Friday, July 26, 2013

Pinball FX 2: Table DLC reviews

Star Wars Pinball logo
On my Google+ feed, I've previously reviewed Pinball FX 2 for Steam, but I've been playing quite a lot of it recently, and thought it was worth a line-by-line review of the DLC that I've purchased for it during the summer sale. Below, you'll find reviews of 4 out of the 10 available DLC packs which includes 11 tables. I'll review the others when I have time.

For those who are new to Pinball FX 2, here's the short version: Windows-only (Microsoft, so not likely to change on that point) Pinball simulation with some "fantasy" elements (that is, events during games which are physically impossible on a real table) where the first game is free to play and each subsequent table comes as part of a 3 or 4 pack for $10 or alone for $3 when not on sale.

Marvel Pinball Avengers Chronicles Pack

Marvel Pinball Avengers logo
The first pack I bought was Marvel Pinball Avengers Chronicles pack which includes: The Avengers, Fear Itself, The Infinity Gauntlet and World War Hulk. Each of these represents a particular summer crossover event that transpired in the Marvel comic book universe and involves multiple of the characters from the Marvel stable, except for The Avengers which is based on the movie.

World War Hulk is mostly centered on The Hulk (obviously) and the Fantastic Four. My one atmospheric complaint about this game is that there seem to be too few character lines, and I find it very repetitious in terms of the audio. That said, this game is unique among most of the FX 2 titles for its extremely open and ramp-heavy layout (similar to Clone Wars, but much more open). I really enjoy this table, and I appreciate the arena mini-game for its classic mini-table feel. The biggest problem with this table is that its simple layout can encourage some very boring tactics (again, similar to Clone Wars). On the pro side, everything feels like it's on the table for a reason and I particularly like the shot up the middle where the ball runs up a ramp, through a one-way gate and back down a habitrail. That's just fun.

The Infinity Gauntlet is about Thanos (the likely villain of the Avengers 2 movie) and his primary opponents in the game are Adam Warlock and The Silver Surfer, though other heroes make an entrance. This table is probably the least realistic of all of the tables. The Infinity Gem mini-games are all extremely physics-shattering, the most glaring of which is the reality gem which involves the entire table turning upside down during play. I don't particularly like this table, but I'll admit that it's extremely well engineered. The technical challenges in the game are well designed, so you certainly won't be lacking challenge. The voice acting and references to the comics are very well done, and I hope that the Avengers 2 film does as good a job of portraying the deeply flawed villain as this table managed.

Fear Itself is probably the least "traditional" table, but I love it. The design is based around a circular outline that connects on both sides of the drain. This allows a "skillshot" that involves the ball dropping down one outlane, past the drain and back out the other outlane, forming a semicircle. If the ball follows this track twice in a row in rapid succession (a function of the speed with which it enters), then the player scores a "double skillshot". That is, unfortunately, the only truly innovative thing about the table, but the rest of the game is well engineered and poses a moderate challenge, amplified by the speed that the ball picks up and the open layout. Captain America, Thor and various minor villains are the centerpieces of the table's character lineup.

The Avengers is probably the table that most people will buy this pack for, and it won't disappoint. While there's nothing physically impossible about a colored pinball, the color/design-coding of the balls that represent each character is definitely a "fantasy" element. There's no way that a real table could sort these balls out without some sort of mechanism (a small magnet, at least) within each ball, which would make it almost impossible to give them the right feel when moving on the table. That said, you probably won't care. The table is fast and furious with a moderately open layout and lots of taunts from Loki, the villain of the movie and the table. The lines are almost all from the movie, but aren't too spoilerific, so don't expect the big punchlines to appear. At the start of the game, the player selects a hero. The controls for this are not obvious on the 360 controller (front buttons) so I was kind of lost on this table the first time through. Once you know how to select a character, you will move through the game, selecting other characters as you progress through the table. There's even a multiball where you play more than one hero at a time. I love this idea, and think it works well, but it does make ball launch kind of tedious. Overall a good table, but definitely not my favorite.

Marvel Pinball Original Pack

Spider-Man table
The Marvel Pinball Original Pack includes Spider-Man, Wolverine, Iron Man, and Blade. I don't think any of these are based on movies, though every one of the characters has had their own film franchise(s).

Spider-Man is a simple table with a pretty basic structure. The upper platform is reached through a ramp or via "Peter's Apartment" (a jump-shot that lands in a rooftop skylight). Beyond that most of the action on the table involves one of three lanes on the right: the Green Goblin's ramp, the bumpers area and the entrance to a long, spiral habitrail that serves no real purpose other than to take up the entire left side of the table. I find this table to be one of the easiest, and usually only lose my ball to boredom, which leads me to take risky shots. The Green Goblin's ramp is a bit tricky to get to, as it's low on the right and has pillars on either side that deflect shots that are not exactly in the lane. Overall, I'd say that this table is fast and fun, but leaves me feeling a bit unsatisfied.

Wolverine is a very complicated, technical table that has an extreme number of moving parts. I have not really mastered this one, though there are some simple strategies (simply firing up the middle is actually pretty reasonable as tactics go). My largest complaint other than the learning curve is that the skillshot setup is like a cut-scene before every launch! Other than that, I find the pace and variety excellent, though some of the table feels a bit like a rehash of some of Boba Fett.

Iron Man is probably the slickest table they've made. It looks beautiful. However, I find it terribly unsatisfying. The launcher is obscured by a graphical bar that feels very hokey, the primary mid-game objective involves hitting a bank of drop targets that only drop once the entire bank has been hit, and so leads to a very uneventful and monotonous series of attacks at an unmoving wall (update: a RL pinball player and collector friend says that, indeed, "wall" is the correct term for this obstacle). Overall, I just don't feel like much is going on until one of the modes is engaged, which is kind of sad because the table looks wonderful!

