If there’s one benefit to reviewing a pinball game, it’s that there’s a limit on how much time you need to spend on describing basic gameplay mechanics. That said, the possibility of having never stumbled upon a real pinball table is depressingly high in this country. With few arcades left, and even less pinball machines, we’re left with digital versions to sate our needs and Zen Studios have been the market leader since 2007 (it has all the official licenses which no doubt helps). After years spent alternating between the Pinball FX for Microsoft and PC, and Zen Pinball for Sony, the latest game is available on all platforms.
To get the basics out of the way, Pinball FX3 is yet another pinball simulator from Zen Studios that does a solid job of translating the real-life experience to console, and comes packed with Zen Studio’s custom tables and an even greater number of tables from licensed IPs (mostly movies and series). You can pick up the game for free, though you’ll only have access to the enjoyable but limited “Sorcerer's Lair” table. From there, you can pick up dozens of other tables, typically in bundles of three to four, for R169. For those who have bought DLC tables for Zen Pinball 2 or Pinball FX 2, you’ll be happy to know you import your DLC by linking your Zen Studio account in the game.
There are a ton of tables available, especially for those who link their Zen accounts and import previously purchased DLC.
If this is your first Zen Pinball experience, the table list is expansive, offering over a dozen Zen Studios tables, just as many from Marvel, tables from the Star Wars and Aliens franchises, and even three Bethesda tables that are based on Fallout, TESV: Skyrim and DOOM. For the review, I got my hands on the new Universal Classics bundle that has tables based on Back to the Future, Jaws and E.T.. Given that the basic mechanics don’t take long to understand and master, a diverse selection of tables is essential and Pinball FX3 delivers. Each table has distinctive scoring mechanics and excellent visual design. Sadsly, they also come with a myriad of modern gameplay systems - say hello to a persistent progression system, upgradable skills, and a never-ending flood of reward pop-ups, all with annoying voice over and tutorial prompts.
There’s no doubt these systems incentivises progress, with each table levelled independently, providing upgradeable skills that offer benefits like increased bonuses for pulling of special moves or hitting certain objects. Only a few can be active for any given round but achieving higher scores unlocks upgraded skills that allow for even higher scores and so the cycle continues. Player level also increases but this seems limited to profile customisation options and bragging rights on the local or online leaderboards.
Wow, progression systems! Never seen those before...
Predictable, overused mechanics aside, each mechanically complex table has multiple gameplay modes on offer and a single table could keep you hooked for hours. The free table, Sorcerer's’ Lair, has you antagonising the titular sorcerer, descending into the basement to avoid traps through mini-games, and enlisting the aid of a ghost to shut down portals to the void. Sure, everything boils down to strategically smacking balls around a sloped table, but the added context, visual flair, music and sound effects make it that much more satisfying.
The Universal Classic pack has you charging up the Delorean and escaping back to the future with Marty and Doc on the Back to the Future table. The Jaws-themed table has you assisting Quint in hunting the iconic great white shark. The E.T. table has you helping the horrifying-looking alien get back home. More so than any of the custom tables, the use of licensed music, voice-work, and imagery elevate the gameplay experience. Smacking a ball around the Back to the Future table, while listening to the iconic soundtrack and hearing Doc ramble on about the flux capacitor or Marty asking “what the hell is a (j)gigawatt?”, was phenomenal.
The Back to the Future table was the highlight of the Universal Classics pack.
As far as gameplay modes go, you’ve got single-player and hot-seat variants that allow you to play standard 3-ball rounds to rack up scores for the local leaderboard. Alternatively, you can partake in stress-free practice sessions that give you the opportunity to learn every scoring mechanic on a given table with an endless supply of balls. More enjoyable, for me at any rate, are the challenge modes. The first asks you to achieve a high score with a single ball, a great test of skill, but personally, I enjoyed the “five minutes” mode, which has you targeting a massive score, and the “survival mode”, which tasks you with achieving higher and higher scores in 60 seconds intervals to keep going. Both offer unlimited balls and instead focus on placing efficient shots to maximise your score. Moving online - which annoyingly requires a separate Zen Studios account on top of the PS+ service - you can compete for a place on the online leaderboard or engage in structured knock-out tournaments.
Presentation-wise, Pinball FX3 looks good, especially when specific effects kick in that show off the lighting model and realistic looking materials. Table are littered with small details, moving parts, and an abundance of light sources. If I have one concern, it’s that some tables are so cluttered it can be difficult to follow the ball (or balls). To alleviate this, you can shift between eight pre-set camera angles and I found a low-angle view behind the bumpers, which still followed the ball up table, was the most intuitive. The downside – whenever the camera swung to the lowest point, framing the entire table, the framerate could plummet, impacting controller response and slowing down gameplay. This was not an issue on all tables and struck me as odd given how little is actually rendered.
Setting the camera to follow the ball and remain low behind the paddles was my preferred choice but unfortunately highlighted some performance issues.
If there’s one aspect of virtual pinball that can’t be surmounted, it’s the gamepad controls and no chance to appreciate the intricate mechanical workings of a real pinball machine. I know the era of rubbish plastic controllers and accessories is behind us, but I really feel these games would benefit from a more tactile controller that better simulated the fine bumper control available on a real machine.
Performance and controller nit-picks aside, Pinball FX3 is a solid pinball simulator with an impressive amount of content, only let down by the inclusion of overbearing progression systems and annoying UI design. The mechanics feel authentic, right down to infuriating rounds when the ball ricochets between bumpers and straight down between the paddles without giving you a chance. The themed tables are intricate and beautifully detailed, utilising licensed content to great effect. The myriad of gameplay modes, which cater to both the solo player and those with a competitive streak, should keep you occupied for hours on end.
You can watch some of my sub-par pinball skills in action on the free Sorcerer’s Lair table below –
Enjoys games with awesome stories and characters, along with new and interesting hardware. Dislikes day-one patches and driver updates.
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25 October 2017
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