PC Release Date: May 10, 2013
Lead Designers: Zen Studios

I’ve talked about the concept of mastery in previous video game reviews. Some games are narrative experiences. Some are strategic affairs where your engagement depends upon the level of your competition. And others fall into the class of repetitive tasks just begging to be mastered by the player. In a lot of ways, this was the default mode of video gaming–in the early days, when your three lives were gone, the only thing you had to gauge your success was a score. Thus, the natural inclination was to find ways to push that score as high as possible. Gradually, as technology improved, the possibilities for video gaming expanded. For a long time, simple score-striving seemed outmoded.

But it lives-on in pockets of the video game community. One natural fit for the score-obsessed is pinball. Whether video game or real-life table, it is a pastime entirely devoted to high scores. I never thought of myself as a score-seeker, but if you look in my Steam account at the game where I have spent the most time, it is Pinball FX2. Part of this is because I absolutely adore all forms of pinball. My wife doesn’t understand my fascination with flipping a little silver ball around the playfield–“There is no skill involved in that,” she says, “it’s just pointless button-pushing.” I’ve tried to explain that it’s more than just button-mashing, that you actually can aim the ball–but that’s fine, I don’t need to win over everyone as a pinball evangelist.

Along with just enjoying the mechanics, another reason I’ve played so much is that I set myself a score-related goal–to make it into the top 1,000 on every table I own. Pinball FX2‘s public leaderboards are a fantastic community-building addition to an otherwise solitary pursuit. You can always compare your score in three ways–to yourself, to your friends, or to the entire user-base. I remember playing Epic Pinball back when I was growing up and once I displaced the placeholder scores, there wasn’t much driving me forward score-wise. I’ve never felt the need to be the best pinballer in the land, just moderately good. Public leaderboards actually give me an idea of what “moderately good” means.

So naturally, if the game is so enjoyable that I’ve devoted over 100 hours to it, I should write a review. I’ve held off until now because I didn’t know how to best approach the write-up. At its most basic, Pinball FX2 is just an emulation of a real-world activity–pinball. In that respect, it is a phenomenal video game re-creation. It features all of the bells and whistles you’d find on standard pinball tables, plus some additional interactivity that wouldn’t be possible in the real-world. The physics seem true to life and the sounds and animations engrossing.

Where I struggled with crafting a review is that the experience of the game depends heavily upon the table being played. And the game has (at present) 70+ tables available to purchase and play on the PC. Each table has its own character, its own unique playstyle. Some are fairly open, relaxing experiences. Others require pinpoint precision and timing, with a variety of tense modes. Over the years, I’ve cobbled-together my collection during Steam sales–I can justify a one-time purchase of 75 cents when that’s what many pinball tables charge for a single play in the-real world. While I’ve greatly enjoyed the vast majority of Pinball FX2 tables I’ve played, I can’t possibly cover them all in this space.

And so, rather than try to capture the entire collection of tables in a single review, I’m going to embark on a series of reviews chronicling some of my favorites. Given the number of tables available, this may end up being something of a recurring feature. In any event, here are the first two:

Sorcerer’s Lair
This is the table that comes for free with the Steam version of Pinball FX2, so it’s likely the one most people will first encounter. I have to admit that I jumped into the game because it offered Star Wars tables (among other licensed properties), so it took me a while to turn my attention to Sorcerer’s Lair. As it turns out, this is a deep, complex table worthy of play. Players take on the role of two wayward siblings who have been imprisoned by an evil sorcerer. Most of the table’s missions and modes revolve around trying to escape the grounds with the help of a friendly ghost named “Whisper.” (If you play this table, you’ll come to grow tired of Whisper’s name being spoken.) The table is fairly open in the near-field (i.e. there are not a lot of obstacles to bounce off of near the flippers), so it lends itself to fast, fluid play. That said, there are a large number of paths, targets, and sinkholes to aim-for, along with a variety of different modes to start, so Sorcerer’s Lair still takes precision. As with most tables, it really helps to read the digital manual to figure out what you’re supposed to do. Even having done so, there are some modes I have not managed to initiate.

As I said earlier, one thing that video game pinball offers over real-world pinball is the chance to do things that would otherwise be infeasible. Sorcerer’s Lair takes advantage of this with several modes that take the action away from the main table. When I was first confronted with these transitions, they led to quick ball-drains (which subsequently return the action to the main table), but as I got used to this mechanism (which appears in a number of Pinball FX2 tables), I was able to perform a little better. While the table is challenging, there is little in the way of outright frustration to be found in the Sorcerer’s Lair. The artwork is lighthearted and not obfuscating, and the mode timers are of reasonable length, such that you feel like you can reasonably accomplish what is being asked of you at any given time. Zen Studios are quite generous to offer this one for free, so if you haven’t tried Pinball FX2 and have any affinity for pinball, you have no excuse not to download it and give it a try.

This is a standalone expansion table that takes place, as you might guess, on Mars. Players take the role of a space agency directing the planet’s exploration. The missions and modes revolve around troubleshooting equipment malfunctions and traveling around Mars to learn its secrets. This table features one of the most open layouts across all of Pinball FX2–both the near-field and deep-table areas are remarkably unobstructed. This design quirk makes Mars one of the more relaxing play experiences. Mission modes still have some urgency thanks to the inclusion of timers and targets that move locations around the board, but all-in-all, this is a table I turn to when I want to see how long I can keep a flow going.

The artwork on the table is minimalist, with clean lines like you’d expect to find in science-fiction. Mars and its Cydonian “face” form the dominant backdrop for the playfield. Other embellishments include orbiting spaceships and a rover on the surface. No matter how many times I get sucked-in to playing the Star Wars or Marvel tables, because of its unique design, Mars is one of the “standard” set that I reliably come back to time and again.

To be continued…