Thinking back over all the games I've played and reviewed this year, the titles which stand out most are those at the extremes of the spectrum. At one end there's the likes of Velvet Assassin and Leisure Suit Larry: Box Office Bust, two games so bad that if someone said I had to play them again I'd staplegun my own fingers to my eyes just to make it impossible. And who could forget Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad? Not anyone who was contractually obliged to play it for more than 12 minutes, that's for sure.
But my favourite game of the year was one I didn't get to review at all - Plants vs. Zombies. Now available for PC and in the works for iPhone and XBLA, it's a new take on the tower defence genre from PopCap Games. As Christian explained in his review, your mission is to fight hordes of comical mutants as they try to make their way from one side of the screen to the other. You do this by collecting sunlight and using it to buy a wide variety of plants with useful properties. These include pea plants which fire projectile missiles, potatoes which double as booby traps, chillies which burn out entire rows of zombies and so on.
And that's about it. Like all the best PopCap titles, Plants vs. Zombies is instantly playable thanks to the fact it's built around simple rules and accessible gameplay. Even those new to the tower defence genre will have no trouble grasping the basic principles. However, they may have a problem letting go. Like all the best PopCap titles, Plants vs. Zombies is more addictive than Pringles dipped in heroin.
This is partly down to the game's neat reward system. Each time you complete a level, you receive a new plant with different properties to add to your arsenal. You're also regularly presented with new types of enemies to deal with, such as pole vaulters who can leap over obstacles and hot air balloon pilots who attack from above.
In this way, layers of depth are added to the game gradually and subtly. You're forced to experiment with different weapons, trying out different combos and layouts. It feels like you're being given new toys to play with when really you're naturally being led to think up ever more complex strategies.
It helps that the difficulty curve is so finely tuned. There's a sweet spot between fun and frustrating, between providing the player with a sense of achievement and leaving them bored because it's all too easy or too hard. Plants vs. Zombies hits it perfectly.
On top of all that the game is beautifully presented. The visuals manage to be jolly and gruesome at the same time. There are some great jokes, such as the Thriller zombies, and the animations are superb. The sound effects are excellent, too - the groans of dying zombies are just as satisfying as the chink of the gems in Bejeweled. And despite all this polish and professionalism, the game manages to retain a sense of personality.