Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Review: Plants vs. Zombies

Platform: Nintendo DS/DSi

Developer: PopCap Games

Publisher: PopCap Games

# of Players 1 - 2

ESRB Rating: E10+ (Everyone 10+)

Official Site

Score: A-

If you're like me and you've somehow managed to miss the whole Plants vs. Zombies craze on every other platform it's appeared on and happen to own a Nintendo DS or DSi, you NEED to buy and play PopCap's excellent and hilarious strategy/puzzle game. Easily one of the best DS games to date, period, PvZ takes the tired Tower Defense genre and makes it fresh as a daisy with a more modern theme, the always popular addition of zombies to the formula and addictive gameplay that starts out simple and gets supremely challenging as the game progresses. Yes, the smaller, lower resolution DS touch screen makes things a bit crowded in terms of controls and less spectacular in the visual presentation. But again, if you've never seen or played the game previously on an HD console, PC, iOS or other device, you really won't care.

What's so great about the game is how it eases you into the play mechanics in a beautifully simple manner. The game pokes fun at itself right away by having a rather amusing "Help" note in the options screen "written" by zombies. Read it once, chuckle, then just tap on the Adventure tab and jump right in. You're taught the basics as you play through the first sets of day and missions which are mostly dirt simple stuff to tackle. You start out in the front yard of your home with a few plant types available as the early missions progress with more dropped as end level bonuses once you clear a final wave of undead. Collecting sun to charge up a growing assortment of plant types to use offensively or defensively against the shuffling horde is the starting point, but as the gameplay shifts to night and later to the backyard, thing get trickier. If you're new to this sort of gameplay, things can get overwhelming in the later maps, but the game is rarely frustrating where you want to throw that DS under a passing vehicle or anything close to that.

As there's no sun at night, you'll need to rely on slower light generation, special mushrooms or other means of gathering much-needed sunlight. Gravestones in your yard need to be dealt with, as undead tend to rise from those spots and overall, the waves are harder to manage if you let them get too far out of control. As you unlock new plants, you'll also be tasked with choosing which to bring into each new level. You'll only have a handful of slots (more become available as you earn coins to buy them) so thinking about charge/recharge time and sunlight cost keeps your brain busier than your stylus hand. The game can get pretty tense in stages where charge time, proper, rapid placement of certain plants and not freaking out if you lose a few stages when it gets totally nuts become keys to success.

Controls are completely stylus based and work quite well. One issue in bringing the game to the DS is all the gameplay takes place on the more cramped lower screen while the top is used for a zombie progress bar and other animations. This means the plant inventory bar is a wee bit too close to the top row, so you'll sometimes drag a plant there when you wanted to bring it further down, find it hard to see how some plants are doing or later on when zombies start dropping in from the sky (!), you might try and take one down only to select a plant instead. These are minor gripes that actually don't kill the fun at all. Once you get used to them, they end up making you a better player in the end. You'll be a bit less panicky and a lot more precise with your touch and drag skills with not too many mix-ups afterward. I loved the mini-games that break up the straight zombie attack levels. Here, you'll play variations on Whack-a-Mole, Home Run Derby (hilarious!), have to defeat waves using random plants that travel along a conveyor belt, and a bunch of other quick, smile-cracking diversions.

One other great thing about the game is how everything is locked up nice and tight until you play through Adventure Mode enough to free stuff up. This forces you to get good at the main mode rather than just ignore it and try to tackle the harder stuff or just play against a buddy once you unlock VS Mode. Of course, Sharing the game with a friend via Download Play means they'll get a quick lesson in things if they've never played PvZ previously. But I just KNOW you'll play nice and not trounce them too unfairly, right? While there's no co-op play in the DS version, again you won't miss it at all if you're new to the game. Other than than omission, this is a pretty faithful reworking of the game that packs in a few new elements in the form of DS exclusive Achievements and a number of fun Easter Eggs that take a bit of gameplay to uncover.

Visually, the game's cute art style is impossible to hate unless you're so devoted to the higher resolution versions that you consider the DS an "inferior" platform. I do the majority of my portable gaming on the DS and PSP, but I don't compare the two at all when it comes to visuals, processing power or anything else. If a developer does a great game on the hardware I have, I'm there with bells on to support it, not bash away because it's not EXACTLY like a version on a handheld with a better screen or faster hardware. While there's a bit of slowdown when things get really hectic, PvZ runs fine otherwise on the DS, the tunes are catchy and overall, it's a solid experience that made me grin like a loon while it had me in its clutches. Also grin-worthy: the game box, which comes in an outer slipcase with a "bite" taken out of it - excellent bit of humor in that, folks.

As for unlockable modes, you get Puzzle Mode, Mini Games, Survival Mode and yes indeed, the aforementioned Versus Mode. There's even a "Zombatar" feature that lets you whip up a Zombie avatar, but you don't get to use it in the game (as far as I can tell). Heck, a "Plantatar" creator might have been nice as well for those who dislike the undead (but everyone LOVES zombies, right?). Some of you used to the super cheap price point of DLC or iOS games may wince at the $20 price point this game carries, but I respectfully disagree. Hell, Both Nintendo and PopCap KNOW that as long as a cart-based system with a HUGE user base is still a relevant part of today's gaming scene, simply ignoring that base isn't necessarily the best thing to do if they want to play your games.

Overall, PopCap has a real gem here and I'm glad PvZ has finally made the move to the DS. I'm hoping there's a 3DS sequel in the works that takes full advantage of the hardware and ends up on equal footing with other versions of the game (even though it may be a while before I actually get my paws on one of those guaranteed to be sold out 'til hell freezes over and a day wonder devices Nintendo is releasing in March). Anyway, enough babbling - I'm going to jump back into the game once again and dash the hopes of the shambling smelly ones trying to put a dent in my doorway. My plants will make a mountain of mincemeat out of you pasty, putrescent punks, grrrr!

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