It's fair to say that Popcap didn't used to have a good reputation in gaming circles. The company, founded in 2000, made its name by making games for the casual market. They started with Bejewelled, a game designed for bored housewives to play while diddling around on the internet. Since then they have built a strong following with Peggle and other "simple" titles, but this is where they have ended up. Plants vs. Zombies had a development cycle of nearly two years and launched in May 2009 for the PC. It is now here for the iPhone and at a staggeringly low price of 1.79. Is this the breakthrough that will make the hardcore gamers sit up and listen?
PvZ is a lawn-defence game. Its beauty is in its simplicity. The Zombies are coming and they want your brains. They make this clear by mumbling "brains" at you as soon as they appear on screen. You are hiding in your house. On your side is an army of plants. They shoot peas, lob corn, fire needles, block paths, explode and freeze zombies. All the normal things that you expect plants to do basically… The charm that has been poured into PvZ is evident from the get go and the imagination that has clearly been put into turning plants into weapons lends the game a great sense of identity.
The basic mechanic of tower defence underpins the structure of PvZ. Just as plants in the real world photosynthesise, you need to collect sunlight in order to feed your army. During the daytime, sunshine crops up naturally and all you need to do to harvest it is to tap it. You can also plant sunflowers (or mushrooms for the night time levels) to create more sun for you to harvest. It is a simple mechanic but it is hard to see how the management-strategy aspect of the game could have been implemented in any other way.
Each level is set on a grid of either five or six lanes in height and nine squares in length. A plant takes up one square no matter its type and, eventually, by playing the fifty-stage adventure mode, you gain the ability to dig up plants to replace them as you see fit. Each plant has a sunlight value that you need to pay to plant it. After one has been planted it needs to recharge for a short while before it can be used again. This is a neat and simple way of stopping players spamming all over their lawns.
Zombies make their way left towards your house and will destroy anything that gets in their way. You lose as soon as one zombie makes it inside your home. Some levels feature a safety device such as a lawnmower that will kill all the zombies in one lane, which is a neat way of easing novice players into the game. If one slips past your defences, it's brain munching time.
The story mode is full of great little touches; every so often the zombies will send letters to you (which are genuinely funny), dancing zombies, swimming zombies and zombies with newspapers and pogo sticks all make an appearance. New zombies (and the plants needed to dispatch them) are introduced gradually and the playing field changes to add different challenges for the player. These include night time levels, pool levels and a full-on rooftop assault staged as a desperate last gasp by the zombie horde. The variety adds to the atmosphere nicely.
Each new type of zombie has a weakness that can be exploited and, before you start a level, you are shown what type of enemies you will be facing. Based on that you can then pick your arsenal appropriately, and the choices really do make a difference. Without proper forward planning you are going to find yourself missing a few grey cells at the end of the day. Initially, the plants on offer to you are limited, but soon you will have a huge amount of choice. You are restricted to the number of different plants you can choose from per level (it starts off as seven types but it can be expanded up to nine) so you can't just bung everything in there, you really need to think about a game plan for each level which gives you a greater feeling of satisfaction at the end of the day. You also have a neighbour called Crazy Dave who pops up to give advice and, after a time, run a shop system that allows you to buy new plants and timed-use power-ups. Downed zombies drop money and you can plant special, money-generating greenery that adds another tactical layer to the shrubbery madness. Crazy Dave also introduces you to bonus levels that include zombie bowling and Whack a Zombie, all great diversions that are integrated into the main game.
When you complete the story mode you can access any of the mini-games and quick-play levels for a short blast or for some cash harvesting. To spur you on with this there are some in-built achievements, some of which will require a lot of playtime to complete.
It is a good job then that PvZ is an almost perfect marriage of platform and software. The iPhone 3GS runs PvZ brilliantly; there is a touch of slowdown on the really hectic levels, but for the most part the experience is seamless. Everything is controlled with a point-and-click interface. You want to collect money and coins? Tap them. Plant a shrub? Tap its icon and tap where you want it to go. It works so well with the touchscreen that it is hard to image it was designed with any other interface in mind.
PvZ is instantly accessible. Anyone can pick it up and it will be obvious that plants are good and zombies are bad. The hardcore need not be disheartened though; while the game isn't particularly taxing, there is a lot of fun to be had from finding the right combination of lawn murderers to obliterate the zombie horde. If you play through the campaign a second time your ‘friend' Crazy Dave will choose three of your plant types for you as well, which means you can't always rely on your favourite set up.
The animation and quirky traits of all the zombies - comedy, horror and over-the-top cuteness - work brilliantly. As a special treat for players, there is a theme song you get when completing the story mode that echoes Portal in terms of self-referential brilliance. It is clear that a lot of thought has gone into the design behind PvZ, from the mechanics to the look and sound of the game. It really shines on the iPhone and is a testament to Popcap's ability to knock it out of the park. No other tower-defence game is as fun as this. Popcap have succeeded in turning a simple concept that is often poorly executed as a package, into a game that can appeal to everyone.
It isn't all good news, though. The portable version is lacking some of the features of its older PC brother. There is no survival mode and a few of the other mini-games are missing, including Beghouled and Zombiequarium, but then again, PvZ only retails for 1.79 and these additions may be made available at some stage by way of an update or paid DLC. The problem is that, because the content that is available is so good, players are going to be left wanting more of it; at the very least it would be nice to see all the features of the PC version including the super-tough, level 30 zombies for truly epic lawn battles.
PvZ is one of those experiences that you don't want to end. When you have battled through the adventure mode (which should be done at least twice), completed all the achievements and destroyed all the special zombies, it is likely that you'll want to keep going. A short blast on Quick Play can easily turn into an hour long session and you'll think about playing it anywhere you can get away with it, including the office. The iPhone has another killer app to add to its stable and Popcap made it happen.