PopCap doesn’t make casual games; it makes gateway drugs. Plants Vs. Zombies, the latest from the makers of Bejeweled and Peggle, helps explode the notion that there’s some kind of magical barrier dividing hardcore and casual games. Here, PopCap initiates players in the tropes of tower defense, a subgenre of real-time strategy. Waves of zombies descend upon the suburbs, and a well-tended garden is the only thing protecting your precious grey matter. Players point and click to collect sunshine, then spend the rays to plant flowers, gourds, and vegetables, each with their own defensive properties. Call it a primer in smart resource management. Early onslaughts help ease players into the idea of ramping up sunlight production before massive waves of the undead bear down. The surprise comes a couple levels in, when it becomes evident just how broad the game’s horticultural arsenal is. With more than four dozen kinds of seeds to sow and a limited number that can be taken into battle, players are forced to make the kinds of interesting decisions that hardcore strategy nuts go crazy for.
Peppered throughout are the secret herbs and spices that make PopCap’s games so compelling. It’s all about positive reinforcement. A pleasant chime sounds every time the player clicks and collects an orb of sunlight. Zombies drop spinning coins and twinkling gems that can be spent on new plants and extra garden slots. And for those who take pleasure in destruction: explosive mushrooms and corpse-scorching jalapeños.
Beyond the game: Tower defense has its roots in the PC modding community. User-made maps for games like Starcraft and Warcraft III kicked off the genre as we know it today.
Worth playing for: Peggle wasn’t a stylistic fluke. Plants Vs. Zombies proves that somebody at PopCap has a good eye for cute kitsch.
Frustration sets in when: It’s a bummer when you can’t take all the plants you’d like into a fight. Even worse is when you realize you forgot the one sprout you absolutely need.
Final judgment: Plants Vs. Zombies’ gratification isn’t all instant. The rest of the time, it slowly shambles up on you.