Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Zen Studios
Publisher: Zen Studios
Review code provided free of charge by the publisher.
As I sat down to right this review I took a moment to gaze lovingly at my PC. It’s a beast I’ve slowly built up over time, adding better and better components so that it can run the latest games on the highest settings. The amount of money I’ve sunk into it is…probably stupid. With all of its processing grunt and graphical horsepower, though, what am I doing with it? Playing pinball. Yup. All this powerful tech, and I’m caught up playing pinball.
If you’ve never encountered a pinball table in your life then firstly, what have you been doing? And secondly, let’s talk about what it actually is. In pinball you launch a little metal ball onto a tilted table with the aim being to use the flippers at the bottom to keep the sphere hurtling around the various ramps, obstacles and other bits and pieces in a bid to score as many points as possible. Due to the virtual nature of Zen’s pinball, though, we get a wide variety of extra flashing lights, character animations and other awesome stuff like minigames. Hitting the right obstacles can open up missions that can earn you big, big points, like evacuating citizens or battling enemies. The Marvel Infinity War table is a prime example of the game as activating the various Infinity Gems can result in things like weird ball behaviour, being transported to another dimension and more.
A game like this lives or dies on its physics, then. I’ve not played FX2 in a very long time so it’s hard to compare the physics models, but in FX3 the ball feels like it has a convincing sense of weight and momentum. As you pummel the table the ball behaves as you’d expect it to in real life, albeit with some twists that come from Zen not feeling constrained by the rules of gravity unlike real pinball tables. However, it’s always consistent with how everything behaves
Good thing it does, too, because pinball is one of those rare games that can be enjoyed by those simply seeking to enjoy the strangely cathartic fun of whacking a metal ball around a table, or by those aiming to hone their skills by delivering precision shots. Despite initial appearances, pinball is a very skill-driven game as you gradually learn how to send the ball hurtling exactly where you want it. Best of all even if you fall into the first camp of just wanting to have some fun you’ll become better and better without even realising it, slowly becoming more adept at judging the speed of the ball and its trajectory off the flippers. Before long you’re not accidentally activating missions or mini-games, rather you’re actively seeking them out.
It’s a game that somehow manages to both be wonderfully relaxing when you get into a table’s specific rhythm, and yet powerfully intense when you get down to your last ball and are trying to squeeze out those remaining few points before you inevitably slip up and the little metal sphere goes down the drain. Last second saves, perfect shots and lucky hits all invoke genuine excitement that’s only amplified when you’re trying to beat a friend’s score or are chasing first place in a tournament.
The core package is completely free and comes with a single table titled Sorcerer’s Lair. In their review guide Zen promote this not as a pinball game but as pinball service that will grow over time. Right now, though, there’s a grand total of 68 other tables that you can spend your hard-earned cash on, with packs of three to four tables selling for around £6.99. The range spans a wealth of Marvel and Star Wars themes, plus a bunch of Zen Studio’s originals, and there’s even a Bethesda pack that contains the badass DOOM cabinet. Of those many tables, however, only a mere three (the Universal pack containing tables based on Back to the Future, E.T. and Jaws) are actually completely new for FX3, with the rest being remastered versions of the FX2 cabinets that will automatically get added to this later iteration provided you owned them previously. Only a few FX2 cabinets can’t be transferred.
To aid in your decision-making process you can get a one-minute trial of any table you like, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting the option to buy new tables individually rather than having to shell out for an entire bundle. I’d quite like the Archer table, for example, but really don’t want the Family Guy, offerings to go with it. It just feels needlessly limiting when these packs could easily be split up so that you can buy any table you desire for about £1.99.
Table quality obviously plays a huge part in how well the game does as a whole then, and sadly I don’t have the cash to sit down and purchase every single table to test out. Still, I picked up a few and Zen offered up their Universal Classics pack as part of the review code. So what I can say is that there are certainly peaks and troughs in quality, with some tables being hugely enjoyable and others simply failing to click with me, although much of that comes down to personal preference on the style you like. The Universal Classics pack was solid, but I generally found more enjoyment out of the World War Hulk table and the Infinity Gem table, while Deadpool’s table didn’t interest me at all despite my love of the character. Sorcerer’s Lair is a reasonable table for Zen to offer up for free, although I do think there are much better tables they could have opted to give you. In fact, I feel like getting to choose one free pack of tables to get you started would have been a much better offer.
