Ok, I lied. This isn’t going to be a review of Street Fighter IV after all. This is mainly down to the fact that I don’t actually have enough time in my life to become good at it in order to do it justice. To be honest, the beat ’em up boat long ago sailed for me. The last one I was even vaguely competent at was Wu Tang: Taste The Pain (née: Shaolin Style) and before that it was the SNES version of Mortal Kombat II. So you can probably see that in the intervening time much has passed me by. Street Fighter IV initially feels like you are getting reacquainted with an old friend, it is very much Street Fighter II but newererer. I thought I was getting somewhere. And then I went on-line to play other pasty faced mortals and discovered that there is in fact a whole other game that I have barely even begun to discern. I believe this has been discussed elsewhere. For me the effect is very much like being an archaeologist. I have dug down through the topsoil and exposed the tip of some giant structure. I know there will be great wonders deep below, amazing truths will be revealed to me if only I can take the time to dig out the whole structure. The problem is, without all those years of exposure to the genre, I am like a man who not only has to learn how to dig but is only equiped with a teaspoon. And it turns out I’ve found the Great Pyramid of Cheops.
All of which brings me neatly on to Plants Vs Zombies:
Plants Vs Zombies is a clever finesse of the aggressively popular 2D tower defence genre and is published by PopCap games (who are themselves aggressively popular). As such it falls squarely in the “casual” games pigeonhole (but as you know: I don’t really believe that exists). The phrase ‘cheap and cheerful’ could have been coined to describe this game, which is not to do it a disservice. Those are two of its greatest strengths. The game is incredibly chipper, the entire aesthetic of the game is cheery. Happy little flowers and varied nonsensical zombies make this the most cheerful game ever created. It just screams “THIS IS FUN” at you. How could you not be engaged?
PvZ swaps out the usual tower defence format of a single track along which hordes of ever tougher enemies relentlessly march and gives you six short tracks instead. So you get a small grid consisting of six horizontal tracks to defend and you can place a single plant within each square of the grid. As the zombies attack this means you must cope with managing the action from six different lines of attack. It is a neat innovation and the pace of the game is such that it never gets overwhelming or too confusing, although now and again you can end up planting things on space you didn’t want to because things are slightly obscured.
Additionally, each level requires a little resource management. You don’t get awarded cash with successful level completion or killing zombies, instead you need to plant sunflowers to generate sun (read: cash), then you can buy defence flowers. As each level represents a fresh clean beginning the start of each level requires you to balance a need to plant sunflowers to generate sun with the need to defend against the incoming zombies. This often makes the start of each level the most hectic and fun part and the latter periods of a level once your flowers are properly planted more or less run themselves. Early on this means that the end game of each level can be a bit boring, fortunately in latter levels with more powerful zombies and zombies with various sneak attacks you have to actively work to keep your defences in place.
The game offers up a multitude of game modes but you are initially required to start off with the story mode. Running through story mode the first time happens at an easy level of difficulty which functions as a tutorial mode, unlocks and introduces all the main flower types and unlocks the other game features. The first run through the story mode is great. The story is “defend your house from the zombie hordes” and you must use the flower types it introduces as you go. As you progress through the game various environmental hazards are introduced such as a swimming pool, fog and the need to use plant pots as there is no ground. Once story mode is complete you have access to all the other game modes and you can do story mode at a difficult level. The only real issue I had with the “difficult” level of story mode is that you can complete just about every level using the same 6 or 7 flowers (out of the about 40). And it seems a waste that you have access to all these interesting flower types yet have no call to use them. So the difficult mode was fairly work-a-day and peculiarly easy. But the meat of the game really resides elsewhere.
Fortunately though the meat of the game resides elsewhere. Three further game modes are opened up as you play: Mini-games, Puzzle and Survival. The mini-games where probably my favourite 18 odd different flourishes of the main game from knocking down zombies with “bowling balls” to playing a strange bejewelled hybrid. As a rule they were interesting and fun and a welcome diversion from the main game. They were perhaps a touch easy. The Puzzle games were something of a puzzle. There are only two puzzle types. One where you have to break open vases to reveal flowers or zombies and another where you had to be the zombies and work out how to get round the plant defenses with limited resources. Both of these were a little tedious. The vase breaking game really didn’t have much to it, neither was it a puzzle per se as you can’t plan for what is randomly in the vases. Survival mode brings the game closer in line with other tower defence games. You must weather multiple rounds of zombies but the flowers you’ve planted remain in place between rounds. This mode finally gives you a chance to properly exercise the range of flowers that are unlocked in story mode. It’s clearly the best mode of the game but remains too easy and is over all too soon. There should really have been more of it.
Finally the game gives you a Zen Garden game. As you play Zombies intermittently drop plant pots which will later appear in your Zen Garden. You can tend these plants and use them to buy upgrade items from the game’s shop. It’s pretty but kind of tedious and really doesn’t bring a lot to the game. I suppose if you like tamagotchi you’ll probably like it.
All in all this is a great, imaginative game that displays an amazing amount of polish. You can almost feel the hours of play testing and QA that went into it. You’d have to have a peculiarly cold and bitter heart not to be won over by the game’s jaunty feel. It’s only drawback is how easy it is through out, even the challenging achievements aren’t that challenging. But for the money they are asking for it you’d be a fool to pass it up.