ZEN Pinball (PlayStation 3) review
"The problem I encountered is that the "quick" matches are often too intimidating for inexperienced players. They amount to a score race, with every competitor playing simultaneously and trying to hit 5,000,000 (or some much higher number) before his worthy opponents. However, there are often penalties in place that take away as much as half of any score amassed. It's easy to quickly fall into a pattern where you have somewhere around 3,000,000 total points, gain around 300,000 on a new attempt, then lose 10% of your total and fall right back to where you were... again and again and again. Unless you're joined by someone more proficient, matches can last an eternity."
Pinball FX on the Xbox 360 has been making headlines for quite some time, most recently when Capcom announced a Street Fighter II-themed table for it. PlayStation 3 owners were left in the cold, though, without a version of our own. We still don't have one, but now developer ZEN Studios has at least produced a new title to give us an idea of what we've been missing. Mostly, that amounts to four pinball tables and some online activity. It might not sound like much, but that description alone is enough to make the game an automatic must-play for those with limited access to other great titles such as Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection and Dream Pinball 3D. Is it sufficient to justify the cost of the download, though? Perhaps.
With only four tables, Zen Pinball comes to the party with a more limited selection than its recent competition, though you don't have to look too far back to find examples of whole games that offered a solitary machine. They serve as proof that it takes only one or two great tables to make a game of video pinball an hours-long addition. Unfortunately, none of the available choices here are particularly worthy of commendation.
V-12, the table that you'll play by default, benefits from a decent idea with solid execution. It resembles the underside of a muscle car's hood. There are sounds resembling expelled exhaust and revving engines as you hit the various bumpers or fly up the different ramps and find your ball retrieved when it starts down one of the outer lanes prematurely. The developers even reproduced the cough of a struggling ignition for such moments, which was a nice touch.
The El Dorado table is where things start to go wrong, though. It has little in common with V-12, which is good, but its most memorable element is the way the announcer says "El Dorado" with an over-the-top air of mystery combined with the sort of enthusiasm that you would expect to hear from a movie trailer guy saying "In a world where..." I wonder if he's available for birthday parties and other special occasions?
The Shaman table is more interesting--with a witch doctor that beats on drums and some nice spinners when certain events take place, not to mention a fairly accessible multi-ball mode--but it doesn't really seem like a huge move away from the bland mysticism that most of the other tables highlight. As part of a larger collection, these two tables would be perfectly acceptable in such close company, but here they make up the bulk of the experience and their similarity rankles.
Rounding out the four tables is Tesla, which basically centers around a generic lab belonging to some sort of mad scientist. There are some neat scoring opportunities here and some kooky voice bits, but it's a fairly challenging setup overall and some may find that they prefer the more casual pace of previous selections.
So those are the tables and I'd be hard-pressed to say that any of them are truly outstanding. In fact, they tend to be rather disappointing as a whole. There were numerous times as I played each one that I'd find my ball being saved because it went down one of the chutes far too quickly, only to watch it fly across the screen--out of my control the whole time--to the other side and down another chute. It was disgusting. There also seem to be a lot of hits you might make that will result in the ball heading straight down the middle of the lane, with that space sometimes too wide for you to do anything about it. This can happen in real pinball too, but here it seems like code is conspiring against you instead of actual physics. It's just not the same.
Of course, some people will read what I've just written and say "Wow, this guy must suck at video pinball." Footage of my online play would certainly seem to support that theory. There clearly are some people out there with a lot of time to sink into Zen Pinball. For them, my top scores--which do seem fairly typical of the general online populace, by the way--are worthy of ridicule. Leaderboards make it painfully obvious that I'm not hardcore enough to ever crack the top several thousand scores. Frankly, I'm not enthusiastic enough about the game to even try.
If you're the competitive sort, though, Zen Pinball could be your game thanks to a solid online community that guarantees worthy scores to try to beat. The problem I encountered is that the "quick" matches are often too intimidating for inexperienced players. They amount to a score race, with every competitor playing simultaneously and trying to hit 5,000,000 (or some much higher number) before his worthy opponents. However, there are often penalties in place that take away as much as half of any score amassed. It's easy to quickly fall into a pattern where you have somewhere around 3,000,000 total points, gain around 300,000 on a new attempt, then lose 10% of your total and fall right back to where you were... again and again and again. Unless you're joined by someone more proficient, matches can last an eternity.
Fortunately, such issues can be alleviated if you set up your own custom games. These offer you the freedom to adjust the amount of the penalty or even to remove it altogether. You can also decide what score you're shooting for and you can make several slots on the table private if you only want to play with buddies at your skill level to keep rounds close. This is terrific and ensures that Zen Pinball addicts will find engaging ways to play the game for months to come, especially if they become enamored by a certain table.
I'm not an addict, though, nor am I particularly enamored. My conclusion after a few hours with Zen Pinball was that I'd rather go back to something like Dream Pinball 3D or the bounty of excellent tables offered by Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection. Because those titles are budget-priced, purchasing either of them doesn't cost a lot more than purchasing this one. The real deciding factors here are online play and the convenience and price of a PlayStation Network download. What's all of that worth to you?
Staff review by Jason Venter (May 24, 2009)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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