So, yesterday I talked about the disappointment of Stalin vs. Martians. Today, I turn my attention to a different absurd RTS distributed by Steam. This one was Plants vs. Zombies, which doesn't have the same kind of sex appeal, but it does have a playable demo (and a 91/100 on MetaCritic, and $10 price tag). So I played the demo, which gives you an hour of play time, and after an hour, I decided that it was totally worth $10 to keep playing.
PvZ is made by PopCap, the reigning kings of casual gaming--the group behind Peggle and Bejeweled--and this is simply the latest batch of crack (I'm not kidding--if you've ever spent five minutes playing Chuzzle, then you've spent at least three hours playing Chuzzle), conveniently digitized and distributed at $10 a download. So it should not come as a surprise that Plants vs. Zombies is easy-to-learn, addictive, charming, and well-presented. It's also chock-full of mini-games and side-bits, but the main game is an ever-evolving tower defense game (arguably the definitive Tower Defense Game is Bloons Tower Defense III, which is free, although you suffer some pop-ups and annoying ads).
The undead are attacking your house. As they traverse the yard, you stop them with any number of defensive plants. Some shoot things. Some just get in the way. Some devour. If a zombie gets close enough to a plant, it will eat it, and if one gets all the way to your house, it eats your brains and you lose.
All told there are 48 types of plants you can use for defense. You start with a single offensive plant and gain a new one at the completion of each level (with a few exceptions), of which there appear to be fifty-odd. You have a limit to the number of plant types you can have through a level, although you get to see whom you will be fighting before you make that distinction, so you can tailor your tools for the onslaught. Part of the challenge is finding the combinations of support and attack plants that are the most effective against your enemies or the individual plants that are not particularly useful by themselves but that give you an advantage against a specific type of zombie.
For example, football player zombies are extremely tough and fast and they will chew through your defenses pretty quickly. You encounter them shortly after you obtain the hypno-shroom, which, when eaten, will send bad guys back the way they came, attacking all the way. They're not too useful against the normal horde, but plant one in the path of an oncoming football player, and you can turn a serious threat into a healthy advantage. There are 26 different types of zombie, and several mandate specific types of defense, which take up precious slots in your inventory, adding new challenges and spice to what is normally a very routine genre of game. Unlike most Tower Defense games, in which your defenses aggregate as your enemies grow more and more numerous, PvZ makes you reset your playing field every round, but that means that you are always free to use the entire playing field. Similarly, your enemies don't increase in number so much as they increase in strengths and peculiarity.
Variety, indeed, is probably the game's key strength. Just when you're getting the hang of things, gameplay shifts. After 8 levels, you start playing at night, giving you access to mushrooms, which are cheaper and more powerful than plants that operate during both day and night. Resource management becomes more of a factor, however, because this game only has one resource to manage: sunlight (I admire this choice, especially for a casual game--RTS fans will tell you that half the battle is infrastructure, and it's not always a very fun battle). During the day, sunlight falls from the sky, but you can collect more by planting sunflowers (get it?) or other light-producing units.
Charming. Well-executed. Well animated. Good music. Easy to learn, easy to understand, uniform presentation. If you've got $10 to spare, look into Plants vs. Zombies. You'll definitely get $10 worth of enjoyment out of it.