Tower Defense is a relatively young genre. Though there are earlier examples of such games, the genre really started to gain popularity in the form of custom maps for StarCraft, Age of Empires II and Warcraft III. Following up on the success of these community driven projects, developers began to release standalone Tower Defense games with varying degrees of success. Then, in 2009, PopCap Games released the original Plants vs. Zombies, and the world fell in love, and the sequel, Plants vs. Zombies 2: It’s About Time, is going to be released this Summer.
There are plenty of other notable Tower Defense games of course. Defense Grid: The Awakening (2008) comes to mind as a fantastic representation of the genre (and a sequel in on the way for that as well). But it was Plants vs. Zombies that not only brought Tower Defense to a wider audience, but it also proved that the genre worked in settings where the towers didn’t have to be towers at all.
When Plants vs. Zombies was released, most other games in the genre were following a standard template. Enemies—usually aliens or an invading army of some kind—would march through the battlefield on a specific route, and it was up to the player to place defensive towers around the battlefield that would attack (and reroute) the enemies as they marched and (hopefully) prevent them from reaching the player’s base. Typically the first tower available would be some kind of machine gun or turret tower that could target only one enemy at a time. Other early game towers usually included something to slow the enemies down (such as an ice tower), and something to hit a group of enemies all at once (like a missile or fireball). Even though many Tower Defense games tried to differentiate themselves from their competitors by slightly altering gameplay objectives and offering a variety of game modes, they almost universally stuck to the same kind of setting and had similar towers.
There were some exceptions to that rule of course, but it was Plants vs. Zombies that really provided a fresh breath of air to the genre with its abundance of creativity. Instead of turrets, there were plants shooting peas and corn. Instead of aliens, there were zombies—and not just any zombies. These zombies were special. They had traffic cones on their heads. They could moonwalk. They were armed with screen doors. They could scuba dive. And they were absolutely furious if you interrupted them while reading their morning paper. The plants were interesting too, like the iconic sunflower that became the face of Plants vs. Zombies, and which provided the resource for growing more plants in the game. But it was the zombies that really stole the show, and the creativity didn’t stop there.
Crazy Dave, a human with a saucepan on his head who spoke with the player in between levels, was hilarious. His voice was nothing but random nonsensical babbling that sounded ironically zombie-like, and the dialogue that was written for him was always amusing. Crazy Dave was a fantastic part of the game not only because of his entertaining nature, but because he provided a storyline to a game of a genre that traditionally didn’t need one. The inclusion of a storyline in a Tower Defense game was another way that Plants vs. Zombies raised the bar.
It’s no wonder that I’m really looking forward to Plants vs. Zombies 2: It’s About Time. The original proved that there was more to Tower Defense than turrets, aliens and endless waves of bad guys. It introduced Tower Defense to a much wider market than it had ever reached before, and it did so creatively and without compromises. Although not much is known about the sequel at this time, this is one case where if it is nothing more than more of the same, that will be enough. How could I expect anything more than another game full of charming plants, conniving and entertaining zombies, addicting mini-games, and great characters like Crazy Dave? Popcap raised the bar once already; perhaps they will raise it again. My only worry is that the game may not be difficult enough, as that was my one issue with the original. Hopefully the sequel will have a couple more challenging difficulty settings. Look for my review this July when Plants vs. Zombies 2: It’s About Time is released (presumably on PC and all major handheld devices).