Review: Pinball FX3

Zen Studios continues to set a high bar for video game pinball. I honestly didn’t think they could do any better than Pinball FX2/Zen Pinball 2, and even though Pinball FX3 feels more like an incremental step forward rather than an evolutionary leap into the future, overall it does introduce a number of new features that amplify the series’ addictive powers of pinball wizardry. On the negative side, due to some unfortunate technical flaws that continue to persist nearly a month after launch, the game’s spellbinding powers of pinball addiction sometimes fizzle out at the worst possible moment.

The base Pinball FX3 platform is a free download, allowing brief trial access to tables with the option to purchase desired tables or specially curated bundle packs of similarly themed tables. Any of the 65 previously released tables that have been purchased on the older platform can be imported into the new game free of charge. Licensing conflicts sadly mean that the Plants vs. Zombies, South Park, Ninja Gaiden, Street Fighter, and Ms. Splosion Man tables are not supported or compatible for importing from previous purchases. I lament not having the PvZ and South Park tables, but I never cared much for the others so I’m not that bummed they got cut. With the addition of the all-new Universal Classics bundle, which features table designs themed after Jaws, Back to the Future, and E.T., the current table roster is up to 68. That’s a lot of pinball to choose from, folks.

Pinball FX3 is, primarily, a retooling of the platform’s interface, multiplayer framework, and progression systems, registering closer to a major update to what currently exists in Pinball FX2/Zen Pinball 2 than a full-fledged sequel. By comparison, the jump from the first game to the second was far more pronounced than this. During gameplay, the core mechanics and table designs are pretty much identical across the board compared to the last game. Some of the tables have been rebalanced a bit. Some of the camera options have been adjusted to provide different angles. The real-time lighting and shadow casting effects bring added visual dynamism to the experience, though the enhancements really only become discernible once you enter multiball or other special events. The physics feel like they’ve been tweaked around just a touch–at least to me the ball feels like it has a truer metallic weight to it, noticeable more so on certain tables than others.

The frontend UI has been reworked to accommodate a deeper feature set. The menus are perhaps a little more cluttered than before, but within a few minutes I felt like I knew where to find everything. Table selection, organized into categories by theme (Zen originals, Marvel, Star Wars, etc), is presented as a menu of collapsible blades or windows that expand and shrink as you navigate between the different groupings. You can move through the tables one by one, or tap the shoulder buttons to jump sideways between each theme.

Leaderboards track local and online high scores across all modes, as well as the returning Wizard Score and Superscore rankings that aggregate your top scores and add multipliers based on number of tables and friends. Each table now only has a single trophy to earn. That’s not a change from Zen’s approach on recent table releases; however, even older tables that originally had two trophy challenges have for some reason been downscaled to just one. Many of the table-specific trophies have the exact same unlock requirements from before, but a few tables actually do have new trophy objectives for a fresh challenge, which is nice. The pause menu during gameplay is more informative, including clear display of the next leaderboard score target, upgrade stats, and trophy objectives.

Where Pinball FX3 has improved the most can be seen in the increased breadth of its mode lineup and player progression. In addition to classic pinball, practice mode, and multiplayer hotseat, Zen has introduced a new single player mode based around unlocking special table upgrades and wizard powers, as well as earning experience points to level up your player profile. When you first play a table, everything seems normal. However, as you begin hitting bumpers, performing skillshots, activating multiball, and flippin’ some sweet lane combos, passive upgrades become available to equip for score boosts while performing those corresponding actions on future sessions. Only two passives can be equipped at a time when starting a table and like weapon/skill proficiencies in an RPG, each upgrade levels up and increases in potency only through ongoing performance. For example, you’ll only gain experience in the skillshot bonus by successfully hitting the skillshot at ball launch. Upgrade progression is specific to each individual table as well, and since the tables all have their own unique designs and layouts, your upgrade progression for each table will vary. Some tables are more conducive to stringing together combos, while others have fewer lanes that are a lot harder to hit in succession. The skillshots on certain tables are incredibly easy to hit, but seemingly impossible on other tables. To maximize high score potential for every game, it’s crucial to pick a loadout of passive perks that you have the best chances of performing on a given table.

