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Wot I Think: Pinball FX2 - Bethesda Pinball

Flip and tear

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DOOM, Skyrim and Fallout have been recreated as Pinball FX2 [official site] tables. Because nobody else at RPS has the flippin’ guts to take on such a massive task, I’ve spent a couple of hours with each, and have now judged them. Short version, I like them about as much as I like the games they’re based on, which means one is great, and the other two are a bit of a ballache. To find out precisely what I mean by that, join me below.

A good pinball table is challenging and satisfying, and that’s all to do with angles and placement of features. A great pinball table does all of those things and also uses its theme to good effect. There’s a reason that so many fondly remembered machines use licenses – The Addams Family, Dredd, Star Trek – and it’s not just because the voice samples, music and sound effects tickle your nostalgia glands as you play. Pinball machines can tell stories, and using their abstract and slight vocabulary, it’s much easier to do that if the player already knows the setting.

DOOM is a perfect pick for a licensed machine and it’s the best of the three in this Bethesda pack. That’s partly because it’s the least ambitious, and the Pinball FX crew work best when they’re not stretching the concept of pinball to breaking point as they do on the Skyrim table, but it’s also because the actual plot of DOOM is so basic as to make perfect flipper fodder. You kill demons, you go to Hell, you come back again. Simple.

The big points are earned by completing missions, which range from powering up the facility by hitting spinners and bumpers, and closing Hell portals via a fairly naff mini-game located on a tiny board to the top-left of the table. Ramps and targets are well-placed and like many of the best high-scoring crowd-pleasing tables of the nineties, DOOM makes it easy to rack up combos, but requires quite a bit of skill and knowledge of the ruleset to get the really big points.

The central area of the playing field occasionally gets very busy, cluttered with demons that slide back and forth horizontally. There’ll usually be a big fancy 3d demon gyrating in a non-playing area on the right of the table at these times as well, along with a depiction of the DOOM Marine on the left (this is very much DOOM rather than Doom, but old Doom Guy’s pixelly twitchy face does appear in the display and you can find the pinball equivalent of the secret retro levels). Some ramps make the marine shoot the demon, which is fun, and the ball bashes the demons that are actually in the playing area.

What I like about these moments is that they’re mimicking the arena lockdown sections of the game. Alarms blare and that brilliantly silly recorded message plays, warning about demonic contamination above acceptable levels. You have to clear it before you can continue with your mission, which is how you’ll climb the leaderboards.

There’s loads of great stuff. Samuel Hayden, DOOM’s giant robotic corporate dickhead, works perfectly as a pinball announcer, mocking cajoling and finding the comedy chops that id’s game hinted at but never fully ran with. The music is great. You already knew that if you played DOOM, but, importantly, it’s used well. That snarling, wonderfully sinister post-battle music takes over whenever you finish a mission, and the lights come back up.

And of course, you have all of the monster growls and shooty sound effects you could ever hope for. DOOM is a good table. The worst of it is the Hell level, which has you controlling a magical rock with your flippers and trying to bounce a ball at some runes. It’s crap but it doesn’t take very long.

The other two tables, Skyrim and Fallout, are less successful. Both run with an idea I find interesting, which is to transpose not just the theme but the idea of an RPG onto a pinball table, and both end up losing the sense of flow that is key to every pinball table. In Fallout, I repeatedly end up going into a shop where I can buy stimpacks and radaway, even though I’m not sure why I need them and often don’t have enough bottlecaps to buy them.

Pinball, even in the hands of a wizard like myself, is a game of imperfect control. Plugging too many RPG features into it leaves you with a character who walks into shops or vaults without intending to, and that’s fine if it leads to some funky flipper action. With the shop, it leads to a dull menu that you flick through with the flipper buttons to find the exit.

Skyrim is even worse. You have an inventory and finding new loot means holding down a button to open the menu, then scrolling to the correct slot, finding the new equipment, using it, then backing out to return to the game. That you’re pausing the actual action on the table to do this, then using such a cumbersome interface to manage your items breaks timing, flow and engagement. Maybe an awkward interface is intended to be part of the authentic Elder Scrolls experience.

Anyone who has ever spent time with pinball will recognise that being in the zone is an important part of play – that state, alluded to in the name of the studio that makes these tables, when you’re operating almost instinctively, while your mind is six or seven flips and rebounds ahead.

Skyrim, and Fallout to a lesser extent, negate that. The interruptions aren’t always frequent and they are brief, but any pause that isn’t a careful part of the machine’s own workings is a pain as far as I’m concerned. However important timing might be in comedy, it’s twice as important in pinball. At least. DOOM does pause when you change weapons but it’s rarely necessary because you automatically equip new pick-ups, which isn’t the case in Skyrim, and switching from a rocket launcher to a shotgun only takes a couple of clicks. On the subject of weapons, the super shotgun gives you a second ball to play with, of course, because of course it does.

The Skyrim table is so determined to be an RPG that it even has persistent levelling and character development. Start a new game on either of the two RPG tables and you’ll be asked to create a character – or, in Skyrim’s case, to continue with your current character. And when you get into a scrap, your stats come into play; I can’t tell you exactly how but it’s basic stuff like enemies losing more health if you have a stronger melee rating. In Fallout, hitting the pop-up targets that represent enemies uses melee while ramps fire ranged weapons, which is a neat idea, but it just ends up making the rules of the table feel a little vague.

To be clear, this isn’t a problem unique to these tables. Pinball FX2 has loads of tables now – many in the Star Wars and Marvel camps – and the common complaint I have across all of them is to do with the layout and how it relates to the ruleset. The Archer machine is a clear example of a table that feels too compact, a mission-selection target in a prop car taking up much of the right hand side of the central area, and thereby limits creative play.

Fallout is better than Skyrim in that regard, but the missions themselves are repetitive and lack character. Enter a Vault and the screen dims, which is neat, but then you’re just firing at lanes to collect a Bobblehead. Given the amount of lore there is to draw on, it’s remarkably lacking in character and the supermutant that acts as a primary antagonist is like an annoying comedy villain from a crap cartoon.

Where Skyrim works is in punishing bad shots without simply dumping the ball out of play. Whenever a dragon attacks, it’ll swoop across the screen (a typically annoying visual flourish that obscures the table) and lay down sheets of fire. Some ramps and lanes burn for a while and hitting them reduces your HP. It’s a decent trick, forcing a more careful playstyle for a little while, but by the time I was fetching the umpteenth piece of tat as part of some random quest, I was just hitting and hoping rather than learning.

If you’re interested in the games these tables are based on, you might get more out of them than I have. Hearing a Fus Ro Dah sample when a ball is saved doesn’t do anything for me, and if I have to hear a Nuka Cola reference one more time I’ll tilt the table so hard my computer will slide right off the end. The reasons DOOM works so well go right back to those little details though – the game is about clearing rooms with a quick aim and swift changes of direction, and so is the pinball machine based on it, but it’s also home to growling, snarling music that gets the adrenalin pumping, and sound samples that describe the action rather than punctuating it with meaningless references.

These aren’t the worst of the Pinball FX2 tables by any means, and prolonged time with DOOM might even show it to be one of the best, but as a bundle of three, they’re…frustrating is the word I’m looking for. Frustrating because the idea of taking a big RPG and making a pinball table that carries over some of its qualities in mechanics as well as art and sound is brilliant. I suspect they’d need to escape the confines of a single table and such a basic ruleset to succeed though – an entire pinball game based around Fallout, with separate tables for factions and areas? Now, that might work.

Pinball FX2 Bethesda Pinball is out now. It requires the (free) base game to play and is available on Steam.

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Adam Smith

former Deputy Editor

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