It isn't easy to make a good pinball simulation. So much engineering goes into designing the real-life tables that crafting computer simulations becomes a twofold task. A computer pinball game must not only provide realistic physics, but the table being simulated must also be fun to play. With last year's outstanding Timeshock, Empire's Pro Pinball series earned a reputation for fulfilling both criteria, and Big Race USA maintains, or even exceeds, this level of excellence.
Before any bumpers, ramps, or flippers, your average pinball designer needs to come up with a premise that provides an interesting context for the player. True to its name, Big Race USA puts you in the role of a taxicab racing from New York to San Francisco and back again. Along the way, you can pick up passengers and deliver them to destinations, speed away from the cops, and even knock other cars off the road. All of these actions are accomplished through aimed shots at various table targets. The game keeps track of cities visited and gives you a lighted map that shows your progress. This is a great design that lends purpose to the game without encumbering you with a lot of unintuitive accolades. Even if you're not planning on making it all the way to the end of the Big Race, the number of side objectives is sure to keep you busy.
Aside from the dazzling table trinkets and large colorful table features, you will immediately notice the sheer number of graphics modes that the game supports. The graphics settings are so customizable, that even players with meager video options will be able to find a setting that looks good and plays smooth. And even if you can't afford a new graphics card, it's good to know that Big Race USA's most impressive graphical feature, its true 3D silver ball (complete with noticeable imperfections), is hardly taxing on your CPU. What's more, the 3D ball is more than just a pretty graphic, as its spinning surface helps you determine which direction the ball is rolling.
The graphics aren't Big Race's only good point. The simulation allows you to adjust the slope of the table (which affects how fast the ball accelerates down),as well as the physical condition of the table itself. If you've wondered what it would be like to play the same table after it's been pounded on for years, or want to feel as if you're playing a table fresh off the factory line, Big Race USA lets you set the wear level where you want it. You can even go into the table's operator's menu to adjust every option in gameplay. This level of detail makes Big Race USA much more than just a pinball game.
Because of its depth as a simulation, maybe it's no surprise that Big Race USA is designed for experienced pinball players. The table is quite difficult, and the required level of proficiency is rather high. Nearly all of the table's goodies are accessed through targeted shots, and these are often at supremely challenging angles. The effect is that the shots you make to progress the game are the most difficult, and the difficulty settings merely tone down the number of required shots. Although this is preferable to the game artificially adjusting your shots with "creative" physics, the monotony of repeatedly trying to make that one special shot is likely to frustrate less experienced players.
Another minor problem occurs when you view the table from a low angle, where the top-end trinkets conceal too much of the ball's movement. Although you grow accustomed to this and learn to anticipate which way the ball will roll, the number of pathways available to the ball makes such predictions unreliable. And if you're partial to top-end bumpers, you're out of luck with Big Race USA. Those round clanging randomizers are conspicuously absent, making table play a little less chaotic.
Nevertheless, any problems with Big Race USA are minor, and relate more to table design or even subjective opinion than to its effectiveness as a simulation. When you get right down to it, it may be the best pinball simulation ever. If you are even remotely interested in pinball, you would be wise to add this to your collection.