Yes, I’ve been flapping my flippers, bumping the desktop with my pelvis, and seeking multiball nirvana in Pinball FX-2, and now I’m ready to share my Important Internet Opinions with you about it.
But first, some nostalgia.
I grew up in a tiny northern BC town in the 1970s. We could, if we had our rooftop antennas tilted just right, get a total of two television stations, and at night, if atmospheric conditions were right, we might pick up more than two radio stations. There was no internet, of course. There were no movie theatres, no video rental places, no malls or skate parks or really much of anything besides trees and water and moose and oceans of booze.
But there was a pinball place, which, once Space Invaders and Asteroids and Pac Man and all the rest appeared, became a video game arcade, and though it moved to different buildings over the years, maintained a strict policy of being dirty, dingy, and run by surly and probably-hungover old men. They were the places we congregated and spent far too much time, and even once we’d gotten old enough to prefer booze and chasing girls to the silver ball and the cathode ray tube, were the meeting point before we roared off into the night with bottles of rye and gleams in our eyes.
I’ve played the silver ball.
From Star Wars down to ‘Splosion
I must have played them all.
Though I came to love video games — and still do, all these decades later — my first love was pinball. I was pretty damned good at it, too, even in later years, when there’d be a few bottles of beer sitting on the glasstop rather than a coke. I considered myself a bit of a connoisseur, arguing with friends about things like the relative merits of the flipper ‘feel’ between Bally, Williams, Stern or Gottlieb tables.
Williams, of course, had the very best flipper action. I will brook no argument on this matter.
I loved and still love pinball, even if it’s been many many years — living in Asia as I have for most of the last 20 years — since I’ve laid fingertip on flipper button. I’ve been searching for a long time, with limited success, for virtual pinball experiences that captured some of the feel and the fun of pinball. Which brings us to Pinball FX-2.
Here, have a look at the trailer before we dive in
Q: Is it pretty?
It is pretty. Not only are the tables themselves gorgeously detailed, but they are set in virtual environments that are both amusing and attractive. Catching one of the little shoebox-bots wheeling past while playing one of the Star Wars table is an unexpected delight, for example. The fact that these tables do not actually exist in the real world is played as a strength, with animated characters and objects around the play area that move and fly around, something that’s mildly distracting, sure, but also a lot of fun. Little design touches, things that you only notice in quiet moments like the water flowing off the front of the Hulk table abound, and they are a delight to pick up on.
The UI, a tiled affair that brings to mind Microsoft’s Windows 8 start screen (for better or worse, and not surprisingly, given that the game is published by Microsoft Game Studios) will not win any beauty contests, but it is functional and consistent and it surfaces in fairly clever ways some of the best parts of the overall package — the Steamworks leaderboard and friend functionality.
Q: Is it a good simulation?
A virtual pinball game lives or dies on ‘feel’. It is trying, no matter how many bells and whistles have been laid on, to accurately simulate a very familiar real-world physical set of objects, in a way, I’d argue, that no other games really do. If the ways the balls roll or bounce, if the heft of them as they leave the flippers, if anything is even a little bit off, it’s not going to connect with folks who have spent time playing actual pinball tables. And I think they nailed it here, in a way that the also-recently-released-on-Steam [name redacted] very much didn’t. One of the things I found myself thinking as I played the first few tables was that they did an amazing job of getting the feel of Williams flippers (the very best flippers, let me reiterate) just right, even though none of these tables are recreations of Williams games. How I wish they had the license to recreate old classics like Pinbot or Dark Knight, but sadly, it looks as if the rights to those games have gone to their deeply disappointing competitors, [name redacted].
Q: Does it sound cool?
Well, um. There is a lot of voice acting going on in these games. In the case of the Star Wars tables, they’re using actual soundclips from the first three movies, and it’s all quite thrilling. In the case of the other tables, well, things fall down a bit, particularly with tables like the Marvel superheroes games: thanks to the many Marvel movies of recent years, we’ve kind of got the voices of various characters locked in. Hearing Iron Man sound like a generic blowdried corporate drone, rather than a Robert Downey Jr corporate drone, well, it’s a little distracting. All the more so given the frequency that voice clips are deployed during gameplay.
That said, though, it’s all cheesy good fun, and cheesy good fun is very much in line with the whole pinball aesthetic, at least for me, and the practical sound effects in general are excellent.
Q: Do things go whoosh bang kaboom in satisfyingly dramatic ways?
There is a surprising amount of whoosh and kaboom available in the various tables — explosions and lasers and all sorts of special effects that would not be possible on a real world table. For purists, which I have decided I am not, at this point, who are looking for a pristine simulation of actual pinball tables, this could be a distraction or a downside. I sympathize with that viewpoint, but the bells and whistles add to the fun, I reckon, and don’t detract from the solidity of the core pinball experience.
Q: If I am someone who enjoys painting nude fantasy portraits of Oprah Winfrey, will I enjoy this game?
No, sir or madam, you will not. I’m sorry, but that’s just the way it is.
Q: What are the inevitable Annoying Bits?
The mediocre-at-best (in most cases) voice acting is a weak point, for sure. The animated characters, the lasers and explosions and other things that are only made possible by the fact that this is a video game simulation of physical artifacts, may offend Pinbal Purists.
The fact that all of the tables but one must be paid for as downloadable content is a massive turn-off for me in general. To own all of the tables in Pinball FX-2’s main competition in this space right now, [name redacted], you’d need to spend up to $90 (so far), and that’s literally ridiculous. The good news in the case of Pinball FX-2, though, is that they are clearly OK with steep discounts — I picked the game up as part of a recent Humble Bundle, and only spent a few bucks to get nearly a complete set of tables. Although I have deep misgivings about this kind of pricing model and hesitate to endorse any game that uses it, I’m willing to give a provisional pass here, with the advice that you wait for a bundle or a Steam sale or whatever to pick up new tables on the cheap.
Q: Is it fun?
Hell, yes, it’s fun, even if you’re not an old fart pinball fan like me. But the thing that punts it over the top is the list of your Steam friends and their scores on the current table, front and center, and the way it keeps the (hopefully friendly and fun) competition also front and also center, or, you know, a bit to the right. You can run hotseat tournaments for up to four players in front of the same computer, if that’s the way you roll. The depth of individual table gameplay and the leaderboard functionality keep replayability high, and even just noodling around for a quick break is great. It even saves your games-in-progress on a given table if you have to step away during a marathon session with the silver balls.
Trust me — get this one if you’re at all into pinball, but don’t pay full price for table packs if you can avoid it. That kind of thing just doesn’t need to be encouraged.
The Bottom Line on Pinball FX-2
- $10 per table pack