In addition to the passive abilities, unlockable wizard powers allow you to hold down the triangle button during play to trigger slow motion, rewind time, or activate a score multiplier. One wizard power can be slotted per game. Earning wizard powers is synched with three new challenge modes, including the self-explanatory 1 Ball and 5 Minute challenges, as well as Survival, which starts you on a 60-second timer that refills by passing the next score target. It can get pretty tense as the clock starts ticking down to 3… 2… and then you pull off literally a last-second combo or mission objective to edge past the next star score target and give yourself another 60 seconds to flip away. Challenges have scoring tiers up to 15 stars per table; each wizard power is linked to one of the challenge modes and only unlocks by achieving at least five stars.

Completing the challenge modes, leveling up the wizard powers and passives, and unlocking trophies all contribute to maximizing each table’s mastery level. A table’s mastery level is then tied in with a tiered reward chart that unlocks collectible trinkets like 3D models and artwork. These extras aren’t much, but by having specific objectives there’s now a greater sense of purpose and accomplishment to replaying tables. Sticking to the RPG metaphor, where simply replaying a table to shoot for a new high score is like sticking to the main quest line, completing the challenge modes and mastery rewards is like branching out to do side quests. You don’t have to do them, but they offer a fun change of pace. Of course, if all the special powers and challenge modes are of no interest, pinball in its purest form is still available in classic mode.

Along with the table mastery and upgrades, Pinball FX3 features a persistent player profile progression by which experience points are earned through high scores, table accomplishments, and specific gameplay actions like combos and skill shots. Earning enough experience levels up your profile, unlocking new PSN avatar frames and background patterns for you to customize your profile banner with. The level cap appears to be set at 40, which doesn’t take too long to reach so hopefully that’s something that can be extended with future expansion.

Multiplayer is another focus for Pinball FX3. Tournaments are now integrated for greater community involvement. Official tournaments are put on by Zen Studios, while players can host their own tournaments for others to compete in. Tournaments consist of one table and can be customized by duration (number of days), open or private friend access, activated or disabled upgrades and wizard powers, and a choice of mode type between normal play and the three challenge modes. The player with the highest score at the end of the tournament duration wins.

Entirely new to the series is matchup mode, which introduces a competitive, community-based league play element to the mix. Each matchup season lasts for a week, throwing down a random selection of four tables to compete on in asynchronous multiplayer matches against high score targets that can be selected from three difficulty tiers. Matchup rounds run on a strict 3-minute timer, including a score boost period to heighten the tension during the final 30 seconds. By beating the targeted high score during the allotted time, you earn league points to raise your standings for the current season. On the flip side, league points are subtracted if you fail to beat a matchup score. The ultimate goal being to win enough matches and league points to reach the top 20% of players before the end of the season in order to gain access to compete at higher league tiers in subsequent seasons. The progression consists of bronze, silver, gold, and diamond leagues, each with three tiers to advance through. By failing to reach the top 20% of a season, you’ll either stay at your current rank or potentially fall back a level if you fail to earn enough points to stay in the top 90%.

The matchup concept shows promise but isn’t as balanced or thought out as it could be. The way it’s currently set up is almost entirely dependent on grinding over player skill, as well as owning a lot of tables. A diversity bonus is applied on each matchup, increasing the amount of league points that can be earned by each of the four tables you’re able to play for that season. Therefore, not owning all four of a season’s tables puts you at an immediate disadvantage. And since the number of league points you can win for each matchup is capped, climbing to the top 20% on a season’s leaderboard involves repeatedly replaying the same few tables over and over and over. Bonus league points are awarded for playing higher difficulty matchups and by dominating the target score (a domination bonus is applied at intervals of five extra league points, up to a max of 25, based on how much you trounce the opposing total), but even with that being the case, the players who reach the top and advance to the next league standing are the ones who simply have the most time on their hands to complete a bunch of matchups. The domination bonus brings in another imbalance as well, because often you can earn more points by dominating the score at a lower difficulty rather than taking on the highest difficulty matchup and just barely beating it. There should be a greater incentive for beating a high difficulty matchup, because right now you’re rewarded more for breezing through a bunch of low tier matchups.

