Version tested: PC
Gardening brings out the worst in game developers. Even nominally cuddly outfits, who trade in moonbeams and gentle kisses, experience a strange, peat-fuelled bloodlust whenever they saunter down the cobbled path and set up shop under the old oak tree. Why else would Nintendo invite us to choose between choking to death on an alien allotment or harvesting warm corpses for industrial reprocessing in Pikmin? And what brought Rare, a developer more likely to have you chasing after coins while butterflies skitter about overhead, to delve into the rotting underside of the natural world in the bucolic Viva Piņata, a papier mache bloodbath of sacrificial breeding and advanced eugenics, where the sight of a Fudgehog having its head bashed in is accompanied by cheering infants?
Nasty stuff all round, and now PopCap - friend of the unicorn, tireless lobbyist for bookworms everywhere - is getting in on the action, using your cheerful well-trimmed lawns as the staging area for the intimate, brain-eating final phase of a full-blown zombie invasion, with only a handful of seed packets and a trowel standing between the shambling undead and the booming, definitive, and oddly affecting announcement that your brains have just been eaten. Jimmy Lightning never treated us like this.
Not to worry, though: the company that spliced Pachinko and Egyptian cats, and retrieved gem-trading from the murky world of Sierra Leone and its death squads, has lost none of its breezy charm. These are zombies of the lovable, huggable variety: they may be closing in to finish you off in a sweaty fumble of greying skin and cold fingers, but at least they've made an effort, dressing up in a range of natty outfits that takes in everything from line-backer shoulder pads to eighties back-up dancer leotards, and announcing their grim intentions in a range of friendly, handwritten notes. And rather than remove their heads with buckshot or gore them on the end of a garden fork, you're left to defend yourself with a gentler arsenal of pea pods and pumpkins. It's the apocalypse, only rather more civilised, and a lot richer in fibre than modern cinema would have you believe.
PopCap's titles have a habit of existing on the largely imaginary boundary separating casual and hardcore audiences. While the stereotypes might not really be that simple, the framework isn't causing the developer any problems as it cranks out game after game simple enough for any old idiot to understand, and with the depth to keep the fastest mouse-clickers playing as well. They scale well, in other words, taking into account not just a wide range of hardware, but players, and while PopCap rarely creates anything from scratch, it builds on existing genres in a way that is probably far more difficult - hacking through the overgrown tangle of tradition and ingrained mechanics, pruning and snipping away until the entire thing assumes a wholly unexpected shape.
Plants vs. Zombies is no different. An effortlessly streamlined take on tower defence games, enemies march across the screen from right to left, sticking to polite rows, and it's up to the player to place the various weapons required to slow their progress and finish them off. There are no health bars for either the zombies or the plant turrets you put up, and you don't even have to worry about redirecting enemies along a different route, as they'll stay in line regardless of what you throw at them. Rounding it all off, the in-game currency needed to buy new seeds is sunlight, which drops into the map depending on how many Sunflowers or Sunshrooms you've planted, and has to be speedily collected before it disappears.
There's a handful of carefully judged complicating factors: different seeds have different recharge times before they can be planted again, and there's a day-and-night cycle which forces you to swap between two arsenals, one composed of plants and one of fungi, every few rounds. As the game progresses and your seed collection builds, a lot of the strategy comes down to sizing up the enemy you'll be facing - you're always afforded a gentlemanly glimpse of the drooling horrors to come - and choosing the correct load-out of tools to take them down.
That in itself would probably be enough, but, as any gardener will tell you, the real pleasure lies in the sheer variety an ecology offers, and so it is with Plants vs. Zombies. Every new enemy forces you out of your comfort zone, while each additional weapon promises a fresh strain of mischief, or a tactic you simply hadn't considered yet.
The invention is dazzling. From Zomboni drivers who leave a trail of ice in their wake, and jack-in-the-box zombies bearing explosive gifts, to Gatling gun Pea Shooters and Doom Shrooms, which explode in highly localised atomic blasts, each new element is a lovely piece of punning design, drawn with thick marker pen appeal. And the game is as pacy as it is charming: as soon as a balloon zombie nonchalantly floats over your defences, you'll need to start thinking about leaving space to plant emergency Cacti or Blowers to see them off, and when nightfall closes in for the first time, you'll quickly have to work out how to keep the sunlight trickling into the bank while you take on the enemy with - initially - underpowered mushrooms.
A second lope through the knockabout apocalypse reveals that the game can handle a wide range of strategies, allowing for players who like to conserve funds and purchase the big guns, as well as those who'd rather risk living hand-to-mouth, investing in cheap one-shot deals like the potato mine and the Wall-Nut, which gives foes something to chew on, while weaker weapons whittle away at their health. Gentle terrain variations force you to rethink old ideas, as the battle moves from the front lawn to the back, and then onwards and upwards, and you're asked to contend with obstacles like a two-lane swimming pool and some nasty sprouting tombstones.
As with games like Peggle and Bejeweled, PopCap has tested and retested the learning curve until it's so perfectly tuned it's almost creepy, setting a pace that's constantly challenging but rarely too punitive, with a handful of wild-card moments to vitalise each encounter, like the sudden heavy-attack waves that are strung through every level. Elsewhere, the brilliantly simple sunlight-collection idea ensures that, from the very start, you're always multi-tasking between laying defences and collecting funds, and you can never simply sit back and watch events unfold as you can do in so many other tower defence games.
It's for reasons such as these that the tense and always adorable Plants vs. Zombies is a masterful combination of serious strategy and cartoonish delights - and by adding mini-games, survival modes and a shop, PopCap is practically rubbing it in. The result is as fresh and accessible as Super Mario, and as refined and considered as Left 4 Dead, wading into another established genre and polishing the central ideas in a way that will make it a hard act to follow. Despite the undead, you'll still be able to sleep with the lights off, but the midnight oil will be burning long and hard at the developer's increasingly frustrated competitors.
9 / 10
Plants vs. Zombies is available now from PopCap's website for GBP 14.95.