Review: Plants vs. Zombies

David Shaw, 4:38 am 7th June 2009
Posted under: Reviews

Sorry about the delay in posts. I’ve really got to get into the habit of making at least two posts a week to this blog. Even if I don’t have a big milestone to report I still have plenty to post about.

This is the first game review to be put in the blog (and incidentally, also the first post not to be put under Blog Babble). My reviews are going to be more along the lines of a critique of the game, focusing on what development tips I have learned from playing it. I’ll briefly cover the point of the game, but the bulk of the review will be comments and thoughts on the details. I might cover whether I think the game is fun enough to be worth getting, but I’m really not the best person to be making that kind of call. I often buy games not because I think they’ll be fun in a traditional sense, but because I want to see how they implemented a feature. It might not be best for me to recommend everyone to buy a game just to see how they integrated radial menus, for example. These reviews also have the benefit of getting me to play through that list of indie games I’ve been writing over the last couple of months and not spend my time just idly flicking through forums. Aimless web browsing has the nice fuzzy illusion of being somewhat worklike, but playing games is actually of greater benefit.

My first review is for a game I’ve been meaning to cover for a while now: Popcap’s Plants vs. Zombies

Screenshot from Plants vs. Zombies
(click for full size screenshot)

Brief synopsis

Plants vs. Zombies is a sort of tower defense game, where you have to protect your house from an incoming zombie invasion by planting botantic defenses. Your basic resource is sun (sunshine), which falls periodically in day levels but mostly generated by sunflowers and sunshrooms. You use this sun to buy a whole bunch of different plant units, some useful as offense, some for defense, some for specific terrain and some for specific zombies. The zombie attackers are also equally varied, with many types designed as counters for certain defense strategies. The game itself consists of a few different gameplay modes: Adventure as a tutorial with a light story progression, Mini-games, Puzzles and Survival for lasting over many different waves. There’s also a whole bunch of unlockables you can buy.

If you want more basic info about the game, there’s plenty of other reviews for that. Now I’ll get to commenting on some of the things I find interesting about the game from a developer perspective.

I like Popcap’s games. They’ve got a feel about them that I’d really like to capture in my own. It’s the combination of cartoonish charm with a very high level of polish that I think is what makes them shine, and is incidentally exactly the combination I’d love to master myself. So I knew I was going to get Plants vs. Zombies as soon as I heard about it, as I had to analyse it. Here’s a few thoughts I have on Plants vs. Zombies:

Well Polished Popcap

The big thing that I think makes Popcap’s games work is their extremely good eye for polishing games. Many games I’ve played, particularly indie ones, have a few rough corners that drastically spoil their presentation; it can be anything from a poor choice of font to a glitchy animation script to a graphic that doesn’t quite mesh with the style of the rest of the game. In contrast, Plants vs. Zombies looks and feels very slick. There’s a few minor issues – some of the mini-games feel a little clunky in their animation, and sometimes interface graphics are obscured by plants or zombies, but in general it’s all so charming.

It’s the polish level that is one of the two big reasons why I think Popcap can make such a well-received tower defense variant. Tower Defense games appear to be dime-a-dozen. Or even less: they’re one of the most popular freeware game genres out there. But a well polished tower defense game stands out and is worth paying for.

The other big reason is Popcap’s marketing power. Their catchy meme tune was inspired, and with Popcap being such a big name they can get in customers like me who buy on their reputation. It’s these reasons why I’m a bit hesitant in thinking that remaking a very popular game type is a good move; it might work if you’re a bigger well established company like Popcap, but for a newbie like me I still think it’s wiser to find my own special niche.

My personal favourite: PopCap Animation

When it comes to individual elements, the biggest drawcard for me, as a developer is Popcap’s animation system. They’ve perfected a version of the paper doll technique, where characters are made up of individual 2D sprites which are rotated and warped, that works extremely well. It is a technique I have wanted to try out for a while, and when I saw it in Bookworm Adventures I pencilled in PopCap as the ones to study from.

The problem with demos

If I had to list the weakest point of Plants vs. Zombies, it would have to be that the demo isn’t a very good taste of the game. The problem is that they’ve gone with a standard one hour timed demo. However, the game is based around unlockables – all you can do in the first hour is play through the first act or two of Adventure, which is a sort of tutorial. In that time, a gamer is unlikely to be seriously challenged. You’re unlikely to see many of the more devious zombies that cause you to rethink your strategy. In some of the later levels and especially the Survival levels you’ll be put through your paces, but you aren’t going to see that in the demo.

Overall recommendation

Overall Plants vs. Zombies is definitely worth picking up for small developers. It’s a very good example of a simple game concept executed well. In theory, there’s nothing stopping any small team making a game like this, although in practice I think Popcap’s experience in polish is hard to emulate.

If you’re after the game for fun, I still think it’s worth getting. Try the demo first, but factor in that it gets more challenging later on – without getting too challenging. It’s still very casual friendly, but any gamer should have some fun with the game.

4 comments for “Review: Plants vs. Zombies”

  1. David McGraw says:

    This game was pretty awesome. I’d give it two thumbs up easily.

  2. Tamara says:

    I was looking at your old site, where you had the Flash memory game. Did you just make all the cards or did you have them dynamic? I was to make 100+ cards and don’t want to make each one…

  3. David Shaw says:

    @Tamara: I’m pretty sure I just made each one separately, as I remember selecting all the colours by hand. It wouldn’t be that hard to make the dynamic though; you’d just need to change the number on each one and have some kind of pattern for the colours.

  4. Tamara says:

    Ok, Thanks, I’ll give it a try. I’m working on a “prime number sieve” for my students.

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