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Plants vs. Zombies


Bring the chlorophyll-based zombie-stopping fun home
What's It All About:

Though Plants vs. Zombies started out as a critics' darling and players' favorite on the PC, the tower defense game pitting your living army of plants against an invading army of zombies, didn't really hit it big until it made the leap to the iOS family of devices. Taking the game portable lifted it to new heights, as iFans ate up the chance to battle the undead with their green thumb, making the title synonymous with iPhone entertainment. Now, the game is coming back home via the X-Box 360 Live Arcade, bringing a number of enhancements and the same addictive gameplay.



Gameplay:

Like any tower defense game, the whole goal is managing your arsenal and keeping the bad guys away from your base. But unlike many tower-defense games, this one is tremendous fun. There's not an inch of this game, not a single element that doesn't bleed fun, starting with your insane guide, neighbor Crazy Dave, to the very satisfying ending. As you plant your organic weaponry and plot to repel the zombies making their way toward your house (and closer to your brains), you can't help but smile at the variety of cartoonish undead and imaginative plant soldiers. And you'll be smiling often, because this game is hard to put down. Playing it the other night, I managed to play through six straight hours without a break, before the clock caught my eye and I realized it was two in the morning. It is simply addictive.

It's not the most difficult game in the world, at least at first, as you only have two tasks. First, you need to keep an eye on suns, the in-game currency, and grow your bank via sun-producing plants and beams falling from the sky. Then, you use that "cash" to buy seeds to plant and build your ground troops. That's where your strategy comes in, as you need to choose and position correctly to beat the special abilities of the enemies you'll face. You can only carry so many seeds and can't change them once a round starts, so once you see what bad guys are coming, you'll need to choose wisely. As you progress forward, the number and speed of attacks increases while the ease of defeating them decreases, making for some panic-inducing moments when the screen is teeming with plants and zombies and you're stuck trying to keep it all organized.

The game has just five multi-part levels, but it will give you plenty to enjoy, as each part of the levels features numerous waves of zombies to fight, new skills to combat and tactical changes in the environment, which affect the kinds of plants you can utilize. But even if you manage to fly through the game and finish off the last battle, you can give it another try with a new challenge, letting Crazy Dave pick a number of your seeds, forcing you to adjust how you choose your weapons and play the game.



If you get tired of the standard game, there's a number of mini-games and alternate modes you can unlock from inside the game (based on your success), 48 in all, in three categories. The puzzle games (18 stages) come in two flavors, Vasebreaker and I, Zombie. Vasebreaker, where you appropriately break vases to reveal weapons and zombies, is a mixture of luck and strategy, as you need to utilize your limited weapons smartly. It's a bit tougher than I, Zombie, a mirror-version of the main game, where you choose zombies to attack plants. I found it almost impossible to lose, unless you choose the wrong zombie to start.

There are 20 mini-games available, which are a mix of PvZ-inspired classics, like Be-ghouled or Wall-nut Bowling, or unique versions of the standard game, like Heavy Weapon or the brilliant Slot Machine, where a spin of the wheels decides what plants you have at your disposal . These versions basically double the length of gameplay, while the 10 additional Survival levels give masochists their chance to face down five consecutive, non-stop waves of the living dead. Considering how my endurance lagged during tougher levels, these weren't my favorite experience in PvZ. But they were still fun because you could change weapons between waves. Variety truly is the spice of life.

On top of all these additional ways to play, there's a selection of extras, though honestly they don't quite compare to the rest of your entertainment options. The mailbox contains the amusing notes from the zombies, which you already saw in-game, while the Almanac also repeats the info you learn in standard game play. Here you can also access the store, run manically out of your crazy neighbor's car, offering up seeds and tools to help your game (at rather excessive costs.) The real reason to check out the extras though is the unlockable Zen Garden, where you can tend to a collection of plants, feeding, watering and caring for them, until you can sell them. You can also add the Tree of Wisdom to your garden, and when you feed it, you'll get game tips (including some fun cheats (well known already to PC players.)



