Review: PopCap Games Plants vs. Zombies
Our editors remember well the day in 2009 when PopCap Games released Plants vs. Zombies for Macs and PCs: back in May, we temporarily lost contact with our spouses for a brief period of time as this brilliant little title threatened to consume far too much of our (and their) productive energy. Today, PopCap released the game for the iPhone and iPod touch at a staggeringly low price of only $3 -- $17 less than the PC and Mac version -- and though the portable release is missing one of the best features of the full version, it's otherwise so impressive and so broadly appealing that we can't help but highly recommend it.
Though Plants vs. Zombies is technically a “tower defense” game, that term implies a certain male-focused “stop people from storming the castle” design that has been polished away from this title, leaving an experience that’s as appealing to mainstream and female players as the hardest-core guy gamers. Yes, the game’s antagonists are zombies—a gimme to rope in men—but your weapons against them are an increasingly powerful and numerous array of plants, earned one-by-one as you complete the game’s 50 levels. Each of those levels sees zombies wandering in from the right as you try to defend your house on the left. PopCap gives you a grid full of spaces to populate with various types of plants that can stop the zombies from reaching your house; you fail only if two zombies succeed in attacking the house from the same row of the grid. That’s because lawnmowers sit right in front of your house as a last line of defense, so should a zombie get all the way up to the house, that row will see a lawnmower zoom forward one time to clear out whatever’s coming—after that, if the house is touched in that same row again, you lose.
Several factors can stop the zombies from reaching your house. The zombies move slowly, during which you tap on sun icons to collect sunshine points—used to buy new plants—and you need to balance adding plants that generate sunshine and others that can serve as weapons. Weapon plants include ball-firing cannons and very limited maneaters, landmines, cherry bombs, and poison gas generators. Placement of your weapons on the grid is as simple as tapping a left-of-screen icon and then your chosen space on the grid, and only rarely inaccurate due to finger mistakes; we’d call the iPhone and iPod touch version a hint less precise than making mouse selections on a computer, but considerably faster and more convenient. Defensive items can also be placed on the map, notably including walnuts that occupy the hungry zombies as other plants shoot at them, and as your sun points increase, you can use a shovel to dig up weak plants for replacement by more powerful or useful ones. Coins also start to appear later in the game, enabling you to make purchases from a crazy vendor, and PopCap changes the stages by adding obstacles to the grids, removing naturally occurring sunshine, and occasionally merely dispensing plants for you at a rapid clip, enabling you to simply plant a massive offensive arsenal without worrying about growing anything.
Knowing for some time that Plants vs. Zombies was destined to arrive on the iPhone and iPod touch, we were somewhat concerned that the game mightn’t work on a 3.5” touchscreen, but those fears were instantly put to rest: PopCap has done as impressive a porting job as is possible on this platform. Though its art has been downgraded to cope with portable screen resolutions, the characters and backgrounds alike are as detailed as the devices permit, and slightly rebalanced so that the plant and zombie heads are easier to see relative to their bodies. They’re just as funny, too: Michael Jackson-alike zombies, old crotchety zombies, flag-bearers, pole vaulters, and many others descend upon the house, each requiring slightly different treatment from the others.
Unlike Peggle, which shipped for the iPhone and iPod touch without music—a still glaring omission—Plants vs. Zombies has its original soundtrack and sound effects, both surprisingly charming, and cut scenes found in the computer version are still here, as well. Though this is only a 2-D title, the crisp bitmapped art and clean special effects make better use of Apple’s hardware than many of the 3-D games we’ve played on the iPhone OS platform. As noted before, the touch-based controls are similarly great, and arguably better than their mouse-based predecessors, particularly when the action really starts to heat up.
There’s only one real problem: amongst other little things, Plants vs. Zombies omits Endless Mode, a feature of the PC and Mac version that lets players continue to face wave after wave of increasing challenges after they’ve finished the game’s initial 50 stages; instead, the game unlocks a Quick Play mode that lets you revisit the prior levels in whatever order you prefer. Serious fans of the computer version will find the absence of Endless Mode to be a real bummer, likely limiting their play time with what could have been one of the most popular battery-draining apps on Apple’s devices. But what’s here for $3 is unquestionably impressive enough to merit our high recommendation anyway—a slightly crippled but otherwise fantastic translation of a great computer game. As with Peggle, which was supposed to regain its music but never did, we hope that PopCap will revisit this title and fill in its missing gaps.