It’s safe to say that digital pinball has found its niche. After years of releases with two or three tables and questionable physics, the best minds in the pinball business came together at two distinct companies to present two complementary visions of that old silverball. While the Pinball Arcade continues to pump out amazingly accurate simulations of real pinball, Zen Studios have always leaned towards the fantastical, taking full advantage of the video game nature of their simulations to add in little touches that complement whatever universe they happen to be adapting. Our last check-in with the Pinball FX series saw that methodology taken to the extreme, but the new tables launching alongside the revamped Pinball FX3 show a different balance that keeps the pinball grounded without losing any of that arcade fun.
However, I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Pinball FX3 is the next generation of Zen Studios’ pinball marketplace. Taking full advantage of the next generation of consoles and new advancements in PC technology, FX3 brings a graphical upgrade to the vast majority of your tables from Pinball FX2. Even better, purchases roll forward, so no one has to rebuy content they already own on the same platform. Outside of a few licensing hangups that see the South Park and Plants vs. Zombies DLC left behind, everything from Ghost Rider to Portal to CastleStorm has made the jump with a fresh coat of paint. The new high-resolution textures and dynamic lighting won’t blow you away, but they are a marked improvement that makes each table feel better than before.
What will blow people away are the improved physics for many of the returning favorites. Pinball FX has always felt a bit off when compared to real tables, but 3 takes the series one step closer to that goal. Aiming my shots towards specific ramps has never been easier, and going back to old boards allowed me to up my high scores pretty reliably. The designs of old tables haven’t changed, and their quality can vary wildly considering how long the series has been in production. Even if I’m still baffled by the cramped playspace of Venom or the dual nature of Masters of the Force, it’s fair to say that these are easily the most playable versions of the Pinball FX collection to date.
This makes the other additions to the Pinball FX formula feel a little superfluous. Loading up the game for the first time will great you with an overzealous tutorial lady that seems straight out of the days of Microsoft’s paperclip assistants. If you don’t immediately turn her off, she’ll guide you towards new features that Zen Studios have baked into the launcher. For example, in-game tournaments have expanded, allowing users to challenge the community in addition to the regular official contests. Players also have more options when it comes to playing their tables, as Pinball FX3 features unique modes that let you try for a high score with a single ball or face a time challenge.
While those updates are quality of life inclusions, there is one update that affects gameplay After playing a new table once, you’ll unlock Wizard Powers with your high score. These are either passive perks that boost your score for accomplishing table goals or active powers that can slow down time or offer a brief rewind in the action. The game pushes you towards these sidegrades but doesn’t force them, providing leaderboards that are split between enhanced and normal games. When playing with power-ups, I always wanted to test them once, but then I mostly forgot about the powers and focused on the flippers. Ultimately, I found them to be a fun novelty and nothing more. I really don’t see many players gravitating to this new style on a regular basis.
Good and bad, all these upgrades come for free, superseding the previous FX2 client on Steam and current-gen consoles. Even if you own all the DLC, there are three new tables to check out based on Universal film properties. ET, Jaws, and Back to the Future all get the pinball treatment, and these are some of the best additions they’ve done to date. Each field has a bevy of modes that adapt everything you can think of from the movie in question.
I spent the most time with BTTF, which has different goals and table elements for all six time periods represented in the franchise. That means plenty of variety as you accumulate a high score, but it’s all pretty grounded in pinball tradition. Most of the time, you won’t be whisked away to some alternate mode of play that barely has anything to do with pinball, and you can do everything from outrunning Griff’s Pit Bull to jumping from the casino tower via flippers, drop targets and bumpers. Like is the norm with Zen Studios, the voice work can be hit and miss, and some of it does overstay its welcome on repeat playthroughs. Overall, the Doc and Marty stand-ins were serviceable enough, but I wouldn’t blame anyone for tweaking the volume sliders to mute them.
The other two new tables have a bit less going on, which could be due to the source material, but they’re still a good time. Jaws is a bit cramped in the play area, but it counteracts this by having the table sway back and forth during modes where you’re hunting down the titular shark. OK, that might not add much playability, but it is a cool effect that is very thematically appropriate. ET is pretty standard all things considered, with a set of upper flippers on each side of the board that let you do ramp combos with relative ease. All three new tables do suffer from having knock-off music rather than authentic tunes, which is all the more disappointing considering that other properties such as Star Wars don’t have this issue.
Presentation issues aside, Pinball FX3 and the tables that launched alongside it continue the Zen Studios tradition of excellence. This is digital pinball that is as good as its ever been, combining some outlandish elements with solid table design. Older tables look great and gain new features, even if those features are disposable novelties. The new tables are great fun, showing that you don’t have to get too complicated to craft a great game of pinball.
Our Pinball FX3 review was conducted on PC via Steam. Codes for Universal Classics Pinball and other tables have been made available by the publisher. Pinball FX3 is also available on Xbox One and Windows 10 via Xbox Play Anywhere and PlayStation 4. A subset of the available Pinball FX3 tables is coming to Nintendo Switch on November 14th.
Zen Studios haven't faltered yet, and their Pinball FX series continues to be a bright spot in the digital pinball landscape. Outside of licensing troubles and new tables featuring less than accurate presentation, there's a great game of skill to be had here.
- Balanced and Fun New Tables
- Free DLC Upgrades
- Numerous Alternate Play Modes
- Off-Brand Music and Sound
- Some DLC Left Behind
- Wizard Powers Feel Extraneous