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.