When I was younger, and we are talking pre-teens here, I would obsessively play pinball machines anywhere and everywhere I could find them. Bowling alleys, skating rinks, pizza parlors, shopping mall arcades, miniature golf courses – basically if the location had a pinball machine, I became a regular. The reason for my progressive distancing from pinball machines did not have anything to do with my love of pinball dwindling, it had everything to do with the systematic phasing out of the machines from the places I loved to haunt. This also coincided with the increased popularity of console and PC gaming. Since I predominately lived in small towns during my childhood, the cruelty of supply and demand in relation to pinball machines took away one of my childhood loves like a domineering father grounding your middle school girlfriend. Oh the cruelties of young love. But with every love that is lost something new will inevitably come along to soothe the pains of a heart once broken. In the case of my love for pinball machines, that new love came in the form of pinball simulators.
The early pinball simulators were good enough to loosely bandage the still fresh wounds from losing the real thing, but they were never good enough to fully replace them. The physics always felt way off in relation to the weight of the ball and the rate of ascent/descent on the simulated table. Much like real pinball tables, some of the simulators were better than others. The early PC disc versions were by far the best and most reliable in terms of inventive and immersive gameplay via diverse and easily navigable tables – this in relation to the earliest online pinball simulators, which were wildly erratic and impossible to control by way of flipper and launch-point sensitivity. That being said, the online pinball simulators seemed to have a wider variety in table options than their disc counterparts.
For many years it seemed like developers had a hard time finding a balance between the two while maintaining a realistic feel to the simulator. There were also far too many bugs and glitches that players could take advantage of in order to earn high scores. Because of these annoyingly frequent inconsistencies I gradually grew more and more distant from pinball simulators. That was until recently when a friend told me I should look into Zen Studios Pinball FX2 tables. I am glad I followed her advice because pinball simulators have come a long, long way since I last played them. I can officially say that I am hooked again and Pinball FX2 is by and large the premier producer of pinball simulators, period. This is why I jumped at the chance to review some of their tables. Below we will take a close look at Pinball FX2’s Star Wars – Balance of the Force pack, which includes three Star Wars themed tables for you to enjoy: Star Wars – Darth Vader, Star Wars – Starfighter Assault, and Star Wars – Episode VI.
Star Wars: Darth Vader Table
Where so many of the past pinball simulators lacked control of the physics and subtleties of game mechanics that make playing actual pinball machines so entertaining, Pinball FX2 meticulously and successfully recreates these nuances in spectacular fashion making these simulators feel frighteningly similar to the real thing. One of the key elements in which they pull this off is through the extensive focus on the thematics of the table itself. The tables included in the Star Wars: Balance of the Force pack is incredibly immersive and interactive. Focusing on the Star Wars: Darth Vader table, Pinball FX2 does a wonderful job of creating a table fit to honor the iconic villain of the Star Wars universe. As with many of their past franchise themed tables, the Darth Vader table comes equipped with missions that can be activated by aiming the ball at specific points on the table.
One such mission is available at the outset in which you are tasked with aiming the ball at robotic arms projecting red beams of light in order to successfully assemble Darth Vader – a CGI version of Darth Vader and the Emperor act out the assembly scene at the top of the table as you progress through the mission. Another mission included is partaking in a lightsaber duel with Luke Skywalker in which you have to send your ball through specifically lit ramps and chutes in order to progress the fight. The trick is that you only have a certain amount of time to complete the missions before they become forfeit and you have to start all over again toward earning the chance at taking on another mission. Missions are earned by aiming the ball toward that particular table’s mission portal. They are fairly easy to find and fairly easy to aim toward, so you should not have too much of a problem building up your mission chances.
The Darth Vader table is easily my favorite of the three tables included in this pack. It is an open and easily accessible table for all skill levels. It allows for enough easily accessible ramps and chutes to allow anyone the chance to rack up a decent high score, while also allowing for enough challenges – particularly within the missions offered – to give any advanced pinball simulator player a run for their Galactic Credit Standard. Moreover, this table had the best feel overall in terms of flipper sensitivity, launch sensitivity, and ball physics. I found the bumpers to be a tad forgiving and I also felt like the secondary flippers were placed in advantageous positions allowing for added ball control in the upper portion of the table. There are no cheap drop points or release points that put the player at an immediate disadvantage, which is something too many pinball simulators attempt to do in order to be excessively difficult to master. Even the most challenging pinball machines never try to cheat the player in order to increase difficulty. The table should never be the reason why a player loses a ball; the onus to succeed or fail should always lie with the skill of the player. Pinball FX2’s Star Wars: Darth Vader table does just that and then some. I cannot recommend this table highly enough.
