In which I write 2300 words about computer pinball. You have been warned.
Long-time readers of this blog will have probably noticed that I like pinball computer games. It’s a hankering that I picked up after playing the free Space Cadet table that came with Windows 95 for far too many hours, and it’s one that’s been tragically underserved during the last decade and a half as pinball fell out of fashion in both its physical and virtual forms. That the genre has undergone a mini-resurgence on XBLA, PS3 and tablet devices is rather meaningless to me since I own none of these things and don’t ever intend to, but I have been watching the attempts of these console pinball titles to make the leap to the PC platform (in this case meaning “Steam”) with considerable interest. First there’s Pinball Arcade, whose main selling point is that it features faithfully-recreated digital versions of classic pinball tables you might have seen in bars and arcades during the 80s and 90s. Pinball Arcade has been languishing on Steam Greenlight ever since its inception and only just managed to get greenlit a couple of weeks back; it’ll take a few more months before the developer – Farsight — is able to complete a Steam-integrated version of the game. After all the hassle Farsight went through to get their game onto Steam I greeted the news that Pinball Arcade’s main rival, Pinball FX 2, was lined up for a Steam release this week without having to go through any of that Greenlight shit first with a rather sardonic smile. The system works, guys! Not only has Pinball FX 2 totally stolen Pinball Arcade’s thunder but it’s going to have several months all to itself to corner what is an admittedly rather niche market, and it’s entirely thanks to Valve’s ridiculous two-tier system where if you’re not a developer/publisher who is “known” to them you have to jump through the Greenlight hoops in order to prove you’ve got what it takes.
Anyway, that’s Valve’s (and Farsight’s) problem. As far as I’m concerned as a consumer it just means I get two modern pinball games on Steam instead of one, and happily they are taking rather different approaches to digital pinball. Where Pinball Arcade limits itself to currently-existing real-world tables, Pinball FX 2 offers a range of brand new tables designed specifically for the game and which attempt to take advantage of the fact that it’s a simulated version of pinball by doing stuff that would not be possible on a real-world table, effectively hybridising it with a conventional video game. Little animated figures strut around the tables, gunships swoop and soar, and ramps appear out of nowhere for you to try and pull off trick shots. It’s a fairly neat idea, but as with all innovative approaches to older concepts it runs the risk of falling flat on its arse in terms of implementation. How does it actually play?
That’s a tricky question to answer. Pinball FX 2 – and Pinball Arcade – are both sold almost entirely as chunks of DLC. There are currently 28 tables for Pinball FX 2, and you can download and boot up the game free of charge to trial all of them for a limited period of time (typically a couple of minutes each), but if you actually want to play them you’ll have to fork over some cash for one of the table packs1. Said packs contain 3-4 tables and cost £7 each, which isn’t terrible when you consider how much 3-4 tables used to cost you during the Windows 95 era, but it does make buying all of them prohibitively expensive. I sprang for the Star Wars pack of tables based largely on this glowing Eurogamer review of the Empire Strikes Back table, with the intention of picking up some of the other packs during a sale or something. Consequently this review is of the Star Wars pack for Pinball FX 2 only; I can’t comment on any of the other tables. They could be amazing. They could be awful. I just don’t know.
The Star Wars pack contains three tables: the aforementioned Empire Strikes Back table, a table based around overdone fanboy favourite Boba Fett, and a Clone Wars-themed table to round things off. Based on that Eurogamer review of ESB and the fact that it completely ignored the other two tables in the pack, I was kind of expecting Empire Strikes Back to be by far the best of the three. As it turns out this was incredibly stupid of me, because I forgot that a) I should never trust game reviews generated by mainstream gaming publications2 and b) if you read between the lines you can tell that the author of the review has a raging hard-on for Star Wars which is entirely clouding his judgement. When the first actual things about the table it bothers to mention are voice samples from the movie (except they couldn’t afford to license voice samples from the movie so they’re delivered by character soundalikes that sound nothing alike), the Imperial March and the little animated Darth Vader that pops up every now and again it should perhaps be obvious that you’re not getting a completely unbiased view of things.
Now, I don’t particularly like Star Wars all that much, and if you ask me Empire Strikes Back is a bloody awful pinball table. The play is based almost entirely around missions which are supposed to ape scenes from the movie, but your objective during these missions – the thing you actually have to do on the table to score the points – is never clear. There are some lanes which flash and I try to hit them, but doing so never seems to produce any appreciable effect. I got a little Tie Fighter to appear once along with some ramps so that I could dodge through an asteroid field, but even after doing this three or four times nothing was visibly happening on the table and the mission failed to complete. The one mission I did understand was the one with the AT-AT walker where I had to get the ball around the back lane to match up with the speeders wrapping their legs in tow cables, but on the whole it’s a fairly confusing experience and it’s entirely down to the method Pinball FX 2 uses to communicate feedback. This is via a small dot matrix display in the corner of the screen that’s supposed to mimic what you’d see on a real pinball machine backboard, except unlike a real pinball machine backboard you can’t keep track of it in your peripheral vision. You have to physically shift your eyesight to the top left (or, after I moved it and made it bigger in an attempt to get it to work, the bottom right) in order to figure out what’s going on, and while you’re taking your eye off the ball to do this you’ll mistime a shot and it’ll rebound down a drain. I guess I just find it utterly baffling that a game which is consciously trying to move away from the limitations of physical pinball chooses to communicate information to the player through this awful, antiquated and wholly inadequate analogue of a physical pinball machine.
