Zen Studios and Pinball FX3 decide zen is not enough

, | Game reviews

Since the dawn of time, pinball machines have been all about the high scores. When you play, you’re trying to get a higher score than you’ve ever gotten. Otherwise, your time is wasted. Too bad. Hope you enjoyed the laid back zen of that ball doing its thing. Because now you have nothing to show for your efforts but a pocket a few quarters lighter. Or, in the case of virtual pinball, less time to spend leveling up a Diablo III character.

The Pinball FX developers at Zen Studios are about to ruin all that.

Pinball FX3 isn’t technically a new game. It’s more like a new front end for the old game. Basically, it’s a free update that imports all of your Pinball FX2 tables. Well, 65 of them, which is close enough to all. It’s certainly better than what I expected when Zen announced they were making Pinball FX3. Given that Disney will take their Netflix catalogue and go home in 2019, I was braced for Zen proudly proclaiming they renewed their deal with 20th Century Fox for the Alien tables, and, oooh, look how good the Portal and Walking Dead tables look, while quietly hoping no one noticed the dozens of missing Star Wars and Marvel tables. But no such thing happened. It’s almost all here. You won’t even notice the missing tables. Which are? Uh, good question. Let’s seeā€¦seems Miss Splosion Man played hardball during contract negotiations. Plants vs Zombies is also MIA, probably because Electronic Arts couldn’t figure out a way to add loot boxes. I think there was a Ninja Gaiden table no one ever played. Did I just imagine that one? It’s disappointing that Rocky and Bullwinkle didn’t make the cut. Not that I ever would have played it. What a horrible table. But still, it was Rocky and Bullwinkle and it was probably better than the movie.

The new front end is all big sliding panels on a bright blue background. It looks Kinect mandated. On nearly every screen, a vaguely Asian young lady cheerily proclaims that I’ve achieved something. She is relentless. I could turn her off in the options, but I don’t want to hurt her feelings. She’s like some really cute girl in the video arcade calling out the great things I’m doing, which is something we all wished we had back in the 80s. Right? Didn’t we? Is that just me? “Hey everyone, Tom just got 8th place on the Space Invaders high scores!” She doesn’t mention that they turn off the machines every night, which resets the high scores, so this is just 8th best today. Also, it’s 11am. Zen Studios must think I really need a self-esteem boost while I’m playing Pinball FX3. I’ll take it.

She’s got a lot of stuff to call out, because this is no longer just a game about high scores. This is now a game about leveling up. Zen Pinball flirted with meta progression first in their Epic Quest table, and more recently in the Elder Scrolls table. The conceit is that you’re playing a character in an RPG. So you earn experience points and level up as you play, and the character’s level is persistent between games. When you start a new game of Epic Quest, it asks if you want to resume your level 5 hero. Of course you do. You’re basically leveling up the table itself. Didn’t get a high score? No big deal, because at least you earned some experience points. I confess there were times I surveyed my catalogue of tables, wondering which one to play, and settled on Epic Quest not because it was my favorite table, but because experience points.

With Pinball FX 3, this concept has been applied across the board. It is now a foundation for the entire game. Every single blessed table has persistent progression for passive scoring bonuses and special powers. It turns each table into a character in an MMO. Right now, my main is Starfighter Assault. My alts are Epic Quest, Moon Knight, Mars, and Thor. Maybe Aliens vs Predator, which is odd. Who plays the Alien vs Predator table? Oh, look, I do. But my main is definitely Starfighter Assault.

This is a terrible way to talk about your collection of pinball tables. Sure, you have your favorite, just like you have your favorite child, but you’d never say it, and you’d try not to think it. You want high scores on all of them, equally. Every table is precious. Yet Pinball FX cruelly forces you to quantify your favorite by showing how many mastery stars you’ve unlocked for each table. It is the Sophie’s Choice of pinball collections.

What are mastery stars? Of course you’d ask, because they’re something that has never existed in hundreds of table years of pinball history. Mastery stars are your table’s level. Each table has 200 stars you can earn, which means each table has a level cap of 200, which means Pinball FX3 is way better than World of Warcraft. I’m sorry, I meant worse. Pinball FX3 is way worse than World of Warcraft. That game has a level cap of, like, 60 last time I checked.

