery, but here’s the text from the Alamanc entry for the Snorkel Zombie, as an example:

Snorkel Zombie
Snorkel Zombie can swin underwater
Toughness: low
Special: submerges to avoid attacks
Only appears in the pool
Zombies don’t breathe. They don’t need air. So why does Snorkel Zombie need a snorkel to swim underwater? Answer: Peer pressure.

It’s fun, goofy stuff like that that, in part, makes Plants vs. Zombies so much fun to play and just to take in. And it’s not just the fun, whimsical, animated graphics, either. The music and sound effects are also great, providing the same kind of cartoon-creepy tone you might experience in the best Scooby-Doo episodes (but without the ’70s-specific vibe). You’ll probably smile (and get a bit tense) every time the little sound effect plays to let you know that “the zombies…are coming!” (yes, you’ll hear that spoken by the zombies as well) or every time you hear a zombie say “Brains!”. And you’ll dread other sound effects, like the sound of water splashing behind the fog in your pool at night, when you didn’t just plant something there. Uh oh.

This game is a blast to play, look at, listen to and laugh with. If I have any gripe about the game, it’s that the cursors used are the standard system cursors (or what look an awful lot like them). I’d prefer a bigger-scale cursor (a gloved hand with a green thumb?) not only to match the whimsy of the rest of the graphics, but because those tiny pointer and hand cursors easily get lost among the mayhem you’ll unleash in PvZ. Not that I want the game to be less challenging, but I want it to be challenging because of what’s going on in the game, and not because I can’t find my cursor. But this is a very small nit to pick with an otherwise superb effort.

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In the end, it’s not any one thing, but a whole bunch of things that make Plants vs. Zombies so much fun and so awesome: A simple but challenging concept, fun visuals, great soundtrack, fantastic variety in gameplay (especially for a casual game) and a healthy (or, not so healthy, if you happen to be a zombie) dose of humor. You will spend many hours playing PvZ and over those many hours, you’ll discover new ways to keep the zombies from EATING YOUR BRAINS! And if you haven’t done so already, you’ll see exactly why PopCap has such a stellar reputation for doing what they do.