Thursday 14 May 2009

Reviewlet: Plants vs Zombies.

I suppose that since our default sub-heading for this sort of post contains the word ‘review’ I should have some sort of disclaimer here at the start to appease our Internet Overpersonages who think that you can’t review a game without having played every single inch of it TO THE DEATH. Twice. Additionally it’s probably not considered a real review until you’ve performed a Fagan inspection of the source code, checked the UML design for namespace completeness, and stalked the lead developer from a house across the street until you know what their favourite breakfast cereal is, what time they eat each day, and how long on average they spend on the toilet afterwards.

So if you can’t bear to read a review in which the reviewer hasn’t spent the entirety of their life up to this point investigating the genealogy of the game’s creative director in order to determine if they have the correct genetic makeup to produce a fun game, look away now. The rest of you can read on to discover my thoughts on Plants vs Zombies what with me having now played it for a bit[1].

Plants vs Zombies is PopCap Games’ latest offering in that market of games for which they have become famous: that being the electronic entertainment equivalent to viewing the Magic Roundabout whilst simultaneously flushing one’s eyeballs with a crack cocaine solution and eating Galaxy Minstrels. PopCap have distilled the idea of ‘gaming for the sake of simple enjoyment’ to its purest form and they continue this trend of producing unadulterated, beautifully presented and utterly addictive games with their current offering.

I’ve read and listened to a multitude of commentaries on the game and most of them describe PvZ as being a tower defence game. They then go on to explain the various dissimilarities between PvZ and a traditional tower defence game, until one is left wondering if PvZ is perhaps in fact not a tower defence game at all but a first person shooter. Or a small dog in a hat. It’s hard to entirely qualify what PvZ is; where Bejeweled sits distinctly in the puzzle genre, PvZ is part puzzle, part tower defence and part arcade game. Ostensibly though, PvZ is clearly of the family of tower defence games, but very much like Michael Jackson is a member of the family of Jacksons: you can see a few vague resemblances if you look hard enough and perhaps squint your eyes, but clearly a great deal of surgery has happened at some point in order to diminish those resemblances. In the case of PvZ, however, the surgery has been far more successful in giving the tower defence genre a bit of a facelift, rather than turning it into a crazed living representation of Jack Skellington from the Nightmare Before Christmas with a penchant for children.

PvZ does have a penchant for children though – but with entirely non-prosecutable intent – as well as that confusing and somewhat derogatory category of people known as “housewife gamers”, because this is not your traditional tower defence game, where various types of enemy run through a maze of gun towers which have been placed in increasingly bizarre and complex patterns by the player in order to maximise the amount of time that the poor dumb AI units spend jogging under a rain of weapon fire that would make the forests of Apocalypse Now blush. Gone, for example, are the health bars of the enemy units, removing the need to micromanage your towers to any major degree in order to min/max the slaughter potential of your killing field. In place of health bars are subtle visual hints as to how much damage a given zombie has taken, zombie armour (delightfully represented by traffic cones on the head, screen doors held like a shield and such) disintegrates and is destroyed, until the point at which the zombie is close to death whereupon their head falls off in the finest tradition of George A. Romero. Also removed is the freedom to create a complex maze of turrets on a large play map, instead the zombies approach your house in search of brains across a five row, nine column grid that is represented as a lawn to the player (replete with swimming pools and such at later levels to add extra terrain complexity). On this grid one can place a variety of friendly plants which have, over a rather short period of time, evolved an astonishing array of abilities that are perfectly adapted to stopping waves of rampaging zombies. Convenient! All of the character designs in the game, both plants and zombies (not forgetting Crazy Dave who pops up every now and again to lend some friendly, if utterly insane, advice) are typical PopCap: simple yet beautiful and fun. ‘Polished’ is a word we sometimes use to try to convey our feeling when presented with a game whose production values are clearly top notch, as though the game were a brass object placed in the centre of a room formed from the developers’ ideals and well-formed intentions, such that the more the game is polished the more it shines, the more it shines the more it reflects in its surface the room surrounding it, and therefore the more we can see of the now unobstructed intent of its developers; PopCap is synonymous with polished.