Star Wars: Starfighter Assault Table
Where the Star Wars: Darth Vader table was open and employed beautifully rendered CGI character scenes to immerse the player thematically with the table, Star Wars: Starfighter Assault employs a slightly different method. Starfighter Assault still makes use of CGI elements such as X-Wings and TIE Fighters that fly over the table as your ball bounces around inside a bumper trap, which in turn powers three sets of anti-aircraft gunners that attempt to shoot down the encroaching aircraft. The biggest point of departure, however, lies in the out-of-table gameplay that you can unlock through various mission choices. These out-of-table gameplay moments also hinge on the choice you make prior to playing the table – the choice being whether you will represent the Rebel Alliance or the Galactic Empire.
Depending on your choice, you will either pilot a set of X-Wings or TIE Fighters during one of the out-of-table mission segments. The out-of-table mission is reminiscent of the old arcade game Galaga, in which you pilot a set of three X-Wings or TIE Fighters and use the flipper buttons to move the ships side-to-side in order to avoid oncoming asteroids and to better position your ships to fire on enemy aircraft that swoop across the screen. In order to fire upon the enemy aircraft you have to press the launch button. You are given a certain amount of time to destroy a set amount of enemies before the mission concludes and you are taken back to the table. The out-of-table mission controls are seamless and easy to use making these particular missions a lot of fun to play.
The table itself is beautifully rendered with half of the table aesthetically representative of the Galactic Empire and the other half representative of the Rebel Alliance. You also launch your ball from different sides of the table depending on the choice you make prior to starting the table. Also, the launch windows are made to specifically mimic the radar set-ups of the X-Wings and TIE Fighters, which was a wonderful little touch making the table that much more immersive. While this table is a bit more challenging than the Darth Vader table in terms of ramp, chute, and bumper placement, I found the secondary flippers more advantageously placed on this table than the Darth Vader table (or even the Episode VI table, which I will cover momentarily).
The secondary flippers also carry more importance with this table seeing as mastering them is necessary in order to access the missions available. This table has, by far, the most difficult mission point to access but it is also the most rewarding. I see that as a fair trade. Much like the Darth Vader table, the flipper and launch sensitivity is spot on and the physics of the ball feel steady and true in all aspects of the table. While I loved the Darth Vader table for its more open playing style, I appreciate the more confined gameplay of this table and the increased importance placed on player precision in relation to the use of secondary flippers. If the Darth Vader table is amazing for its simplicity, the Starfighter Assault table is exquisite for its visual flair and unique out-of-table mission sequences. If you are up for a bit of a challenge and something a little out of the ordinary when it comes to pinball simulators, the Star Wars: Starfighter Assault table is definitely for you.
Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi Table
As with all of the tables in this pack, the Episode VI table is gorgeously rendered. Every corner of this table will tickle your nostalgia bone in relation to the movie. While the table is visually stunning, therein also lies the biggest problem with this table – there is too much stuff. While the Darth Vader and Starfighter Assault tables are relatively open tables, the Episode VI table feels claustrophobic in comparison. The problem is not so much that there is a lot of stuff going on visually with the table; the problem is that all of the movie-related obstacles included in the table are centralized and clumped together near the middle and upper sections of the table.
This cluster of objects leaves very little room for the ball to maneuver in-sight of the player unless it is traveling on one of many ramps and chutes. Placement is also a big problem with this table in that the release points of the chutes and mission portal are incredibly difficult to follow because of the overcrowded nature of the table. I also got the feeling that there was a distinct environmental disadvantage for the player when it came to bumper bounce-back. Overall, this table is the least enjoyable in terms of gameplay mechanics and table playability.
The missions, however, are a completely different story. While it is very difficult to maintain steady play on this table, if you are able to keep the ball rolling (I am so sorry for that pun) the missions evoke specific scenes that the player can relive through on-table and out-of-table content. The first mission, for example, is C-3PO and R2-D2’s approach to Jabba’s palace. In order to help them, you have to aim the ball toward the flashing lanes which in turn gets our favorite droids closer to the palace. Another mission allows you to take control of speeder bikes in the forests of Endor as you control the bike with the flipper buttons in an out-of-table sequence. As with everything else in this pack, the visuals are meticulously rendered and aesthetically beautiful to watch. Even though the table itself is a bit disappointing from a basic pinball standpoint, the table as a whole is a lot of fun to experience and enjoy viscerally.
Overall, Pinball FX2 does a superb job realizing the Star Wars universe in an enjoyable and extremely immersive pack of pinball tables. The physics are spot on as always and, aside from the Episode VI table, the tables are fairly composed and give the player every chance to succeed. The CGI sequences both on-table and out-of-table are beautifully rendered and work well to pull the player deeper into the narrative presented. The Star Wars: Balance of the Force pack is a must-have for any Star Wars pinball simulator fans, but they are also great tables for players with moderate knowledge of the universe. Simply put, these are just great pinball tables with a ton of content that will keep bringing you back for more making the replayability of this pack very high. In the end, I cannot recommend this pack enough for pinball enthusiasts and recreational players alike. Here’s wishing you high scores aplenty, pinball wizards!
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