Pinball FX is a three-table pinball simulator from Hungarian developer, Zen Studios. It offers a standard set of pinball-related features, but it also makes some interesting deviations from the old digital pinball formula. All the pieces are in place, but unfortunately, this Xbox Live Arcade game's most prominent components are its shoddy ball movement and lackluster table design.
Your control over the pinball machines in Pinball FX is the same across all tables. By default, the triggers are used for flipping your flippers, and the left analog stick is used to bump the table around. If you bump too much, you'll cause the machine to tilt and lose your ball. The table-nudging controls aren't precise enough to be useful and even a light bump will set off a danger message. Additionally, you can only bump the table left or right, preventing you from attempting a death save, which is where you hit the bottom of the table hard enough to send a draining ball back up through the flippers before it drains. You can toggle among five different camera angles, giving you some choices for how you view the action. While the static shot is the easiest to manage, the closer views give you a better line of sight when it comes to hitting side ramps with upper flippers. The game also has Xbox Live Vision support, which lets you flip the flippers by waving your hands in specific spots. It's a novelty that wears off quickly, but it's nice that there's a separate online leaderboard for camera players.
The three tables in Pinball FX each have their own rules and theme. Speed Machine is an auto-racing-themed table with a wide-open center and an upper playfield that gives you one quick shot at two upper ramps before heading back down. Agents has a secret agent theme and includes a big tanker at the top of the playfield, as well as a loop and a ramp that can only be hit using an upper-left flipper. Extreme has a skateboarding and extreme sports feel to it, but its two-level playfield is clearly inspired by Midway's arcade classic, Black Knight 2000. Each table has modes and the other basic things you'd expect to see on a late-'80s-to-mid-'90s pinball machine, but none of the machines stand out very much. They all end up feeling very generic, and playing them gets old fast. The action on the ball also feels really unrealistic. The ball ends up feeling too light, bouncing around way too quickly and freely. Additionally, it feels like the ball is affected by spin more than a pinball in a real game.
The presentation doesn't earn Pinball FX many points either. It's nice that the ball reflections look good and that a mark on the ball gives you a good sense of how fast it's rolling, but the table art is often amateurish, while the virtual dot matrix backglass animations aren't impressive. The sound is also bad. The music is grating and repetitive, plus it doesn't change when you enter or exit mission modes on the table. Most of the pinball sounds aren't realistic, and the flippers just sound phony. The bumpers are the only things that sound like their real-life counterparts.
In addition to playing solo offline games, you can play against three other players. Rather than have you play a standard, alternating game of pinball, all four players play simultaneously, and it becomes a race to a set-score plateau. You have as many balls as you need to reach the score, but every time you lose a ball, a percentage of your score is lost. This is a neat idea that would be great if the tables were more interesting. Also, the game displays the four gamer pictures or Xbox Live Vision video images at the top of the screen, often obscuring the action. It's cool that the game has video chat because so few games do these days, but it's a bummer when it gets in your way.
Pinball FX isn't the worst pinball simulation out there, but it certainly could have been a lot better. The rough physics don't help, but ultimately, it's the table designs that are the worst culprit. The game has support for additional tables via downloadable content, but if they're coming from the same design team, it's hard to imagine that they'll be any better than the three tables included in the base package.