Pinball FX 2 Review:
Sadly, pinball is a dying art form. It used to be that back in the day, pinball machines dominated the arcade scene. But these days, you're lucky to find one in the dingy back room of a bar, or off to the side in a theater lobby. Turned into aging dinosaurs by video games, pinball has dwindled to just one major company, Stern Pinball, that still designs machines. This spectacular and once-thriving industry is extremely well chronicled in Greg Maletic's documentary Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball.
But then, something strange started happening: virtual pinball machines actually started getting good. Zen Studios itself put out the impressive Pinball FX, and then there were the Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection and updated Pinball Hall of Fame: The Gottleib Collection titles. Then came another Zen pinball title, Zen Pinball for the PSN. While the Pinball Hall of Fame titles were recreations of existing games, Zen's entries all featured original tables.
But, This Pinball Goes To 11
While it's fun to spend some time playing Black Knight, Pin*Bot, or Funhouse all over again in some of the Hall of Fame games, Zen really shows you how far design has come with their extremely innovative table design. Pinball FX 2 not only imports and plays the nine existing Pinball FX titles (for free), it also offers up four original new tables: Biolab, Pasha, Rome, and Secrets of the Deep. You can download any of the tables as a trial for free, or spend 200 MS points ($2.50) to get the full version of any table.
If you download or import any of the older tables from Pinball FX, you'll be impressed with the gameplay (especially the goofy lines from Rocky & Bullwinkle, or the multi-level play of Nightmare Mansion), but the new tables are where the hotness is. They've gone above and beyond here. For instance, Biolab, where you play a mad scientist trying to perfect genetic experiments in a crazy laboratory, features a lab subject animal in a vat, and you can affect his DNA via well-timed skill shots and challenges.
The creature will mutate and evolve according to your gameplay, and that's just scratching the surface of that table. There are minigames to play with his nervous system and reflexes, and the zany (and attractive) female lab assistant will offer you helpful advice. Contrast that with Rome, complete with it's deep table, pillars, marble busts, and moving Centurion, and you can see how much intricate design went into these tables.
They Call Them Flippers, Flippers, Faster Than Lightning
But how's the gameplay? It doesn't matter how gorgeous your tables are if your physics feel like marshmallows. Happily, Pinball FX 2 plays (and more importantly, sounds) like a real pinball machine. The only thing you'll miss is the sound of the ball smacking against the glass when a shot or multiball goes awry. The flippers are very responsive, and you'll quickly be aiming skill shots and going for bigger targets and scores.
The game also adds split-screen multiplayer for the first time, and it's fun competing against a buddy, trying to see who can rack up the highest score. You can also play multiplayer over the internet, and the game also supports the Xbox Live Vision Camera, so you can trash talk face to face, just like a real pinball wizard. Except that guy was blind, so whoops. Both competitive and cooperative game modes exist, so it's not all cutthroat.
But it's not just the multiplayer that's addictive here. Much like Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit's autolog feature, Pinball FX 2 tracks your friend's scores, and warns you when one of them has bested your scores. This is a nifty feature that will keep pulling you back into the game.
Tabled For Discussion
One thing that I really miss in Pinball FX 2 is any of the tables from Zen Pinball. This was a PS3 exclusive title that really has some beautiful table designs. Tesla (based on electrical wizard Nikola Tesla and his works, naturally) was especially entertaining, complete with electrical arcs and discharges. It felt like a steampunk pinball table. Plus Mars, with it's sentient little spider robot that would kick your ball back into play, was also a delight. Where are those tables for Pinball FX 2. It's the same developer, couldn't they just port them over?
Also, all this play on new tables makes us miss some of the better pinball designs that should be licensed and recreated for this game. Tables like The Addams Family, The Twilight Zone, and Indiana Jones: The Pinball Adventure, are engineered wonders under glass that really need to be appreciated, even if it is virtually. It would be nice to see Zen Studios experimenting with licensed tables. But speaking of licenses, their next pinball game will be Marvel Pinball, which will offer up Wolverine, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Blade tables on launch later this year.
Are You Ready To Pull The Plunger?
Pinball FX 2 is a completely gorgeous homage to pinball, and the additions of multiplayer and things like slow-motion, a picture-in-picture ballcam, and even the ability to tilt the table and access the operators menu update it enough so that newcomers can enjoy it as well. Me, I like the nostalgia factor, and chances are you will too if you give this a try.
Recently, Abbie Heppe and myself were in Vegas for a game launch, but we made a detour when leaving to stop at the Pinball Hall of Fame in Vegas, where there are loads of pinball machines from different ages on display that you can play. It's easily one of the best stops you'll ever make in Vegas, and Pinball FX 2 is a great way to warm yourself up for that experience. Add some more tables, Zen, and you'll have me hooked forever.