Reviewing a game like Zen Studios’ Pinball FX is a little like reviewing the latest FIFA. Taken in isolation, it does about as perfect a job of simulating its target subject as you can realistically expect from a videogame. From the core elements of the physics of the ball, the feel of the controls and the accuracy of the emulation to the little details that sell the whole package, Pinball FX delivers. But, when taken in the context of the series as a whole (which last had a major release with 2017’s Pinball FX 3), it’s harder to justify both its existence and the fanbase’s reasons for buying back in.
As with any series that has a few entries, Pinball FX has gone back to the start with its naming convention, confusingly sharing its name with 2007’s title. And, of course, what you’re getting here is another pinball table hub. A shell that you download for free that houses the various tables you’ll be able purchase along the game’s supported lifespan. The game launches with 80 supported tables of which one, Wild West Rampage (which debuted in Pinball FX 2), is free and can be downloaded right away.
To the massive disappointment of existing fans any previous purchases of tables do not carry over to this release. That’s the first time this has happened as purchases were previously transferrable from FX to FX 2 and from FX 2 to FX 3. Zen’s reasoning is that all the tables have been remastered to take advantage of the switch over to the Unreal engine. A reasoning that has been met with disappointment from some fans of the series who already have hundreds of pounds/dollars invested in the FX 3 ecosystem.
That’s where the FIFA comparison comes into play. In the same way that fans of the series will point to subtle differences in how players react or the ball moves, there’s no answer for the fact that you can take ten years away from buying new entries in that series and still pick up the new one and start being able to play it immediately. That, on the face of it, it’s 99% the same game. And that’s very much the case with Pinball FX.
The shift to a new engine doesn’t seem to add anything noticeable. Tables that you’re used to still play the same for the most part (absolute experts will note that access to drop catches and flipper swaps are improved but 99% of players won’t be able to detect much of a change). Indeed for a while there they actually played worse as Pinball FX actually had less responsive controls than FX 3. This was pretty shocking but was patched out within a couple of days (interestingly, at the server side as there’s not been a patch for users to download). Even now, if we’re really going deep with it, FX 3 still feels a little sharper but only in the same way as when you’re getting an eye test and are trying to see a difference between two testing lenses. It’s super subtle though. And we’ve had a couple of incidents of the physics bugging out on tables and even the occasional lock up.
The most noticeable thing when comparing the two games is how dark Pinball FX is. We had to turn the brightness up to max and even then FX 3 looks slightly better. Certainly the reflections in the ball are much more noticeable in the previous game. Oddly, there’s a choice between graphics and performance modes when playing on the PS5 and we honestly couldn’t tell the difference. Graphics mode didn’t seem too add anything (if there’s ray tracing in there, we couldn’t see it) and performance mode didn’t appear to affect the frame rate at all. It’s the strangest thing.
So with no real differences apparent in actual play, the only real changes are to the hub itself and some of these are good, while others aren’t. As before, you’ve got a selection screen for all the various tables. You can download any of them but if you don’t own them, you can only play for a couple of minutes just to get a feel for them. On the next tab you get your tournaments. These are user-created events where you, or someone else, picks a table and a rule set and people compete for score. This is probably fun with friends but pretty meaningless compared to the next tab which is where you get proper events.
These events are created by Zen themselves and give you a table, a mode and a few days to set your best score. These earn you season points which, in turn, earn you various collectibles. Grand Tournaments seem to last for a couple of weeks with in-game trophies (like cups, not PSN trophies) for finishing in various positions. These seem to be popular already with thousands of people seemingly participating.
Those collectibles, however, really seem to form the backbone of the game. At least in terms of what counts as new content. Each table has a cumulative score that unlocks five collectibles that you can story in your in-game room. The first four collectibles for each table will be something you can put on a shelf while the fifth will either be a statue, a carpet or a poster. They do give a bit of incentive to keep playing the same tables (and that’ll definitely be true if Zen re-release those Aliens tables) and they pretty replace the table-specific trophies (as in actual PSN trophies) which now no longer exist. Again, some fans won’t be happy about that.
So, at this point you have to really decide on if you want to bother splitting your table collection from FX 3 to Pinball FX on the strength of this collectible collecting meta-game. Of course, the official line is that Pinball FX 3 still exists and so you’re not losing anything but if the digital age has taught us anything, it’s that people want their games in one place, their films in one place and their music in one place but that corporations have pretty much done away with that with all manner of launchers and streaming services out there muddying the waters. However, it’s a little annoying when it’s one company splitting up their own products like that.
But, new tables will come to Pinball FX exclusively and that’s where you need to decide if you’re getting on board. At the moment there three new tables: Borderlands, Brothers in Arms and, much more meaningfully, The Addams Family. This emulation of the classic, and much-loved, 1992 table is sure to entice in some real hardcore pinball heads. It’s well emulated and has some fun additions that only this platform can introduce but, as with all the Williams tables on the Zen platforms, the larger gap between flippers (when compared to Zen original tables) does lead to many an unwelcome, and unfair, loss. Your mileage may vary though. There are also console debuts for sixteen other tables which cover a wide range of topics from Homeworld to Garfield.
This one is going to split the fanbase. Players looking for a more casual experience are well-catered for. The focus on collectibles instead of nightmarishly hard ‘activate Wizard Mode’ style trophies may be welcome but hardcore players may be annoyed at the leveling of that playfield. However, the tournament events still give the best players a battlefield to dominate on.
Existing fans of the franchise may well bemoan the need to repurchase tables as well as the imperceivably tiny improvements that the Unreal engine brings. Aside it being an opportunity to re-sell you your existing tables, there’s another aspect to Pinball FX that doesn’t sit right with us and that’s the Pinball Pass. This is a subscription/rental service that gives you access to Pinball FX‘s tables for as long as you pay those dues.
In theory that’s not a bad idea. A Netflix for pinball tables. We get it and it’s a good way to participate in various tournaments and grab collectibles without committing to buying specific tables. But it’s done in a bit of grubby way. Real money buys you coins in this game. Coins then buy you the pass. We’re used to seeing publishers obfuscate the true cost of in-game purchases by using nonsense in-game currencies but it still annoys us. Also, a year’s worth of pass is pretty expensive (about £80 in real money). And there’s just silliness in there too. Like a month costs 150 coins (£11.99) but you can buy 100 coins (for £7.99) for some reason. Like just tell me the price, man. Stop messing me around. And even then it’s not over as not all tables as some of them (Indiana Jones and some Marvel tables) aren’t included. It’s just a bit of a faff.
As a simulator of pinball though, Pinball FX is another example of the genre’s best developer doing their best work. And in between getting annoyed at the business practises, we’re having a great time learning the tables, competing in online tournaments and even messing around with those collectibles. And you know that this package will be supported for years, so anyone new to the series can build up a fantastic collection of tables. But we can’t help thinking of Danny Pudi in the TV show Mythic Quest when we see the monetisation at work.
+ Tournaments and collectibles are fun to play around with
+ Now includes The Addams Family (for a price)
- Pinball Pass pricing is vague
- Not as responsive as FX 3
- Graphics are a little dark and the graphics/performance modes are barely different
- Sound still isn't great on some tables
- Some tables bug out and can lock up