Thursday 20 December 2012

Pinball FX 2: Shaman

Hey look, it's the day nobody was waiting for - equality amongst pinball simulators by Zen Studios.

Shaman, El Dorado, Tesla and V12, four pinball tables from 2009 originally exclusive to PlayStation 3 users, are now available to Xbox 360 fans via Pinball FX 2. Trying to describe the situation hurts my head, but I'm going to review each table individually anyway because I can, starting with Shaman... right now.

Here's a shocking statistic for you - these days I tend to play more video game interpretations of pinball than any other game genre out there. To me, pinball is the ultimate remedy for short bursts of arcade-like entertainment - simple and accessible enough for anyone to play, but requiring real and measurable skill to succeed.

Pinball life isn't clear cut like it might be in an 80s arcade game - the analogue nature of play means no two pinball games play exactly the same. Fast reactions and repetition don't necessarily define a pinball simulator, and it's one of the few occasions where online leaderboards can be seen as meaningful. Not only that, but high quality visuals and sound can be experienced without compromise thanks to the fairly non-demanding nature of the game - who can complain?

But if Pinball FX 2 has one key flaw, it's that table quality varies depending on release date. Tables from 2007 are borderline unplayable, not strictly due to poor layouts (in the old days Zen stole ideas from Williams and Gottlieb), but from a lack of attention to detail. If you spend your days looking at a mostly static screen it's easier to notice the dodgy audio, bland visuals and the awkward nature of play - anything short of perfect can ruin the experience tenfold, and you're likely to turn the game off due to boredom.

So predictably, introducing a set of tables from 2009 can raise some eyebrows. Zen Studios has been perfecting their techniques for three-and-a-half years, and older creations can feel very primitive compared to their younger, prettier offerings. Shaman is no different, being simpler in design, more uncomfortable to play and noticeably unpolished in comparison to recent releases. Though two years superior than the crap in the Pinball FX 1 classic collection, Shaman is still lacking in many ways... but that's not to say it's a bad table!

Yes, although the audio is less gripping than in recent endeavours, it would be difficult to class this game as offering a painful experience. In fact, the only factor which really hurts this table is the lack of intuitive play - the rule sheet is sub-par and so it takes a while to learn how the table functions. Shaman doesn't cope well with some of the newer camera angles, but all four games have received a much needed graphical upgrade, with this table coming out as one of the prettiest of the set.

It's not, however, a completely clean conversion. Scoring is lower than average, which doesn't bode well with the current system, in whcih Zen Studios awards keen players with prises should their overall score top a certain amount. Shaman also has problems with its table design, with many major shots refusing to be taken on the fly and therefore disrupting the flow of the experience. Although the table isn't fundamentally broken like I had expected, it does feel less bulky in terms of content.

There's a nasty right drain designed to be avoided by nudging the table - a perfectly acceptable feature for the real world, but one made impractical by Pinball FX 2's control scheme. Having to save balls by force is less common in more modern tables thanks to Zen's liberal use of kickbacks and ball savers - here you can rely on neither for most of the time, so it's perhaps not the best choice for beginngers.

But in the end, all problems with Shaman can be attributed to age. It's no surprise that it doesn't play as well as newer inventions, and although I see no reason why extra music couldn't be added to liven things up, this still stands as the best version of the game out there.

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