Naturally, you want to level up your table, because no one wants to play a level zero table. That’s just sad. So you level up by playing. Whenever you play a table in Pinball FX3, it sneakily seems to play the same as it played before. But it’s tricking you. Everything that happens goes on your experience point sheet. How far the ball travelled. How many bumpers you hit. How many combos you scored. Did you make a skill shot? Each of these things is a separate experience point track that gives you a mastery star when you level it up. And your level on each track — your accumulated mastery stars — unlocks score bonuses for that activity. Do you keep making skill shots? If so, you keep filling up the skill shot track and leveling up. Ding. One mastery star. Ding. A second mastery star. Ding. A third mastery star. And each one gives you a bonus to your score when you make a skill shot. The more points you make, the more points you make. It hardly seems fair.

But here’s a mean little trick: you only get to enable two passive bonuses at a time. Do you want a score bonus just for keeping the ball in play, based on the distance it has rolled? Do you want a little something extra during the hands-off idiot-proof machinegun rattle of the ball in a cluster of bumpers? Or are you so confident in your abilities that you’ll take the bonus for skill shots? Or even multiballs? Pick two. Only two. Just like you can only wear two magic rings in an action RPG — one on each hand, of course — you can only enable two mastery bonuses on any given table.

Then there are the special powers. Remember how in the olden days of pinball, you could rewind time, make everything go really slow to line up a shot more carefully, and press a button when you were doing really well to apply a scoring modifier? Of course you don’t, because those things never happened. But no one told Zen Studios that, because now you can unlock those special powers for each table. Don’t get greedy, because you can only enable one power at a time, just like an RPG character can only wear one amulet around his neck. And first you have to unlock these powers. You do that by playing the special challenges. How many points can you get with one ball, how long can you keep a ball in play based on a time limit tied to your score, and how many points can you make in five minutes? So here I am playing the 1-ball challenge for Starfight Assault so I can use the rewind power. I never used to care about 1-ball challenges. In fact, I’m not sure those were even a thing in the other games. Did Pinball FX used to have 1-ball challenges? If so, I didn’t care. Now I do.

All this means each table is now a progression grind. It is no longer a mere high score chase. One table is a level 1 rogue killing rats in the basement of the tavern. Another table is a level 3 mage flinging newly learned fireball at orcs. Yet another table is my 10th level paladin using a Vorpal Blade against a red dragon. One day Starfighter Assault will be decked out in all purples. This is terrible. Just terrible. Do you know how many more paragon levels I would have in Diablo III if it wasn’t for all these mastery stars on Starfight Assault? Do you know the marvels I would have unlocked in Guild Wars 2? And do you know how weird it feels to play a pinball table and not really care if I get a high score? Do you know how sure I am that my friend who got barely a million more points than me on World War Hulk only got those points because he probably grinded and grinded to get a score bonus for the bumpers?

In other words, Zen Studios has tampered in god’s domain. They have altered the calculus of scoring. What should be between you and any given set of three balls is now affected by all the other balls you have ever played. No ball is an island. These discrete steel spheres, once so perfectly self-contained, are now cells in a multicellular organism of your creation. It’s an abomination. An abomination, I tell you!

Oh, speaking of telling you things, the bumper bonus is great for Starfight Assault considering how often the ball passes through those turbolaser bumpers on the right of the table. But otherwise I can’t decide whether to take the distance bonus or to go for the skillshot bonus, which I’ve gotten up to level 3 for a 60% score boost to skillshots. I’m pretty good at hitting that little orbit at the top of the table. But the distance bonus is like free points, you know? Also, I can’t really decide if the rewind is worth it, or if I should take the scoring multiplier to trigger as I’m finishing one of the missions. I’m getting pretty good at the missions.

Anyway, if you’re someone who wants your pinball pure and unsullied by all this horrid leveling folderol, you can play Pinball FX3 in a mode with separate leaderboards. I forget what they call that mode. Pure Single Player. Classic Single Player. Old Fashioned Single Player. Single Player Lite. Something like that. I haven’t tried it because why would I want fewer points when I play a table? Besides, all my friends are playing on the regular leaderboards, so I need to prove to them that I’m not going to let this leveling nonsense get in the way of a higher score on whatever table they’re beating me on.

  • Pinball FX3

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • What a horrible thing to do to pinball to make it relevant, compelling, and gratifying.