Another of the game-play elements to change is that of resources. In more traditional tower defence games the player earns resources by killing the enemy, these resources can then be used to purchase new towers with which to defend against tougher enemies and larger waves of enemies. The more impressive defence towers cost more resources, so the balance is between having many small weak towers or to save up for the more powerful towers at the risk of not having enough defence in the meantime to stop the current wave of enemies from reaching their destination. Essentially what this boils down to is a sort of debugging simulator, where the player compiles their defence and then runs the program and sits there watching how many holes it has in it. As such, many tower defence games include a fast forward option so that players don’t have to endure the less than fascinating game-play element known as ‘sitting on your hands and waiting to be able to play again’; PopCap, on the other hand, have applied their usual RSI-inducing methods to remove the tedium of sitting and waiting for your resources to build for the next round. Plants, being the photosynthesising little blighters that they are, generally require sunlight to power themselves, and the plants in PvZ are no exception. Sunlight is the resource in the game that enables you to grow more plants, and it initially comes in one of two ways: either falling from the sky at certain times or ejected by the eponymously named Sun Flower. The sunlight is represented as a small glowing ball of light which the player must click on to collect, so in between planting your defence you must also remember to click on the various sun resources dropping around the screen in order to be able to continue to plant. It makes for quite a frantic experience when facing some of the more populous waves of zombies, and yet it is not a laborious or tedious objective, instead serving to activate the oft dormant arcade gamer gene in us that once was fundamental to the genetic makeup of good gamers everywhere.

There are many variations of plant that the player can utilise, thus it still satisfies the more prominent tactician gamer gene that is prevalent these days. Unlike traditional tower defence games, however, you’re not only limited to what you can plant by whether you have the resources to fund it, but also by the limited number of slots for the packets of plant seeds that you can take into each round of the game; you have to choose carefully which combination of plants will best suit the setup of the lawn that you will have to fight on next. In addition to plant selection tactics the player also has to contend with the various classes of zombie that they can face. For example the pole vaulting zombie can leap over obstacles placed in its way, such as the punningly named Wall Nut which traditionally halts a zombie’s progress for a set amount of time. Variations of the standard game-play also exist, such as night time attacks where there is no naturally occurring sunlight and the player must therefore rely on their sunflowers to generate enough resources to power plant production, as well as making extensive use of the free-to-plant mushrooms. Free to Plant mushrooms are entirely free to plant but also have a subscription plan of £5.99 per month to access extra fungi features. Really.

No not really.

If this fundamental foundation of fun wasn’t enough for your money, PopCap continue their art of blending a genre of game with which they are not usually associated with elements of game-play that they are well versed in. As such there are mini-games spread throughout the standard level progression of the game, such as a bowling game where instead of your standard fixed slots of plant seeds you have a conveyor belt of walnuts that you can grab as they appear and launch down the five ‘lanes’ of your lawn at the wave of approaching zombies, knocking them over and, if you’re really good, getting their mates on the rebound as well.

In the end, though, there’s little a review of PvZ can tell you that you didn’t already know by looking at the name of the developer associated with the game. If you like PopCap Games’ past products then this one will not fail to live up to your expectations. Likewise if you can’t stand the light-hearted but relatively shallow repetitive fun that a PopCap game represents then this may not be the tower-defence-based game that you are looking for. Perhaps you should try a small dog in a hat instead?

On the off chance that you have yet to experience a PopCap Games’ production, then I know someone who does a very nice line in Class A narcotics that you may wish to consider first. You know, try something that is only mildly addictive before getting on to the really hard stuff.

Score: 2*Pi/180 out of Jam

[1] ‘A bit’ may be taken to mean nine hours, or two hours, or seven and a half minutes, or the time it takes a fish to blink on a particularly balmy Monday afternoon. Generally though, it means ‘long enough to determine whether I like the thing and would continue to play it given the spare time.’

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