Even discounting this, though, I think Empire Strikes Back is just fundamentally not a very fun table to play. It seems to have been put together in such a way that you’ll miss all your shots unless they’re dead-on and there’s about a zillion obstacles to getting into a nice smooth rhythm with the flippers, and so I haven’t spent a huge amount of time with it. The Boba Fett table is a bit better with much improved on-table communication, and any time you absolutely have to read something off of the dot matrix it’ll stop the action to give you some time to assimilate that information. This table has missions that are based around first opening up access to either the Empire or the Hutts by getting the ball down a particular lane five or six times, and then accepting bounties from them in the form of “Job” targets that you can hit for big, big points. It’s understandable, it fits the theme, and the table even has some nice touches like the little Boba Fett flitting around the playfield grabbing the ball out of the drain with his grappling hook and yanking it back into play whenever ball save is activated. I certainly liked it a lot more than Empire Strikes Back. The only problem with it is that when you don’t have a bounty activated there don’t seem to be a huge number of point-scoring opportunities available, and opening up those bounties can be annoying when the table suffers from the same finickiness of design as ESB. Still, Boba Fett is not a bad table. It’s just an almost perfectly mediocre one.
As surprising as it was, then, I found myself spending most of my playing time with the Clone Wars table. It’s surprising because it’s the table I would have expected them to spend the least amount of effort on, being based around an animated series ostensibly aimed at children, and yet the end result is legitimately fantastic. Perhaps it’s because the table designers didn’t feel so constrained by the licensed property this time around and could fit the theme to the design rather than the other way around. Perhaps it’s because they could actually afford to license voice clips from the series this time around, as well as getting in the guy who does the opening narration to each episode as a very helpful table announcer (so for example you might not have much idea what the ramp saying “T6” does to start with, but when the announcer says “T6 multiball!” to coincide with multiball mode being activated you can probably put two and two together). Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t rely anywhere near as much on the dot matrix display as the other two tables. Whatever the reason, the Clone Wars table ended up almost single-handedly justifying the £7 I spent on the Star Wars pack.
It’s a reasonably simple setup that’s almost entirely based around ramps and lanes. Hitting a lane correctly will automatically dump the ball back into a position where you can hit another lane, and so if you’re good enough you can chain together a lot of awesome shot combos. Unlike the other tables the lanes actually do obvious things this time around, like activating multiball or hurry up modes, and there’s also a slightly larger margin for error because 90% of the time you’re playing the ball is in a lane rather than bouncing around near the drain because your shot was off by a couple of degrees. Clone Wars is far less dependent on the mission-based gameplay of the other tables, too; it’s there, but you can score big points without it if you don’t want to jump through hoops and just want to hit accurate shots. There’s an upper set of flippers which (for once) are actually in sane positions to hit two of the more important lanes in the game if you can set them up right. Basically everything about the design of this table just seems to have gone right where the others went horribly wrong, using Pinball FX 2’s nature as a computer game to aid the gameplay rather than wasting the player’s time with a bunch of flashy gimmicks that don’t actually add anything substantial to basic pinball formula. And as the icing on the cake hitting the Gunship ramp makes a noise very similar to the sound effect for hitting a reflex shot into the launch ramp on the Space Cadet table. I’ve already sunk five hours into it and I can see myself spending many more trying to beat my high score – which, in the end, is what pinball is all about.
I suspect that the Star Wars tables are not all that unusual in terms of how these DLC table packs are put together; you’ll get one good table, probably, and then the rest will be middling-to-bad depending on your personal tastes. Is £7 going to be worth it for that one good table? I think so – but then, as we’ve already established, I really like computer pinball. For others who are quite not so obsessive about the concept your mileage is most definitely going to vary, and to make matters worse I don’t think the trial periods you’re allowed before buying a set of tables are long enough to really give you a good impression of how it will play in the long term. I’m certainly not happy with the idea of forking out for another set of tables when they might all be riddled with the same flaws that afflicted two-thirds of the Star Wars pack. It pushes the rest of them into definite “Wait for a sale” territory, which is bad news for Pinball FX 2 because I’m pretty much their target audience. Good news for Pinball Arcade and Farsight, however; even though they’ve been pipped to the post through no fault of their own there’s still plenty of room for them to shine.
- This was the cause of a minor kerfuffle amongst the Steam community as the store page for Pinball FX 2 said it was free-to-play when it was in fact a glorified demo. I thought it was fair enough, but the store page has since been amended to more clearly state that it’s a trial version only. ↩
- If you’re not me (and I really hope you aren’t) you should include my reviews in that assessment. They’re my opinion only and nothing more; I at least hope I put it across cogently enough that you respect my opinion, but it isn’t necessarily going to match up with your opinion. And if it doesn’t, well, that’s what comment threads are for. ↩