Though there's more than enough here to satisfy most gamers, thankfully, PopCap didn't simply port the game over to XBLA with adapted controls. Instead, they went ahead and added a few new modes to expand the gameplay by making it a multiplayer affair. Up first is a versus mode which lets you face off with a local opponent in a battle between plants and zombies. It's not the deepest mode, but it's a change of pace and let's you and a friend play some competitive PvZ. If you want a more engaging multiplayer experience, you'll find it in the Co-op mode, where you and a pal can pair up to defend your lawn. Sharing the load makes for an easier game, but it does affect your strategy.

Online Play

Though they added new modes of play, unfortunately there's no way to utilize them online. It would have been nice to team up with friends online or challenge them to a plant-off. Instead, all you get are the game's unique leaderboards, which use a visual metaphor of your house, decorated with dead plants and zombies and odd "prizes" for achieving in-game goals. If your X-Box friends play the game, you can visit their houses and compare your progress. Again, being able to take on players who aren't in the same room or compete as you would have made this game hard to put down.

Controls

The biggest challenge facing the developers in bringing Plants vs. Zombies to the X-Box 360 was adapting the control scheme. The accuracy of PC mouse controls is impossible to achieve with the X-Box controller, while the ease of tapping the screen with your finger is impossible to replicate as well. So instead, the choice of planting space is controlled by the left analog stick, while the cycling of seeds is handled by the shoulder buttons. The analog controls are quick and responsive, and cycling seed without having to move your focus is helpful as well. Perhaps a bit too helpful. That's the slight problem with the collecting of sun icons. Instead of making you move your cursor around to collect the suns, you can simply pull the right trigger and they'll be drawn to you. It takes away a bit of the challenge of managing your plants and collecting rewards at the same time (though you still need to grab the coins.) I definitely found this version to be easier than the other two, but that may be a combination of the controls and the ease of seeing the screen.

The change in controls has been handled very well, and they may be a big reason why this could be the best version of the game. Instead of being over a keyboard and mouse or tapping away at a screen a few inches from your face, you can sit back with your (preferably wireless) controller and actually enjoy the game in a relaxed way. It's simply more fun that way.

Achievements

This arcade title carries with it 12 new achievements to capture, for a total of 200 points. A lot of them are tied to extended gameplay, like spending a lot of money in the in-game store or gaining access to all the plants available, though there are a few challenges as well, like trying to defeat a level using just a select few plants.

Graphics

Plants vs. Zombies has always looked terrific, thanks in large part to the outstanding art design, which is cartoonish and whimsical, yet detailed. For those who have only played the game on an iOS device, where you spend most of the game covering the small screen with your finger, you're in for a serious treat with this version, as the high-definition graphics on a big screen let you enjoy all the beauty and details the game offers. Watching the expressions change on the Wall-nuts as they are devoured by zombies or enjoying the variety of zombie designs is terrific. Even when the screen is loaded with projectile-throwing plants and attacking bad-guys, which definitely is a hectic visual experience, everything is cleanly defined. The only downside is in the yellow reticule used as a cursor, as it gets lost at times amid all the hub-bub. There were several times I couldn't tell where I was pointing, which could be frustrating.

Sound

For as beautiful as the art style is, the audio is just as good. From the sound effects (at one point I left the game on a menu, and I could swear the birds were in my house) to the incredible music, this game is a feast for your ears. Every tune is perfectly in-tune with the levels, from the sitcom-like ditties on the suburban daytime levels to the looming dread of the nighttime fights, there's a simple beauty to the audio in this game. These details make what's a fun experience that much better.

And in the End...

If you've never played Plants vs. Zombies before and own an X-Box 360, you need to purchase this title. You owe it to yourself to play one of the most enjoyable games ever. If you're a fan of the iOS or PC versions, you should probably check it out as well, as it offers a better gameplay experience and even more ways to enjoy the game. Either way, it would be hard to argue that the third time isn't the charm, as the X-Box 360 is now host to the best version of Plants vs. Zombies available.

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