Friday, May 8, 2009

Poppin’ a Cap in “Casual” Gaming

Be careful.  He's a crack shot. What do you think of when you hear PopCap Games?  Bejeweled?  Zuma?  Bookworm?  That’s understandable.  In the nascence of what we now know as “Casual Gaming,” PopCap led the charge with games designed to hook your grandma with the promise of word puzzles and reel her in with colorful characters and compelling gameplay.

However, recent years have seen a marked shift in PopCap’s development agenda.  They’re no longer content to cast rudimentary nets in the expansive Blue Ocean, happy to snag whichever schools of elderly or soccer moms swim their way.  These fish are getting smarter.  They cut their teeth on Bookworm, set off on some Bookworm Adventures, and now they crave a deeper experience.

Heavy Weapon and Plants vs. Zombies are two attempts by PopCap to plumb these depths.  Be forewarned:  this ain’t your grandma’s PopCap.

PopCap owes much of its success (save the freakish appeal of flipping gemstones back and forth) to its ability to marry endearing avatars to straightforward gameplay.  Games rarely involve much more than clicking or typing; both of which are now fully ingrained in our society and nervous systems, expected skills of anyone who’s ever even heard of a computer.  Peggle is a perfect example of simplified, satisfying play.  It manages to integrate elements of Plinko, pinball, and Bust-a-Move without overwhelming the player.  And the game has sold a gajillion copies, warranting PC, 360, and DS versions with the iPhone soon to follow.  I think we call that a hit.

Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten that before the jump I promised a discussion of games not called Peggle.  Let’s start with Heavy Weapon.

Of the games in question, Heavy Weapon is the simpler of the two.  So simple, in fact, that you can play it in your browser right now if you felt so inclined.  But the browser version only scratches the surface of what makes Heavy Weapon a step away from standard “Casual” fare.  Download even just the free trial, if you care to play along with this commentary.

You control the Atomic Tank, America’s only hope against the aggressive Red Army.  Like any good shoot-em-up, you progress through a series of vaguely identical levels, blasting enemies and upgrading your weapons.  You face increasingly complex waves of baddies, progressing toward periodic boss battles.

Get ready to blow up everything In terms of depth, Heavy Weapon isn’t far removed from an SNES side-scrolling shmup like Gradius, just with a tank instead of a plane.  What makes it feel refreshing (other than the oddly tongue-in-cheek treatment of the Cold War) is the control scheme, unique to the PC download version.  Forego the 360 version; you’ve played twin stick shooters before.  On the PC, Heavy Weapon capitalizes on something I’ve mentioned before: the average person’s ability to move and click a mouse.  Your mouse controls a set of blood red crosshairs, useful not only for aiming your weapons but for moving your tank.  You see, your tank is constant motion in relation to the crosshairs (again, give the browser version a quick try to see what I’m talking about).  Initially, I had trouble adjusting, especially on some of the boss battles where strictly horizontal fire was paramount.  But it grew on me.

I feel like PopCap’s done it again with Heavy Weapon.  They dressed up a simple mechanic in a game with adequate length and surprising replay value (hello, Survival Mode).  More traditional gamers have come to expect these features in titles they pay for, so its no surprise PopCap has beefed up what is otherwise a mildly-challenging Flash game.  Also, the game’s wanton destruction of the Enemy, replete with blooming explosions and a smorgasbord of weapons, feels a lot less geriatric-friendly than helping a worm spell out words.

These zombies mean business!!!Furthering their lure-in-the-“Casual”-gamer-and-hook-him-for-life agenda is PopCap’s newest release Plants vs. ZombiesPvZ breathes new life into a somewhat stagnant genre: Tower Defense.  The most recent Desktop Tower Defense entry feels uninspired; to get the most out of the game, you’ll have to set parameters for yourself.  And I simply cannot play any more Bloons Tower Defense. I’m sorry. 

Wielding Occam’s razor like a high-class barber, PopCap renounces the stale tropes of Tower Defense.  Winding pathways: gone.  Earning construction resources by killing creeps: gone.  A lack of purpose: gone.  PvZ pits the player, some kind of master gardener, against zombies bent on wrecking your house.  All that stands between your home and the horde are your plants: a variety of peashooters, squirting mushrooms, potato mines, and other horticultural weaponry.  You collect units of sun energy (either from the sky or your sunflowers) in order to plant more defenses.  Zombies march from right to left across clearly marked lanes.  This only vaguely sounds like Tower Defense, right?

At night, Shrooms help you do battle.  That’s the point!  Sure, Desktop Tower Defense may be hugely popular, but it’s only so deep.  And anyone who’s going to play it probably has already.  PvZ offers a more complex, more colorful alternative.  Elements like night-only towers and swimming zombies help to mix up the now-crusty “Build my stuff and upgrade it” progression of other defense games.  Poor placement means certain doom in other games, but PvZ rewards constant mid-conflict reconstruction, as zombies can and will eat your plants to get through.  Rarely will you accidentally place a tower in a useless position.  You may just need to keep a contingency plan handy.  Each round of ten stages introduces new towers, new zombies, and enough new wrinkles in the formula to keep things interesting to the end.

I couldn’t more strongly recommend either of these titles.  PopCap’s really begun to flex their developmental muscles, showing inventiveness and wit outside of the puzzle genre.  If they keep this up and their games keep selling on less “Casual” platforms, we may see that moniker – and a tiresome debate with it – destroyed.