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Joystiq review: Plants vs. Zombies

Something terrible happened to the Joystiq staff in the spring of 2007. Our desire to work was leeched by some uncanny force, some primordial vacuum of journalistic motivation. These sapping energies could be easily identified by scanning our browser history -- there, a repeated phrase, a moniker for our destitution: Desktop Tower Defense, Desktop Tower Defense, Desktop Tower Defense, Google, Desktop Tower Defense -- and so on, et cetera.

Two years (and a hundred thousand Pellet Towers) later, our thirsts had been quenched, and our diligence restored. Then, on May 5, the minds at PopCap gave birth to a new source of blogger work ethic poison -- as is their nefarious custom -- titled Plants vs. Zombies. Yes, those monsters combined our two biggest interests (the undead and household horticulture), and wrapped the whole package up in a neat Tower Defense crust, which they then sprinkled with humor, and roasted until brilliant.

Also, there's probably some crack (or equally addictive narcotic) in there as well.

It's not completely unlike the equally compelling (but ultimately free-er) DTD -- brainless, brain-starved, ambulatory corpses wander from the right side of the screen to the left. Should they reach this western front, they enter the house, enter your skull, and enjoy the gooey, cerebral treat therein. Fortunately, you can plant ... plants which are capable of dishing out no small amount of pain to the shambling alive-agains.

It's slightly less sophisticated than other Tower Defense titles, where managing the paths of the enemy by way of strategically placed blockades is just as important as vanquishing them (a worry not present in PvZ) -- though that's not to say strategy doesn't come into play.

The resources required to grow your plants -- sunlight, natch -- frequently fall from the sky, though gardeners who fail to cultivate a few sunlight-excreting Sunflowers will find themselves seriously lacking in solar power and, as a result, seriously lacking in gray matter. Same goes for those who wait too long to start planting offensive Peashooters and horde-halting Wall-nuts. A delicate balance must be discerned to keep you from stockpiling too much, or juicing the war machine too soon -- discovering and maintaining that balance is as hectic as it is rewarding.

Plants vs. Zombies possesses this impossible magic that's characteristic of PopCap's games.

The balance is disrupted with the end of every level when you are rewarded with new seeds, and potential new recruits for your arboreal army. Explosive Cherry Bombs? Zombie-flattening Squash? Bullet-igniting Torchwood? Decelerating Snow Peas? With 48 plants in the game, but a limited number of seeds you can bring into each battle, your strategy and arsenal shouldn't stay stagnant for too long.

In fact, the game forces you to adapt by changing the environment every 10 levels. Nighttime means your endless font of sunlight has dried up. Fog obfuscates your unwelcome undead visitors. A swimming pool requires you to plant new types of aquatic sprouts. Without fail, should you rest on your laurels for too long, you'll be picking ghoul teeth out of your domepiece.

It all works so well -- never too easy, never too frustrating. Always evolving and adding, always offering enough distractions (minigames, puzzle modes, survival modes, even a Zen Garden where plants must be tended to to earn cash) to recapture your infrequently straying attention.

Plants vs. Zombies possesses this impossible magic that's characteristic of PopCap's games -- simple, but not simple. Repetitive, but not repetitive. Fantastic, but not -- no wait, it's just fantastic. And witty, and addictive, and fun, and well worth the $20 entry fee, and if that last sentence sounded like it was written by a 4th grader, it's because I'm playing it right now.

Sorry, work ethic.

Update: As many of our wise, wise commenters have mentioned, it's just $10 on Steam! We can safely say that it's now double worth it.

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