Sunday 3 July 2011

Pinball FX 2

Pinball! Another case of Blog Squirrel catering for the masses. It's a game so old that's it's out-grown the concept of pins, and, judging by the fact there's only one big pinball table manufacturer left, it's thoroughly disliked by the world's population. There was a time a pinball table was more valuable to a man than a newborn child... how times have changed.

Yes, it's now the norm for children to have the higher priority in life, even if you don't get points for hitting them with metal balls. But even though we don't live in an age of bumpers and slingshots anymore, Pinball still lives and breathes among us in the form of 2010's Pinball FX 2 for the Xbox 360. Will it inspire a generation of neglectful parents like years long past?

In the late 1990s the gaming media was foreseeing the end of video game interpretations of pinball. I remember the UK's Official Sega Saturn Magazine being disgusted at the concept of pinball games coming to the Dreamcast (though that didn't stop it happening), and for good reason - in the late 1990s, pinball games were dull, lifeless and often flat-out wrong.

And it's an interesting subject, because in the early 1990s... they weren't... as much. Once upon a time a pinball simulator was a classy home computer purchase. I own DOS-based legend, Epic Pinball, and in terms of sounds and visuals, it blew the rest of my DOS collection away at the time... though that might be because it was spread across twelve low density 3.5-inch floppy disks and demanded a computer to itself in order to function.

But in a time where real pinball tables were starting to decline in popularity, pinball video games seemed to be on the rise. Digital Illusions of Battlefield fame used to make pinball games for a living. Now look at them. Now it's all about shooting Nazis or something. First millions of innocent Jews, then hopes of computer pinball simulations. Won't they give it a rest!?

Two things killed the genre as far as I'm concerned. Firstly, the move to 3D. I have always preferred pinball games with a top-down perspective because they give you a grasp of what's going on. Trouble is, that's not "realistic", and so developers decided to tilt things down the X axis, producing the slanted "3D" view we have today.

And that would have been fine if it were not for the primitive technology powering their endeavours. Early 3D attempts left us with ugly games paired with crappy physics, as it was a dimension few understood at the time. But hey, how were they to know? The 1990s weren't the place for eyes or brains, hence why a Labour government was voted in to bloat up your public services.

The second big issue as far as I'm concerned was the rise of FPS and RTS games, i.e. those built around the concept of a keyboard and mouse combinations. Pinball games didn't really belong on the PC, they just had to be there in order to take advantage of decent hardware. They were inevitably thrown into the world of consoles, but that raises further problems - console gamers hadn't been brought up on pinball and therefore didn't care. Essentially, there was no market for these things, and it now makes up a tiny percentage of the gaming world as a result.

And it doesn't seem to be getting any better for pinball fans. In fact, pinball's probably less popular than ever, as it only seems to be the likes of 2007's Pinball FX and its sequels making any sort of impact at all. Thankfully, Pinball FX 2 is about as classy as they come, and with all the licensed tables it also makes it the most appealing package in years. But the unfortunate truth is that it stands as the only package - there is no clear-cut alternative for the modern age.

The major problem with pinball games is that keeping the ball under control is not just the job of two flipper buttons and a plunger - professionals apply all sorts of tricks, from applying physical force to the sides of the unit or using flippers in unique and complicated ways. The sport does more than what most give it credit for, and although Pinball FX 2 emulates nudging to a degree, it can't cope with every trick in the book.

The other issue is, even though there's six and a half view modes in Pinball FX 2, the camera is incapable of tilting, rotating or moving from set positions. On a real table you can look around obstacles to see where your ball is - that's not an option here. With a top-down perspective you can avoid potential problems with objects getting in the way of your line of sight, but again, you can't do that in Pinball FX 2.

The one major feature Pinball FX 2 offers over previous outings seems to be the ability to tweak tables, just like an arcade operator. Oh and the social stuff... but I'm not bothered about that. The point is, Pinball FX 2 stands as about as close as you can get to the real thing without screwing around with stereoscopic 3D or various fancy controllers.