A lot of focus this time around has been on providing more ways to compete against other people, tapping into the competitive nature of chasing high scores. For starters hitting the matchup tab tosses you into an area where you challenge other people in order to score league points, and at the end of the week if you’re in the top 20% of people you can advance to the next league. However, in a bid to get you to purchase more packs only four tables are available to play in this mode each week, and having more of the available four boosts your Diversity bonus, meaning people who are willing to toss down extra cash, even on tables they don’t like, get an advantage.
There are also tournaments to play in that can be created by anyone or by Zen themselves, and it’s here I found myself spending a lot of my time, happily competing against other people in order to improve my overall Wizard score, which is basically just an overall profile score.
This increased emphasis on chasing high scores without sacrificing the ability to just sit down and have fun is arguably the key to the game’s success. Pinball is a competitive game, either with yourself or others, so adding in mores ways to go up against friends and strangers alike is great. Hell, there’s even hotseat mode for local play, something which I’d like to see made available online, too, so me and a friend sitting half a world away could have a laugh. The only thing that’s really missing is a more direct way of competing, like a mode where you both play at the same time with a single ball and the first to lose the ball loses the game.
On top of that Zen have introduced table upgrades that you earn for playing. You can select two of these before playing a table and they’ll do stuff like increase your score for hitting bumpers or make the ball travel far. These can seriously boost scoring, so it’s good to see that they can be disabled in tournaments, although they are used in matchup mode. There’s also Wizard powers which can let you temporarily boost your scoring or even slow time in order to nail a shot. To unlock these on each table you must complete three challenges; single ball mode which tasks you with getting the highest score possible before losing the ball; five minute mode which grants you unlimited balls by puts a time limit on your scoring; and finally survival, where you have to achieve a certain score before the timer runs out in order to keep playing. These new modes are great fun as they provide slightly different ways to play, and they can be used in tournament mode. Personally, I’m a big fan of getting just one ball as it makes every play feel a lot tenser than when you’ve got three to play with as per normal pinball rules.
In terms of graphics FX3 actually looks pretty damn nice at times thanks to its use of lighting and vibrant colors. Character models tend to look a bit stiff and don’t have much detail, but the rest of the table features plenty of little bits and pieces to admire. There have been some reports on the Steam forums of framerate drops which are obviously a potentially big issue in a game where a split second is all it takes to lose a ball. All I can say is that personally I didn’t encounter any, with the game running smoothly the whole time.
The audio is less impressive than the visuals because for some reason despite having the licenses for things like Back to the Future they don’t seem to be able to use the original music, which is a real shame. Various voice actors do their best to impersonate the movie characters while others bring their own versions of the likes of Wolverine and Deadpool. None of them are particularly good, but it’s hard to really criticise the voice acting in a pinball game.
There is 21:9 support but for some reason about an inch of the bottom gets cut off, obscuring the menus. Disabling the option to use the game’s scaling in my Nvidia control panel seemed to resolve the problem, but it shouldn’t be a problem in the first place.
Finally, the user interface, in general, could do with some work, too, as it feels kind of outdated and ugly. It’s functional and does the job, but it’s hardly pleasant to look at or navigate.
All in all, however, my gripes with FX3 don’t stop it from being a great game that has sucked up a lot of my spare time. It’s addictive as hell, easily grabbing you with that, “just one more go” feeling when you’re competing against your own scores, and then consuming your life when you start battling against other people. I still wish tables could be bought individually and I’m not a fan of how Zen opted to remove their prior game from the market altogether, presumably to stop people from buying tables for it and then transferring them over to FX3, but with that said while a few cabinets that didn’t make the leap due to licensing problems there’s really no reason not to upgrade to FX3. And if you’ve never played pinball before, then congratulations, a whole word of sphere-shaped addiction, shiny lights, high scores and 3am binge gaming awaits you.