Pinball might have made a blind/deaf mute named Tommy a legendary wizard back in 1969, but it has trouble competing with the GTAs and Gears of Wars of our modern world. But this decreased appeal hasn't stopped Zen Interactive from cranking out one of this year's most worthwhile downloads to date in the form of Pinball FX.
The content isn't exactly surprising - this is pinball, plain and simple. But its quality is refreshing in a field often ruled by lame bargain games. For ten US bucks (800 MS points), Pinball FX gives the player three fully-featured pinball tables: Agents, Xtreme, and Speed Machine, each packed with all the bells and whistles today's real-world pinball tables love: multi-tiered playfields, digital screens, a senses-overloading array of bumpers, drop-downs, rails, and flashing lights. They look stunning, though it'll take awhile for you to learn your way around the tables - that sense of depth perception you get when looking at a real table isn't present here, so the various elements blend together overwhelmingly at first.
Once the plunger springs into action, gameplay is solid, no small feat in a pinball game. The ball moves and bounces realistically, though it seems a little slower and heavier than we'd expect at times, as if there's a cue ball in there instead of a pinball. Oddly, all three tables have a similar two-level layout, with a small platform and third flipper to the upper left, but there are clear differences in their goals and scoring systems, so they play very differently. Agents is our favorite, with the slightly claustrophobic Speed Machine coming in second and the sparsely-designed (by comparison), less compelling Xtreme lagging behind.
Each table also has an admirably deep meta-game, which is important for serious pinball enthusiasts. Sure, anyone can have fun just hammering the flipper button any time the ball comes near, but real pinball types like to know the overarching story - what targets to sharpshoot in what sequence to progress through the game, set the high-level bonuses in motion, and really rack up the points.
We could do without the mode in which you use your arms and the camera to control the game, but the four-player online version that finds you racing friends to attain a certain score is an interesting option that is simply not possible on real-world tables. Sure, we'd like more tables and more variety (downloads, anyone?) but this is a great start that we hope encourages developer Zen to get right back to work.