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Pinball FX3

Score: 100%
ESRB: Everyone
Publisher: Zen Studios
Developer: Zen Studios
Media: Download/1
Players: MMO
Genre: Arcade/ Classic/Retro/ Online


Graphics & Sound:

Disregard that score at the top of the screen. I've not so much awarded it to Pinball FX3 for its quality as I have excused it from the standards to which I hold most other games. You see, this base level release doesn't cost any money. Itís not so much a game as it is a platform (in their words, a service) for games. If you played Zen Studiosí last-generation offering Pinball FX2, youíre probably familiar with its novel structure and inspired pricing model. Instead of packaging several well-crafted virtual pinball tables together and slapping one big price tag on it, you only pay for the tables you want. So yes, at its base level, Pinball FX3 is free. However, with one exception, the tables are not. That being said, the tables are generally of high to extremely high quality. But the tables are not what Iím going to be talking about in this review, save the sparest possible explanation. Instead, the bulk of this review will be spent discussing what distinguishes Pinball FX3 from its predecessor.

In terms of intentions, Pinball FX3 has the same idea for visuals as its predecessors do. Take a modern pinball table with all the trappings, and have its theme permeate the table in ways that could never be achieved in real life. Characters come to life in organic, animated fashion; they move about the outskirts of the table, interacting with each other in ways that only they can. Itís surreal the first time you experience it; thereís a clear disconnect between the mechanical perfection of what youíre used to seeing and the flights of fancy that serve as window-dressing. But it works.

Zen Studios is touting a graphical upgrade with Pinball FX3; to be honest, I donít really see it. Granted, Pinball FX2 and all of its subsequent iterations look fantastic, between the superb visual theming and the photorealistic physics model powering the action. Maybe there just wasnít much room for improvement. Pinball FX3 offers backwards compatibility with Pinball FX2, and while some tables are certainly more thematically ambitious than others, there doesnít seem to be that much visual disparity between the likes of Pasha and V12 and Marvel Pinball or Star Wars Pinball.

Sound design is consistently on-point in terms of technical quality, but itís all over the place when it comes to artistic merit. Classic pinball machine noises are here in a limited capacity; thereís a certain mechanical sweetness in the activation of flippers and bumpers, but sometimes the theming takes over. Provided the table you choose is original or doesnít feature enough representation in entertainment media to compare, music and voice acting is generally good.

However, if itís a licensed product, thereís a chance things will go south. There are definitely some good examples: Portal, The Walking Dead, and Aliens vs. Pinball use instantly-identifiable assets from the source material and are all the better for it. However, there are clearly some instances in which the developer was unable to obtain either the rights or the capabilities to include certain well-known elements from the license. And while I admire the intentions behind them, the resulting "homebrew" efforts often kill the illusion by being cringeworthy and painful to behold: the recently-released Pinball FX3: Universal Classics is easily the biggest offender in that regard, so check out that review for more details. Per capita, considering how many tables that Pinball FX3 is capable of playing, the good easily outweighs the bad Ė just know that there are some stinkers in terms of audio.


Gameplay:

Pinball FX3 doesnít have anything to build on when it comes to the core gameplay; the pinball action has reached its zenith, and long ago. With that in mind, Zen Studios decided to move in a different direction. Features are the focus here; a sensible decision, given that thereís only so much you can do with pinball before running out of viable, meaningful prospects at innovation. The gameplay has not changed a whit, but the structure of the experience has been reworked to offer something more comprehensive, accommodating, and just plain addictive.

It all starts with the persistent leveling and mastery systems. The otherwise intangible concepts of experience and leveling up have been applied to Pinball FX, in a move that shockingly feels incredibly natural to the experience. By doing well with specific pinball mechanics (skillshots, longshots, bumpers, combos, etc.), you unlock (and improve the effect of) a series of score-boosting upgrades. Does it dilute the purity of the game? Maybe. Does it detract from it? No. You see, Pinball FX3 is all about options, and itís just as focused on its hardcore players as it is on its casual players.

I had very few friends on my list who played Pinball FX2, and I suspect the same will be true of Pinball FX3. Debates on whether thatís a sad commentary on my social life or a reflection of the gameís popularity aside, multiplayer offerings for this kind of gameplay fall kind of flat for me. Maybe I was born too late, but I never considered pinball to be a very social kind of game. Whenever I approached a table, corporeal or virtual, I always did so with the mindset that Iíd be competing against myself and nobody else. Thatís how I like it, and thatís why the multiplayer options just donít hold any lasting value for me. But between the fact that the option is a free addition to something good and the fact that someone out there is bound to enjoy these features, I can only count it as a positive.

That being said, some elements can be approached in both a single player and a multiplayer context. Tournament play is expanded, and participating is as simple as creating one from scratch or parsing the browser and joining one that looks good to you. It may be contact-free and uninvolving when compared to more actively competitive games, but thereís a sense of community here thatís palpable throughout the experience, and Zen has some really interesting plans in the works.


Difficulty:

"ďWinning" in pinball doesnít really mean the same thing as it does in most other games. In many ways, itís a striking metaphor for life. You start with the same basic set of tools and are given some objectives to choose from and some obstacles to overcome. Thereís some luck involved, but in most cases, itís not significant enough to completely bring you down Ė though it does happen from time to time. Regardless of how well you do with the number of balls youíre allotted, your game will end at some point, and your legacy is all that will remain afterward. Deep, no?

Yes, pinball can put you into a euphoric, trance-like state in which you can do no wrong Ė but it can just as easily put the spurs to you, brutally and with no warning. Thereís a lot of skill to pinball, but thereís enough chance involved to render the game not quite as skillful as it could be. Sometimes, the ball takes exactly the wrong approach to the bottom of the table, remaining perfectly out of the flippersí reach and impervious to any external forces applied to the machine. It just happens.


Game Mechanics:

Mechanically, Pinball FX3 is Pinball FX2. There's no difference whatsoever between the two. No tweaks to the physics model have been made, and let's be reasonable: who honestly expects innovation when it comes to the fundamentals of pinball? But I suppose we'd better round the bases for the record. The triggers control the flippers, and the Left Analog Stick nudges the table in the fashion of your choosing. That's the extent of your involvement, but excellent reflexes and strong foresight are required to see everything on each table, much less capitalize on each opportunity as it's presented.

Most of what's truly new in Pinball FX3 is structural instead of mechanical, but there are a few things that liven up the already exciting fantasy pinball action. Yes, this is largely a more under-the-hood affair this time around, but there are a few ideas that impact the core gameplay, and its effects will no doubt be felt to veterans of the series. Using upgrades and leveling them up over time results in a massive score boost. This is gratifying until you realize it's like setting your alarm clock fifteen minutes early; you know you've set it fifteen minutes early, so why not hit the snooze button?

Wizard Powers are more active in nature; if you've ever wanted to slow down time or back it up to five seconds prior, you can. Again, this totally messes with the purity of the pinball experience, so if you're hardcore about this arcade staple, you may not want much to do with this kind of stuff. However, pinball isn't always fair, so there's no shame in making the whole affair an equal opportunity offender.

Pinball FX3's comprehensive focus on progression, competition, and diversity is its greatest strength, and its pricing model is about the most truly progressive idea in this cynical age of microtransactions and on-disc downloadable content. Provided you don't dislike pinball, there's bound to be something you'll love about this game.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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