Monday 10 September 2012

Pinball FX 2: Plants vs. Zombies

Something current on Blog Squirrel? Better get that third runway up and running because the pigs want to fly.

Satire. And yes, I've decided to embark on individual Pinball FX 2/Zen Pinball table review(s), because outdated thoughts from mid-2011 scarcely apply to content released in recent days. This is the Plants vs. Zombies table, which deserves a mention because it breaks established norms by not being outstanding. Oh no.

Plants vs. Zombies is one of the flagship products of critically acclaimed video game developer, PopCap Games, but alas, it's not something I tend to gt behind, because despite the quirky premise I struggle to be thrilled by the rigid and predictable nature of "tower defence" games. However, I will concede that this is about the only PopCap "franchise" that can be moulded into a pinball table, assuming you ignore Peggle and its pinball-esque roots. Actually come to think of it unicorns might have been better but whatever.

Considering the source material, it's difficult to deny that Zen Studios have done a good job with this one. As is the case with everything they've produced in recent times, the Plants vs. Zombies table offers an immensely playable pinball simulation, basking in the technologies only a video game could provide. Never in the real world will you see zombies walking across the playfield or things exploding, and that's what tends to make Pinball FX great.

And let me be the first to say this isn't a horrible table. For a taste of mediocrity seek the garbage Zen Studio spewed out in the days of Pinball FX 1, marvelling at the lack of polish and repetitive audio as you go. But though I haven't played absolutely every table Zen Studios offer to the general public, I think it's fair to say that Plants vs. Zombies doesn't make the top ten. It certainly seems a step backwards from recent endeavours, anyway.

Usually the biggest complaint I have with Zen tables are the visuals, which can become cluttered and busy if you're not using the most obtuse camera angles imaginable. Though I disagree with the idea of using green balls on a green table, Plants vs. Zombies isn't one to strain your eyes as much as some previous outings, and it's an improvement on the likes on the last stand-alone table, Epic Quest.

But of course, as many may be thinking from the outset, the source material is restrictive. As it follows the original game to the letter, the table is paired with lacklustre music unsuited for the frantic world of pinball, and most missions are centred around the concept of hitting zombies in the face. It doesn't cut much - you're still dealing with sunlight, money and Crazy Dave, and it's difficult to ask for more from a pinball conversion. The difference is, Captain America has more than half a decade's worth of history to capitalise on, while Plants vs. Zombies has barely any depth at all.

But the major problem with this table is that it's poorly designed. Not because it cheaply drains balls or has poorly balanced objectives, but because it's almost impossible to lose. Though perhaps true to the PopCap tradition of being accessible to everyone, I think this goes above and beyond the call of duty, whereby even the weakest of players can rack up extra balls and long periods of play and nobody is challenged at all.

If you take the view that every table is meant to offer roughly the same amount of points, Plants vs. Zombies will be seen to score you too highly. But it isn't so much a case of the numbers that irks me - more that anyone with hands could stretch this one out to fifteen minutes or more, making it very much work against PopCap ideology of quick pick-up-and-play titles. And of course, anyone with even the slightest bit of skill will be able to double, if not triple that play time with no troubles at all. Professionals will be up for days.

To put this into perspective, I have only played this table a small handful of times so far yet have already amassed a score of around 380 million. Had I developed a full game plan by reading the rule sheet, I would imagine I could walk away with half a billion points or more. Good news if I'm amazing at pinball, but it's less about skill in Plants vs. Zombies - it's persistence - how long can you go without before your mind begins to wander and slip up.

It's not uncommon to max out the extra balls after the first plunge, and due to the generous kickback system, you're equally unlikely to drain down either out-lanes either. I've counted five ways of triggering the jackpot-friendly multiball, two of which are merely "not sucking at the missions", and it's perfectly possible to succeed just by keeping the ball in play rather than aiming for anything. Obviously as time goes on it will be harder to penetrate the leaderboards, but get a few friends around this table and you'll all be classed as pinball wizards in no time. This sort of thing upsets the shared scores that every table contributes to, and I think that cheapens things.

This isn't so much a plea for ridiculous tournament-level modifications in which anything short of perfection will lead to failure, but the beauty of pinball is that it entertains on many levels - it really doesn't need dumbing down for that perceived level of customer stupidity which is all the rage these days. There's no strategy here, it's just mindless grinding, and that doesn't make for a good pinball simulation.

Again, this isn't the worst table out there (and as an experience, I'd certainly rate it higher than regular Plants vs. Zombies), but it comes straight off the back of the wonderful Avengers Chronicles pack released earlier this summer. You can't set new pinball standards one month and then release something under-par a dozen weeks down the line - that's not cool. Go and save the universe from Thanos instead.

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