Plants vs Zombies 
Version Tested: Xbox 360

Since around the early 1990s, zombies in video games have been invading our homes, towns and indeed world ever since. There have been many different tools of the trade for zombie extermination that would send a pest controller into a giddy frenzy. The use of live ammunition has been the widely used method of dispatching the hordes. But they just keep coming. Other methods need to be thought of. Dead Rising already thought of humiliating them, but as is the case here; it only serves to make the rest of them annoyed. Mind you, a lot of methods appeared over the years. Draining their brains of fluid, running them over with various contraptions, using the power of…horticulture? Confused? Perhaps, but not as much as Monty Don when his geraniums start taking arms against undead human beings. It’s hard to imagine the concept behind Plants vs Zombies; a tower defence game where you must cultivate your defensive line against a group of particularly bitey people trying to get into your house, probably to participate in an exercise of mass eating.

If you are familiar with the concept of the tower defence strategy game, then think of this as one with a bizarre theme. If like me you are as unaware of the genre as a metal fan is with the ins and outs of the drum n bass scene, then think of this as quite simply defending a certain object from waves upon waves of enemies. Each level of the game will send a quota of zombies hurtling towards your house. Using a combination of solar power together with super cultivation powers, your job is simply to block their advance. There are 49 plants in total you can use, one unlocked after every mission. Essentially, it is best to look at these plants in two groups. The first are universal plants, those which are needed regardless of the circumstances. These include the Wallnuts and, in most cases, the Sunflower/Sunshroom. Others such as the Exploding Cherries and the Chompers are regarded as situational. Developing a strategy that works isn’t particularly difficult, but there will be certain zombie types that will cause a minor headache. Luckily there is always a quick solution to a monster issue. If all goes to pot, the lawnmower will act as a lifeline for that row and kill every zombie in it. Simple gameplay, but really as a casual themed title there is a fantastic array of strategy.

Let the power of horticulture smite the heathen zombies!

The main game isn’t very long, lasting for 50 levels spanning 5 worlds. It’s the amount of extras that really make the 1200 Microsoft points worth spending. With a history of casual hits to choose from, including them in zombie form for mini-game levels is just brilliant, with the likes of the highly addictive BeJewelled being represented. My only issue is that levels such as this needed two forms. The first should be as the standard Plants vs Zombies style and the second should be an endless score attack (where scores could go on leaderboards). This wouldn’t be difficult as there are survival and endless modes already in the games options. Every mode is unlocked via the main game, but stuff within is unlocked as you play these modes. Then there is the Zen Garden. As unlikely as it seems, this mode allows you to farm money. This money can be spent on stuff for the game modes, or to cultivate more money in the long run. To say this game is light on content as is the case with a lot of video games these days would be a desperate lie. Finally, in case you think this is very one sided, the zombies get a turn to eat brains in the I-Zombie mode, just to add to the strategy.

Finally, there is a Zen Garden mode which is unlocked after completing the main experience. You’ll start obtaining plants in stages and mini-games at this point, which are sent to the Zen garden for you to raise from sprouts, and then ultimately sell. Marigolds are bought from Crazy Dave, which can be matured and them farmed for coins that emerge from them. It’s an interesting idea that keeps some kind of incentive post-ending. Another large plant to raise is the Tree of Wisdom. This will increase in size after every special feed you put on it. The feed does cost a fair bit, so every little indeed does help. This means finding more plants to raise, sell and pay for the feed. It stands to reason that zombie killing is a kind of economy. The more you kill, the bigger the tree grows. Thankfully the variety of modes and the new “hard” mode makes this seem like an extension of that experience, rather hoarding more gold than the average dragon for the sheer kick.

Bowling is simply better when done with a friend.

Visually, it is a fairly standard affair resembling something more in tone to a Flash based game than anything of big developer budget. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t completely without charm. There are almost as many zombie types as there are plants, and they’re all themed in some way or another. There is even a dancing zombie who can summon backup dancers to surround him. What is amusing is that while the main dancer looks like he jumped straight from the disco scene, the backups resemble Freddy Mercury. It’s not just the cosmetics that are relatively amusing, but also the element of self parody. The descriptions for the plants and zombies, combined with the bizarre ramblings of Crazy Dave being…well, stark raving mad; are witty, if a little strange. This is the kind of game that could and indeed has generated a cult following. The new details in this version are as fresh as the plants you plant, rather than the stale decaying zombies that you obliterate.

Cult phenomenon on the PC and iPhone apps, it is nice to see that for the console ports that there is the same amount of playability but additions to make things even better. As a concept, it is probably the only tower defence game you’ll ever need. Units are balanced on both sides, and with this much variation between modes it is hardly surprising that people rave so much about it. So should you spend however much it costs on any version? It depends on whether you like innovative gaming and wish to reward it, or whether you’re the kind of person who doesn’t mind playing the billionth generic first person shooter. PopCap might not be the first company you’d find a great idea, but a tower defence game involving botany and necromancy together is worth a peek, even if it’s just out of morbid curiosity.

(Errata: PC/Mac version is operated via mouse, iPhone version operated by touch. 360 by pad. Pad does work, but has some issues in certain situations (ie: when you’re frantically racking defences)