But alas, it's still no substitute for the real thing, and I can't see a case in the near future where it ever will be. A virtual world allows us to create weird and wonderful tables which would be practically impossible to emulate in real life, but like driving a car in Gran Turismo, it's still not nearly as fun as doing it for real.

Pinball FX 2 offers a number of tables but today I'm only reviewing the "Core Collection". It consists of four tables: "CREATURES OF THE DEEP" - a table set under the sea with divers and submarines, "BIOLAB" - a "lets make a monster in a lab" table, "PASHA" - a table set in a deserty Arabian nights scenario with magic and genies and "ROME" - a table based on the Roman empire.

From a pinball perspective, each of these tables are very well designed, and are a vast improvement over the original Pinball FX collection. Clearly the designers paid attention to the details. Every time I look at these still shots on this page, I see something new. In theory, I shouldn't be faulting the graphics - the classic rules like low polygon counts or blurry textures haven't been broken and therefore things should be fine.

But they're not. The tables, as lovely as they are, have managed to end up at the other end of the scale - they're too detailed and too busy. I keep spotting new things because as a fast and frantic game, you don't tend to stop and look at the scenery. Also because in order for me to play this game effectively, I need to be zoomed out as far as possible, masking some of the fine detail in the process.

The problem is, objects on these tables like to blend in with one another. Rome is the worst offender, but Biolab suffers from this too - targets, walls and backgrounds all start looking like the same thing as you glance over the stage. You need to spend time with the game not just to learn where all the shots are, but to learn the basic shape of the table... because it isn't obvious. When playing Biolab the entire top right hand side of the board just looks like a dark grey blob when you're not focusing in on it - it's not clear where the tunnels go, and that's not a good sign.

Don't get me wrong, the 3D pinball simulators of the late 1990s were not fantastic, but for the majority of the time, you could see where the ball was. The backgrounds are darkened, the walls lightened, the targets are lit and the shiny ball always stood out, assuming the game was well made. Pinball FX 2 has so much going on that you're often at risk of losing sight of the ball (though at least there's a ball trail in this one). It doesn't affect every table Pinball FX 2 has to offer, but it's certainly an issue for some, and probably even worse if you're not running it on an HD screen.

And we also have issues with tables such as Rome, in which both of the main ramps are big fans of centre drains. You can counter this drain with the flippers, but it requires precision, and the detailed backgrounds often get in the way of your good judgements. There's practical reasons for simple backgrounds too - information such as multipliers, completed missions and switches are displayed on the board, but they're not instantly obvious among the mess.

In many cases it's not even a case of having to do a huge amount of work to fix the problem. The background can be bright red as long as the walls aren't bright red too. Just some distinction between the solid objects and the background would be nice. Practicality in visuals apply to every game, but as something that's mostly static in nature, it's far more important to the world of pinball.

One of the other major annoyances about Pinball FX 2 is the notice systems. Play a trial game and you'll be plagued with unskippable advertisments for the game every few seconds. Get the real thing and the game will like to remind you on-screen whenever you're beating records. Fair enough, but must you remind me a million points in advance? And must you remind me I'm beating friend scores? Or weekly scores? The amount of text in this game is excessive.

I also don't like the pricing strategy much. Not so much for the fact some tables are offered in groups while others are separate, but because the lesser Pinball FX tables cost the same amount of Microsoft points as the Pinball FX 2 ones. There is a massive jump in quality so they're not on the same playing field - reduce your prices please!

And to be honest, for a genre that's pretty unpopular already, you'd think it would be in the interests of Zen Studios to be a bit quieter. They should be practically giving tables away, - the fate of the industry pretty much rests in their hands.

Regardless, Pinball FX 2 is a practically flawless for a video game interpretation of the genre, and for that alone I think it's worth an investment. It's difficult to truly fault it outside of the busy visuals and the fact it's not the real thing, so if you've got any interest in pinball at all, this might be the game for you. I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to see some "real" tables though - perhaps a task for Pinball FX 3.

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