Eventually, playing the same few tables for a couple of hours and slowly climbing the leaderboard becomes work instead of fun. I’d complete matchups on the highest difficulty with a +25 domination bonus and still make very little progress within an hour or two. And since seasons last a week, reaching the top demands putting in multiple hours every single day just to stay within striking distance. It’s disheartening to miss a day and come back the next only to find that you’re basically back to square one.

Pinball FX3‘s main weakness at the moment, though, is its instability. Put bluntly, the game is riddled with unforgivable bugs, which is surprising because in my experience Zen games have always been very well polished. A lot of the issues seem to stem from the increased online connectivity and community integration, because the game’s frequently failed to connect or crashed outright on me while syncing scores after a league matchup or going to a leaderboard. Even worse, corrupted data has wiped my stats twice now, presumably due to crashes that have occurred during score synching. The first time it happened I lost all of my challenge stars, mastery rewards, and table powers, but thankfully my overall player level wasn’t touched nor were any of my scores. However, the second corruption not only reset my unlocks, but also wiped out my entire player profile progression, which proved to be a double punch to the gut as it came shortly after I’d reached the level 40 max. In the blink of an eye my profile was reset all the way back to level 1, and for no apparent reason other than shoddy programming. Other bugs have occurred during actual gameplay, such as flippers inverting on their pivot point or outright failing to respond to input until quitting out of the game and restarting.

Beyond the technical woes, some players will likely be disappointed by Zen’s decision to cut certain features. Pinball FX2/Zen Pinball 2‘s splitscreen multiplayer, stereoscopic 3D support, and Operators Menu customization have all been removed. Even if these features aren’t widely utilized by a lot of players, sequels are supposed to keep features and add to them, not scale back.

In its current state, Pinball FX3 is a fantastic core game that I have a tough time recommending as much as I would like to. I absolutely love the new progression elements and challenge modes, to the point that, on a conservative estimate, I’ve easily sunk in 20 hours of play time. The enhancements to tournament play combined with the matchup leagues make for a more robust multiplayer component, but still leave a lot to be desired in terms of proper balancing and long term engagement. But it’s the technical performance that ultimately troubles me. After two data wipes, I honestly don’t know when I’ll be able to trust the game enough to stomach playing it as feverishly as I initially had been. Whereas before I would play for hours at a time and literally have to force myself to stop, every time I turn the game on now I play a round or two and then begrudgingly quit. Not because I want to, but because I don’t want to get burned by another data corruption. One post-launch update has been released, but I’m not sure what it fixed because none of the problems I’ve experienced have gone away; the crashes and data corruptions have occurred before and after the update.

The good news is, of course, that the base platform is a free download, so if you already own some tables to import there’s no reason to avoid taking the new content for a spin. Just be cautious that any time invested may be for naught as a crash may be lurking to wipe out all of your progress. There’s absolutely a great game here–I would argue the most addictive and full-featured in the series–the developers just need to sure up the technical side of things before it earns my full approval.

TryIt

Pros:
+ Backwards compatible with most previously purchased tables, plus free imports
+ New challenge modes and progression elements heighten the replay value
+ Subtle but effective table lighting and physics enhancements
+ Deeper multiplayer potential

Cons:
– Some serious technical kinks still need to be ironed out
– A few cut or scaled back features from the previous game
– Matchup mode becomes too much of a grind, needs tweaking

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS4, also on PC and Xbox One
Publisher: Zen Studios
Developer: Zen Studios
Release Date: 9/26/2017
Genre: Pinball
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1-4

Source: Review code provided by publisher.

Buy From: Pinball FX3 is free to download from the PlayStation Store, Steam, and Xbox One Games Store.

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!