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…


  1. My only problem with the game is that it only get's harder by being CHEAP. SO FREAKING CHEAP.

    Sure, the dancing zombie summons backup dancers but that's not cheap, it's hilarious. Sure, the paul-vaulting zombie can get pretty irritating but there are counters for him (tall-nuts, pumpkings, etc). Balloon zombies can be popped with cactuses or (my favourite) cat-tails. The miner zombies are one of the most annoying ones for sure, but some cat-tails, some pumpkings and some magnets and you are good to go.

    But the tanks? Those things are extremely cheap! They take tons and tons of damage and smash every. Single. Plant. With just one attack, except for the upgraded spikes one.
    Oh and then there are the red eyed tanks: remember the regular tanks? those are pussies. THESE are the real deal. They take something like 4 freaking explosions before they go down! WTF? There's the cherry bomb, there's the grumpy... stompy thing, there's the jalapeño and then there's the mimic which can copy one other item so you can have one type twice. There, those are all your one time use weapons with the highest damage, and you can kill only one gargantuan beast by using all of them. What's this mean? If two gargantuan, red-eyed tanks come at you, your front defenses are SCREWED if you don't have two columns of those spyked thingies.

    Alright, the game is pretty easy, so why the rant? Survival Endless, that's why. I have survived 36 flags, and you know why I lost? Because I had wave after wave of those red eyed f*ckers mixed with zambonies and bungy jumping zombies. If that isn't cheap I don't know what is. Why? Because a wave of zambonies can ruin your spiked defenses, leaving you exposed to the red eyed beasts.

    Anyways, the other way in which the game becomes harder, not by tactics but by just being cheap is the fog levels. The game is too easy? Cover half the screen! At least one can counter it, so it's less cheap than the giants but I still don't like the fog at all.

    Although I have to give the game credit for one thing in terms of difficulty: You can't loose by attrition. It's one of the reasons why I hate RTSs and other related games like Demigod... but I'll save the explanation for that for a post =)

  2. ... I should probably spend more time proof-reading these things....

  3. I sense some anger management issue, there, don't I ?
    I haven't had the pleasure to meet the red eyed ones, yet. I can only play on week ends, and I wanted to finish the adventure a second time (to get the yeti zombie). But survival endless is next on my list, of course. A friend reached the 39th flag using upgraded corn pults. I'll have to try that too.
    Looking forward to your post on attrition!

  4. Oh, don't get me wrong, I love the game and every single inch of it screams of polish. It's just that some enemies weren't designed with "fairness" in mind.
    Basically, the zombies have all the advantage! They don't need a huge gargantuan beast to bust up the player's defenses: with just a little bit of clever AI you can ramp up the difficulty in no time without needing to resort to f*cking cheap giants or those randomized car drops that destroy 6 whole plants in the final battle.

    But what bothers me the most is that the amount of flags that you survive in survival endless depends entirely on random chance. If you are misfortuned enough to get those red eyed beasts 4 times in a row along with zambonis... well, prepare for a trip to frustration town. And you know why it frustrates? It's not because you don't want to loose, it's because the AI randomly decides which enemies you are going to face, without any consideration of balance (which is criminal considering how f*cking cheap some of these enemies are, I mean, every enemy has a counter... EXCEPT TWO of them, and those are the giants. There's no strategy possible that can defeat an army of giants and that's just cheap).

    It's like playing an RTS and building your entire army out of tanks (which are the red eyed giants of this particular game). Steamrolling your enemies with just tanks is not clever, or tactical: it's frowned upon, because anybody can do that and absolutely dominate the entire map in 30 minutes, because there's no counter for it, there's no strategy possible that could defeat an army of tanks.

    Anyways, sorry for the rant =)

  5. hell no more zombies.