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Plants vs. Zombies review (XBLA)

After a pretty robust Summer of Arcade, one wouldn't be unreasonable to assume that Xbox Live Arcade would experience a lull in quality up until this fall's Game Feast promotion.  However, with titles like Shank, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, last week's Plants vs. Zombies, and this week's DeathSpank: Thongs of Virtue, one would appear to be incorrect in making that assumption.

For the uninitiated, Plants vs. Zombies most resembles a tower defense game, though the one major tweak to the formula--that there are multiple discrete lanes and "towers" that essentially have unlimited range--make it feel unlike any other tower defense game out there.  By coupling this main gameplay change with less punishingly difficult gameplay and a humorous, cartoony aesthetic, PopCap has made tower defense much more approachable and, for some, enjoyable.

Plants vs. Zombies was originally released for PC and Mac last year, but it has since made its way to the ubiquitous iPhone, and can now be found on Xbox Live Arcade.  Nearly all of the content from the original version has made its way to the XBLA version, with the exception being the "It's Raining Seeds" minigame, most likely due to control issues (more on that later).  Every plant from the original game is available, from the energy-bearing Sunflower to the protective Pumpkin to the offensive Melon-pult to the reminds-me-of-Phoenix saguaro Cactus.

Most of the zombies are identical between the different versions of the game as well.  The Dancing Zombie from the original game, who bore a striking resemblance to Michael Jackson in the "Thriller" music video has been replaced with a functionally identical, but more generic Disco Zombie.  Additionally, there is one zombie that was not present in the PC version: the Trash Can Zombie.  He functions like a weaker version of the Screen Door Zombie in that he has a shield that blocks normal shots, but is susceptible to lobbed shots or lawn spikes.

Some exclusive content has been added to the XBLA version.  Most notable is the inclusion of cooperative and competitive multiplayer modes.  The former allows two players to play through the entire campaign while both have access to all of the tools, and can also manually apply butter to a zombie in order to slow its progress across the lawn.  The latter is more interesting, in that one player assumes the standard lawn defense role, while the other takes on the more sinister task of directing the zombie forces.  It seems well balanced and quite interesting, but both co-op and versus suffer from a lack of online multiplayer.

One of the biggest concerns with porting Plants vs. Zombies from PC to XBLA was in the controls.  Despite being relatively simple compared to other PC mainstays like real-time strategy games or MMORPGs, it was still very focused on quick point-and-click action.  PopCap dealt with the lack of a mouse in a couple of ways.  For starters, collecting sunlight, money, and items no longer requires the player to select the object with the cursor directly over it.  Instead, nearby objects are drawn toward the cursor, as if magnetically.  Additionally, all sunlight on screen can be collected with a quick pull of the right trigger.

Another means for easing the transition from mouse to analog stick is in the method of plant placement.  Rather than selecting a plant with the cursor, then selecting the space in which to plant it, the player can cycle through the available plants with the left and right bumpers, while keeping the cursor on the lawn to quickly place plants.  On the whole, the controls don't work quite as well as the PC counterpart, but they are very nearly close.

Otherwise, Plants vs. Zombies is just as fantastic as it has been for the past eighteen months.  It still contains the power to make time disappear, enticing the player to enjoy just a few waves of zombie lawn defense, and then returning him to reality several hours later with no recollection of how it got so late.  Simply put, the game is pure fun, and it has nearly universal appeal.  PC or iPhone gamers who already own a version of PvZ might not need another iteration on XBLA, but anybody who has not yet experienced the greatness of Plants vs. Zombies would be remiss to pass this up at only 1200 MS points ($15).

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