Plants vs. Zombies (PC)
It starts out small. So small, in fact, that it's hard to imagine it ever growing into anything. When the first level of Plants vs. Zombies rolls out a single lane of grass, and asks you to click falling sunbeams for fuel to grow a pea-shooting plant that can hold off a line of slow-marching zombies, it's easy to assume the worst. They've dumbed down the tower defense game! They've over-simplified things for the Bejeweled crowd! They've turned a proud, new strategy genre into a glorified click-fest with cutesy graphics!
But then the game adds new branches to this simple trunk. First it lets you harness more sunbeams with crucial, resource-producing sunflowers. Then it introduces new, tougher zombies that require more firepower from new, tougher (and more expensive) plants. Then you're battling it out on nighttime levels where short-range fungus shooters can grow like weeds (except where there are zombie-producing gravestones). Before you know it, you're deploying watermelon catapults to drive back rows of Zombonis (those are zombies on zambonis, don'tcha know?) while erecting a protective canopy of palm trees to protect your balloon-zombie-popping cacti from an overhead assault by zombies on bungee cords.
The change is so gradual that it barely registers from level to level, but at some point you look up and realize that Plants vs. Zombies has grown from a small, insignificant seed into a complex, chaotic, fast-paced strategy game that's as addictive as the best in the genre.
There is a big risk to the game's slow pace of change, of course -- the risk that you'll get bored and give up long before the payoff. Indeed, the first few hours of the game are way too simple and slow-paced for experienced gamers. The hardest part of many of the early levels is enduring the wait for your zombie attackers to slowly shuffle into your easily erected, nearly impenetrable defenses so you can move on to the next challenge.
Luckily, the game has a knack for fundamentally shaking things up just when you run the greatest risk of getting bored. One level might ask you to use walnuts like bowling balls to mow down rows of the encroaching zombies. Another might send you a random assortment of seeds on a conveyor belt, rather than letting you choose when to deploy each plant. There are levels that add obstructive fog and others that require new water-based plants to defend a pool. And then there's the constant (if slow) drip of new plants and zombies, each requiring a modicum of trial and error to figure out its best use and defense.
All this variety helps mitigate the fact that, until late in the game, it's easy to hold off the zombies with only the most basic of strategies. It's only near the end of the game's main Adventure mode that the number and variety of zombies starts to get challenging for the experienced player. The positive side of this slow buildup is that by the time things start to get interesting, you have an almost innate sense of your arsenal and your opposition. It's only after hours of learning each of the ridiculous lineup of 48 plants and 25 zombies that the game really blooms to its full potential.
Just like the card game Bridge, where the pre-game bidding is just as important as the play, much of the strategy in Plants vs. Zombies comes before the zombies actually start marching. Since you can only choose a limited number of plants to use on each level, you have to tailor your defense to the specific types of zombies you'll face. While each type of zombie has a plant-based foil that limits its greatest strength (a tall wall to stop a pogo-stick zombie, for instance, or a magnet to remove a zombie's protective bucket helmet), the endless combinations of zombies and terrains will have you constantly reevaluating your priorities.
Will you go for the cheap plants that provide good early protection but have little chance of surviving the dreaded "final wave" and its dozens of zombies? Will you go the defensive route, setting up huge barriers in front of your attack plants to give them extra protection and time to take out the zombies? Maybe a frozen watermelon launcher and a multiple-lane-spanning tri-shooter will be able to handle that Michael Jackson zombie and his dancing followers (I could not make this stuff up, people).
There's no one perfect strategy or setup that works for every situation, and it's the constant shuffling of different plants and positions that keeps you on your toes. This is especially true when the Adventure mode is over and the game moves on to the much more challenging Survival mode. Here, your arsenal no longer gets plowed away at the end of each level, letting you slowly build up a mighty fortress to protect against some truly fearsome (yet still somehow cute) hordes of zombies. With survival mode, what was a battle of attrition becomes a continuing battle of momentum and positioning, where a small hole in your defenses can quickly spiral into total defeat. After slogging through the game's overly long tutorial, this is where you'll happily spend days just trying to add one more day to your streak.
And then there are the mini-games, which take the game's core concept and turn it on its head in a variety of surprising and interesting ways. A mini-game might turn all the zombies invisible, or give them plant-like attack powers. Maybe you'll be asked to build your units into a specific star pattern on the field, or lay them all out before the zombies even start to march, or work them around a set of Portal-inspired portals. One mini-game even lets you take control of the zombies, using them strategically to take out increasingly difficult groups of plants. Some twists on the formula end up more interesting than others, but they all show a devotion to keeping the game's simple concept from becoming stale too soon.
And that's the greatest final triumph of Plants vs. Zombies. Through its sheer variety and balance, what could easily have been an overly simple and straightforward game becomes an endlessly interesting strategic battle. If you can get through the slow start, you'll be rewarded with an addiction as deep as gaming is possible of providing.
This review is based on a nearly complete pre-release beta provided by the publisher.