June 18, 2009

Plants vs Zombies: a recipe for success

Everybody and their brother is talking about Plants vs Zombies, so I might as well join the crowd...
What's more, I've finished the game and did almost all of the puzzles/minigames/survivals. So I can comment on the game as a whole.

I have liked that game from the first ten seconds and have played it for quite some time after I bought it. There are at least 4 people who are now playing it because of me. Viral marketing and word of mouth are powerful tools indeed.

The graphisms are cute and grow on you, the gameplay is easy to learn (and, "sadly" easy to master), the music is fine (and stays in your head...), and you will laugh many times over the course of the game.

There are many interesting things in this game.
First, your options grow as you advance in the game (for a very interesting article on progression of gameplay, in french, go here). Some grow as you advance in the game, some must be bought and some must be discovered. And most of the time, the new option will be needed the round BEFORE you get it. That way, the game lets you learn without choking you with too many options at once, and makes you understand how useful each new plant is. My girlfriend, who's not a gamer (yet; remember the girlfriend experiments ?) was never lost in terms of possibilities offered.

What's more, you have a limit on how many plants you can have on each level. So rapidly, you have choices to make, and your playstyle will emerge: want to slow them down? Do Area of Effet damage? Do huge single damage? Have one time autokills?

This led to an interesting discovery: No one plays the same way, and watching others play can make you learn how to improve yourself. For example, at first, I started by planting as many sunflowers as I can (up to 12, most of the time) (for those who haven't played, sunflowers give you sun, which is the resource used to install new plants; money is only used to buy power-ups between each level) and peashooters to stop zombies. She started by planting sunflowers too, but then, instead of peashooters, she used potato mines, one-time bombs that takes some time to arm themselves, have a very long recharging time and cost practically nothing.
As the 3-4 first zombies are quite apart in terms of time, you can use potato mines for each of them. This led to her having far more money than I did subsequently, enabling her to organise her defense more efficiently (the PvZ girlfriend experiment will come at a later time). Mainly, enabling her to put more costly, but also more powerful, plants. Needless to say, I borrowed that strategy.

Every 5 levels, the game's rythm is suddenly changed with a mini game. You will go bowling, play whack-a-mole, or have your plants on a treadmill. That way, monotony can't set in. And additionnaly, the end of each section of the game (5 sections of 10 levels) is identical for every players, enabling developers to make sure that everybody gets the same chance to win the section, grinders and other players alike.

The game is very easy to grasp. Even people not used to playing can. And it's cute enough to grab a bunch of people, and interesting enough to latch onto them.
It's also very forgiving in the first levels: we discovered that when a zombie reaches one of your lawn mowers (and gets dissected by said lawn mower), no other zombies appeared on that line. It struck me when she let zombies reach 3 of her lawn mowers, and the subsequent "Huge wave" was only on the 2 remaining lines. IMO, it's a good thing, so beginners don't grow frustrated too soon.

But it was clearly too easy for me. I finished the adventure with perhaps one or two stressful moments. I never lost once. Even in the second run, which is harder (more on that later). And I'm not hardcore. It's as much a good thing as it is a bad one.

Once you have advanced enough in the game, you unlock some mini-games. The bulk of them, as well as the puzzle mode and survival mode, are unlocked when you finish the game. Many of these games are winks to other popular games: you have a bejeweled-like game of "match 3 plants" while zombies are trying to eat them, you have an aquarium game related to the first game the developer made, etc... The concept "defend from zombies with plants" was pushed very far, changing how you killed zombies, or how you got plants, or how you got sun, etc.

One of the puzzle, strangely, is the one I played almost as much as the basic game: You play as the zombies, trying to get to the house, against randomly generated fields of plants. This role reversal is an excellent idea, enabling you to see just how efficient each zombie can be, and what plants are especially efficient against them. So you learn how to improve your stategies in the normal game.

Finally, there is a great attention to details. You can see how much a zombie has been damaged, enabling you to see how much of a danger they still are. Frozen peas do not catch fire when going trough the stump, they simply unfreeze. As well, frozen zombies defreeze when hit by a burning pea. So you must adapt you strategy accordingly. Mushrooms sleep during the day.
Many plants are good in standalone, but perfect with others. Chomper eat zombies, but then have to masticate some time, during which they are vulnerable. Put a nut before them, and they'll have enough time to swallow, and eat again. So the game encourages you to try many things.
What’s more, rarely are plants “outdated”, perhaps only the original peashooter can be described as such. All of the others have their use, advantages, and disadvantages. This is rare enough that it warrants to be said.

Finally, some are just for fun. Zombies make a face when eating garlic. When exploded, they
blink before falling into ashes. I could go on.

So, apart from the fact that I found it a bit too easy, I can’t really find any faults to that game. It was well worth the 20$ I forked for it. There are many games that cost me more, and that I enjoyed less…