Posted: March 4
Usually, if a game prominently features balls, my review is going to contain a lot of puerile humor. I cannot promise you I will make it through this review without discussing smacking balls, handling balls, cradling balls, being swarmed by balls, having your balls sucked down the hole.... You get the idea. I am apparently still ten years old and there's just no helping that sort of thing when a game is fundamentally about how well it treats your balls.
I want to try and start this review on a sober note, though. I am deadly serious about pinball. I love pinball. And, let's be honest, you do too or you wouldn't be reading a review about simulated pinball. In the realm of games pinball is like a sharpened stick compared to the large hard-on colliders that are video games today. But I still remember playing this one wicked old machine about a million years ago in my friend's aunt's basement. We played that ♥♥♥♥ all night long, stomping the old high score into the dirt. It was an old cowboy themed table, with no story or complex goals to achieve. It was just a silver ball, a couple paddles, some targets, bumpers, and a ramp. Your only goal was to keep the ball in the air, letting it cause as much chaos as possible while the score rolled up. That ball was so ♥♥♥♥in' heroic. And I don't mean like kids with cancer or a flower growing up through a crack in the sidewalk. This was like the guy from "They Live!" on a completely hopeless mission that he's got to do anyway because he's a badass.
That got rambly. But you know what? I don't care! I measure every pinball experience I have against that cowboy table and the other pinball games I've played. Come on, you do it too with your own tables. Pinball's a nostalgia thing. That's just how it is. So to review Pinball FX2, I've got ask myself: how does this compare to the cowboy table? How 'bout all the other real and simulated tables I've played?
The answer, like the game's protagonist, is gray and all over the place. What Pinball FX2 does well, it does really well. What it does badly is just inexcusable. (And I played most of the non-free tables outside of my Steam account so my play time is higher)
What does it do well? Well, there are visually interesting tables, with goals that pantomime simple stories and give you huge bonuses if you manage to meet certain conditions. They're very much like the pinball machines I remember from arcades in the 90s. I very much appreciate that the aesthetic of the boards is kept artificial and mechanical like a real table, but they aren't bound to that rule. There are some imaginative, organic models and they use lighting and particle effects as you'd expect from a modern game. It doesn't ruin the pinball experience, but justifies a pinball video game because you can do impossible things you could only dream of doing with your balls in real life! And such variety! Break out a new table, load your balls in the shaft, and enjoy shooting them all over such beloved characters as Spider-Man, Princess Leia, and King Arthur.
The music is fairly engaging and, for the most part, the sound effects are satisfyingly weighty. The game makes a good effort putting the camera how you want it with several different perspectives, from zoomed in on the ball, to hovering above the entire table. It's not perfect, though, because it can't be. Let's face it, boys, in real life when there are some perfectly formed spheres in front of you, all your focus is on them even though you're keeping the periphs on everything else that's going on. But while it's all flattened out on your monitor that's just not possible. Still, they did the best they could. And, as playing pinball is like making love, they give you options to adjust the angle of the table and thus the speed of the ball. Though, as in making love, doing so will disqualify you from the leaderboards.
So what does it do so badly? Well, a few things. The physics feel a bit off. Woah! That is seriously bad! That is the one thing you need to be correct for a pinball game. Yeah, but they're not too
off. I'll freely admit it might even be my imagination, but I swear the ball doesn't always behave consistently when I trap and shoot it from the same part of the flipper. The gravity feels about right, but once in awhile you'd definitely hear me screaming "BS!" at the screen. Granted, I might do that with a real pinball machine and I might just suck from not having played enough pinball. However, despite having controller support for nice modern pads like the 360 controller that has those nice analog shoulder buttons, you can only smack the paddle at full strength. Now that might be great if you have children acting up, but pinball requires a gentler touch: floating your ball from one flipper to the other, releasing your balls as if gently kissed by an angel. That's pinball, baby! And while that might seem really petty to you guys, remember I'm putting Pinball FX2 against the cowboy machine and that is a serious failure. At least other computer pinball I've played has been aware of placing different force upon the ball depending on what area of the paddle it's leaving, and Pinball FX2 doesn't roll that way. When you hit your balls that hard all the time it just doesn't feel good, man.
Alright, so that's bad. Damning I would say. But a couple of you might just shrug and say "what do you really expect from computer pinball?" or even, "You're only noticing those faults because Pinball FX2 is actually sort of close to real pinball unlike other computer games!" Fair enough. But let Pinball FX2, who is about to die, salute you, because I am about to signal the end of its days in this arena. It succeeds somewhat by having a variety of tables, but that variety is superficial. Every table is ultimately a 90s table with complicated goals, LED readouts, and animatronic trickery (animated trickery here). Nowhere to be found is the simple cowboy table, where just keeping the ball in the air and maybe trying to get a whole group of targets down is all you need. There's a purity in that experience, where a silver ball crashing around uncontrolled is still a win condition, from smashing the spinner out of the gate to careening off the last ill-fated bumper and down the drain. Those tables aren't here, nor is anything in that minimal, old timey vain. It's all the same glut of particles and complex models. And remember, a Pinball game can only be about nostalgia, so leaving that out is real bad.
I'm sure hard work goes into designing these tables, but I can't help but see them as just a reskin of the same free table. I remember when I got "Take a Break! Pinball" on my Windows 3.0 computer. It was awful, but for the couple of bucks I spent, I got half a dozen tables with distinct character. When I was in middle school, I got a free pinball CD with three tables from a cereal box that had good graphics for the age and played satifyingly if not like the real thing. (It was probably not a cereal box. It would be dumb to have a CD in a cereal box.) Point is: the business model for this game is just deplorable. They'd ultimately charge you one hundred sixty US dollars for pinball reskins. That makes me mad. Now, I know, you're saying "just buy the ones you really want and leave the rest, dingus!"
Yeah, well, sorry. I get a lot of games on Steam and I occaisionally get full triple A releases courtesy of my buddy Abe Lincoln. That's five smackeroos for everybody keeping score. For something that's so niche, so living on nostalgia, even for a perfect version (which this isn't), that's not okay. For $10 I expect a full release (zing) for that sort of thing, not three skins.
Bottom line: if you can overcome that sizable problem or just play the free table, then Pinball FX2 might be as close as it gets to real pinball. Otherwise, can't recommend.