Release Date: 27/10/2010
Played On: PC
Available On: PC / XBLA / XBO / WP
Time Played: 11h
Progress: Still playing
Developer: Zen Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios

Looking back, it feels like there's been a long-standing side quest happening throughout the history of PC gaming: who can make the best pinball game?! At the very least it's been an element of PC generations that stands out to me as a marker of technological advancements. A new pinball game meant that there had been a breakthrough and a new generation of tech was on its way; but it seems like this pursuit may have only been a fetch-quest after all.

I'm not sure why pinball is arguably the height of gaming technology benchmark inducing test cases, but as a kid firing up Balls Of Steel for the first time, I couldn't believe what I saw. That physical machine I had wrestled with in the arcades and fed coins to in futile attempts at glory, was now manifested in my own home with startling realism. The software rendered tables had animations and effects that were never possible in the IRL versions, so this was clearly the pinnacle of blurring the lines between physical and digital gaming.

That is, until we all upgraded from DOS to Windows 98 and found the incredible three dimensional possibilities of Space Cadet. Sure it was a single table from Full Tilt! Pinball!, but I must have played that free sample for more hours than I'd like to admit. 

Space Cadet featured a pre-rendered 3D table and what felt like actual ball physics. The bumpers lit up, the flippers had some weight behind them, and the sound was full of epic clarity thanks to our new SoundBlaster 16 sound cards. It became a staple of PC gaming for those of us who were too young to buy expensive games, but had already spent all our pocket money in the arcades. This was accessible next generation tech that could be accessed on any Windows computer. It was heaven.

For a long time it didn't seem like there would be any way to top the thrill of Space Cadet. Balls Of Steel was the pinnacle of 2D technology, so Space Cadet had to be the best 3D can get. However, this was first generation 3D with the pre-rendering and soft physics that was all too common in the early 3D era. As with the wider gaming industry, we thought we had seen the best 3D graphics around, until we encountered the powerful 3D engines and hardware that we're so familiar with today.

It's important to remember that for a long time, a lot of us had no idea that 3D could get much better than the simplistic polygons of early 3D experiments. When the modern era of 3D graphics with physics and lighting and millions upon millions of triangles came along, it felt like a huge jump from where we had started. Of course, this is a gamer's perspective, so it might just be my little niche experience with games, but I remember watching the tech demos for Half-Life 2 and Doom 3, which focused more on lighting and textures, than exciting gameplay or story. There seemed to be an era of 3D boom prior to online videos being readily available, that drove developers to show of the tech in their games, even at the expense of the games themselves.

So when I say that Pinball FX2 is the pinball game of this modern 3D era, I hope you know what I mean. Balls Of Steel was awesome in 2D; Space Cadet blew up the spot with rendered 3D; and Pinball FX2 could be the pinball watermark of this current generation. Perhaps the next step will be VR or something we haven't even thought of yet, but right now there's no question that the only pinball you need is Pinball FX2.

For starters it's free to play and even comes with a few tables that require no financial input at all to enjoy and post scores on. However, there is an extensive variety of tables that can be bought as DLC, each with a trial period to try before you buy. I mention the business model because it ties in nicely to the shareware model of Balls Of Steel, and the packaged/free model of Space Cadet. A technological pinball benchmark should be accessible by everyone and Pinball FX2 has continued this tradition nicely.

The actual game is a showcase of how far pinball has come. The physics feel tight and realistic, with a real weight to the balls that react to the table and your inputs just as you would expect. One of the biggest disconnects between digital and physical pinball for me, has always been that physical pinball feels much weightier and faster than a lot of digital counterparts. While Pinball FX2 could still tweak the weight a little to be 100% accurate, they've done a good job of balancing game feel with gameplay. Often the reality of physical pinball tables is that they can be super difficult and fast due to the weight of the balls and the natural drive of gravity. It's nice to have it eased off a bit in this digital form, but not so much that the game feels floaty or artificial. Somehow, Pinball FX2 has found a nice balance between realistic feeling physics, and enjoyable gameplay fiction.

It's no surprise then that one of the things I enjoy so much about digital pinball is the blend of reality and fantasy. There's always an odd mix of traditional table elements like flippers, bumpers, tracks, and even launchers, but it's digital so the possibilities are endless. On top of the traditional structure of the table, is often something unrealistic like digital characters standing around and interacting with the ball. The ball can be teleported to different locations, or minigames can have you launching fireballs at a miniature ship. None of this would be possible with a physical table, but the table remains tied to a physical template.

This relationship between realism and fantasy ends up feeling like an augmented reality version of the physical game. I suspect that a completely fantastical and physically impossible version of a pinball game might be confusing and a little disorienting. I guess we'll find out when Yoku's Island Express comes out, as it's a side scrolling open world pinball adventure that looks nothing like a table or anything physical at all.

Perhaps the fact that a digital pinball game is relying on an inherent knowledge of the rules that have existed for a long time in our social consciousness. It's a game that is instantly relatable and understood by so many of us, that to change too much of it might alienate players and diminish its impact. Either way, I enjoy the balance of making digital pinball an AR experience, but I'm keen to see where the next generation will take us.

So there's not a lot to say about Pinball FX2 specifically, as it does everything it needs to do as a contemporary digital pinball game. The tables are varied enough to be interesting, but there are a few stinkers here and there. New tables are added fairly regularly and usually involve some sort of licensed tie in, which is obvious from the number of Marvel or Star Wars related tables that are on offer. They all feature themed minigames and utilise licensed assets to deliver a quality table, so I'm not too bothered about all the crappy licensing. 

It would be nice to have a bit more variety though, or see some classic pinball tables remade in the Pinball FX2 engine. An updated version of Space Cadet would be heaven on earth and sell like hot cakes if you ask me. Thankfully though there are a good range of generic tables to play, and every now and then a bundle will appear with ten licensed tables for a dollar or something like that, so it's not a huge investment to have loads of variety.

Finally it's worth noting that there are online and local leaderboards, as well as being able to challenge friends to beat your score and compete together. It's kind of a given these days to have this kind of leaderboard functionality, but it's another way that once again a pinball game has found its place as a measuring stick for contemporary technology.

We're a long way from the sprite-tastic Balls Of Steel, but the game remains largely the same. Pinball FX2 looks and feels as good as it can for this generation, which is all it needs to do. There are many other games that push graphic technology to its limits and will make your rig bleed; but I'll always consider the realism and detail of pinball games to be a fine marker for generational change.

It's a fetch-quest in the end as the change from one generation to the next is simply a collection of new elements and a showcase for new technology. Still, I'd rather try a new pinball game every decade than be sent out into wilds to collect bear-asses.