Blade is probably the most innovative of the lot. It has two main characters, Blade himself (a half-vampire from Marvel's Dracula series who scored his own movie franchise in the 1990s and 2000s) and his side-kick Hannibal. the game has a day-night cycle which can be accelerated by the player's controls. The same table features have different behavior depending on the time of day. Overall, the table is fairly simple, but it has elements in the center and background, making shots against the back targets interestingly tricky at times. There are some fantasy elements, but mostly the table sticks to physics. I don't like one of the minigames where you use the flippers as left-right selectors to pick a vampire out of a lineup. It's just kind of boring and not very pinballish. Other than that, this is one of my favorite tables with a good villain (a demonic vampire that wants to become a deity of vampires) and great flow. The one upper flipper feels a bit... pointless, but it can be fun to squeak off a quick hit with it.

Star Wars Pack

The Empire Strikes Back table
The Star Wars pack is a mixed bag at best. First off, unlike the other packs, it's only 3 tables (probably a result of the IP cost). The tables are: Star Wars: Episode V The Empire Strikes Back, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and Boba Fett. Of these, I only enjoyed one of them to any real extent, but that one I actually kind of love.

The horrendously named Star Wars: Episode V The Empire Strikes Back (movie title, okay... pinball game title... why?) is probably my least favorite table. There are mysterious teleportation drops, lightsabers obscuring the table, doors that open that don't look like doors, and a central target that does nothing more than light up when hit. The table is extremely open, mostly due to the lack of any interesting elements in the center of the table and... no, it's just terrible. Sorry. If you want to hear lots of lines from the movie, you won't be disappointed, but this ain't a good table, folks.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (well at least it doesn't have a movie number shoved in there) is a great table. There are about 40 million ramps all over the place and the combo shots are really, really fun to set up using all 4 flippers (two in the normal place and two up top with the bumpers at the end of an S-shaped path from the bottom flippers, past the left top and up to the right top). Overall play on this table is super fast and fun, with my only real gripe being that the table is just a bit too forgiving at times and setting up the multiball is absolutely trivial. Given how much I dislike the first game in this pack, it might shock you that I recommend buying it, but this game is the whole reason!

Boba Fett. Good name. Bland table. Some of the elements on this table feel quite a lot like the Wolverine table, and I certainly won't say that I've mastered this one. However, much of the "action" feels anticlimactic and there's very little open room on the cluttered table. That said, the game does capture the bounty hunter concept well, and has some nice nods to the character's history mostly in Empire and Jedi. I don't like the tentacles coming out of the sand pit. They just look kind of silly, and the sand pit itself is an annoying element. The side flipper that lets you interact with the drain is a lot of fun to play with, and I do like the launch sequence and skillshot. Overall an average table, but one I'd suggest at least trying.

Core Pack

The Pasha table
The Core Pack is a collection of four original tables, not based on any existing IP: Pasha, Rome, Biolab and Secrets of the Deep. Let me get this out of the way fast: I only really like one game in this pack, but yes, it's worth picking up because that one game will suck up quite a lot of your time, and the others aren't bad per se, they're just not great.

Pasha is, by far, my favorite table in this pack. I dislike its video minigame because it's boring, but other than that, it's a good, solid table with lots of tricks and turns packed into a small space. Speaking of small spaces, the central play field is quite small feeling because of the oddly placed bumpers (right center) and the long ramps and buildings that fill the left. At first, this annoyed me because it feels like the game will be too simple... not to fear. More or less, this game revolves around the Arabian Nights. Aladdin's lamp is a central fixture and the chatter of the characters often revolves around the stage of the story that you have reached. I like nearly everything about this table. The ramps are pretty straight-forward and you could argue that that makes the game a little simple, the ball lock is a touch too easy to hit. But beyond that, it's a blast with lots going on to keep you busy!

Rome has to be the most boring table I've seen from Zen thus far. Not only is the play a bit on the lackluster side, but the voice work sounds like it was read after a weekend of mountain climbing! The voice actors say their lines as if they're about to collapse from exhaustion. This table also suffers from something that Boba Fett has a lesser case of: the coloration is such that it can be hard to see some of the elements on the table. The uniform browns, tans, and reds make it hard to see what's going on sometimes. Technically, there are some very poorly placed lanes. One ball capture returns the ball in such a way that the flipper will knock it straight back up, and you end up "dribbling" the ball for a bit... not terribly exiting. I don't like this table, but I don't hate it. The large scaffolding ramps are fun and it's fun to see so much Latin getting thrown around.

Biolab is a very silly table. If that doesn't bother you, and the "buy upgrades" interface doesn't turn you off, you'll probably like it. The central idea is that you're growing an engineered creature in your biolab. You hit targets in order to upgrade its parts and then engage minigames that test its responses to various stimulus. I like the idea and the voice acting (which is the same voice actors as Rome, oddly enough) is superb! If you can take the silly, it's definitely fun stuff. It's not a very technical table, and it feels fairly forgiving at times, but I kind of like it.

Secrets of the Deep is one of the most rigorously realistic tables in the set. The primary problem with it is that the upper and lower play fields are separated by a choke point with its own set of flippers. This makes both halves of the table feel a bit too small and constrained. However, I love the periscope shot (where you shoot the ball out of a moving periscope) and I find the ramps to be not trivial, but easy enough to hit that I spend a good deal of time just racking up combos on them. One ramp has a funnel-like drop to the lower flippers that tends to slow play more than I'd like, but it's a minor nit.

update edit 1: some typos and clarifications.

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