Zombies have long been the go-to enemy in videogames. A seemingly endless number of games feature zombies in a multitude of scenarios getting shot, blown up, sliced, eviscerated and any other number of gruesome punishments you could think of. Plants vs Zombies, however, bucks the trend by arming you with several different types of plants and charging you with defending your homestead against the advancing horde. It’s a pretty simple premise, but Plants vs Zombies executes it masterfully with addictive and challenging gameplay, a sense of humor and enough extras to keep you hooked for a long, long time.
Plants vs Zombies is essentially a new take on the real-time strategy subgenre known as tower defense. As zombies encroach your lawn, you set up different plants to fire at them before they reach the house. The most basic unit, the sunflower, produces sunbeams, which are used as currency to purchase more units. Plants in your arsenal include everything from simple peashooters to watermelon catapults. Though there are several dozen different types of plants, you can only take a limited number of them into each level, forcing you to choose carefully.
The zombies also come in a wide variety. Apart from the garden variety zombie, there are some that use buckets as helmets and screen doors as shields, and even a dancing zombie spoofing Michael Jackson’s Thriller video. Every zombie has a particular weakness that is matched by a particular plant, adding an element of strategy into the mix.
As the game’s Adventure mode progresses, the difficulty is ever so slightly increased from level to level but never so much that it becomes daunting. As you face a greater number and variety of zombies, the game unlocks new plants and abilities to even the odds. All the game elements combine into a game that hooks you in right at the first level and doesn’t let you go until you conquer the final map.
Only after you finish Adventure mode do you find the real value in the game. Where so many other games have fallen short, Plants vs Zombies succeeds in offering extras and minigames that are actually just as meaty and compelling as the main game. One game switches the roles, letting you command a squad of zombies and challenging you to get through levels filled with plants. Another starts you with a lawn filled with vases. Some vases contain plants, some contain zombies, and you don’t know which. Break open all the vases and kill all the zombies to win.
Even on top of the minigames is a garden-growing minigame, in which you can cultivate flowers to earn extra money to spend at the shop. It’s a complete shift away from everything else in the game, yet it remains compelling. Items at the shop include stronger plants and bonus features, like the “Tree of Life,” which gives you hints and tricks as it grows.
Despite the fact that you’re fighting to stop zombies from eating your brains, everything in Plants vs Zombies is done in a tongue-in-cheek, lighthearted mood. All of your plants bob their heads back and forth, as if they’re all listening to the same song. The zombies, meanwhile, would be more threatening if they weren’t so ridiculous. I already mentioned the Dancer Zombie, but there’s also a Zombie Bobsled Team, a Dolphin Rider Zombie (for levels in which you defend zombies from your pool. Seriously.) and a Newspaper Zombie — an old man who gets irate when you destroy his newspaper shield. These are the sorts of living dead that George Romero would dream up if he made Saturday morning cartoon shows instead of horror films.
Plants vs Zombies isn’t a perfect game, though its imperfections are slight. Some of the plants that get added to your arsenal over the course of Adventure mode are of such limited use that I found myself barely using them at all. There were a couple other instances in which I was forced to have a limited-use plant just to deal with the newest obstacle in my way. For example, during levels that take place at night, gravestones litter the field. You can’t plant anything on a space that’s taken up by a gravestone, so you have to add a special plant that destroys gravestones. The cool thing about having such a wide arsenal is being able to design your offensive strategy any way you want, and having to do stuff like eat gravestones or fill in holes in the ground just go against that idea. It would feel more necessary if it added a significant challenge to the game, but this just wasn’t the case.
Flaws aside, Plants vs Zombies packs an enormous amount of gameplay into such a tiny package. It’s addictive enough to make you forget about everything else and lengthy enough to keep you coming back for a long time. There’s no shortage of games in which you can kill zombies, but none of them do it with this much addictiveness and good humor.