Over the past several years, Zen Studios have been making a name for themselves with their series of Zen Pinball and Pinball FX titles. The PS3 has seen two of their titles already, the original Zen Pinball and Marvel Pinball, but they were both stand-alone titles that did not integrate with each other. That wasn't their only problem though, there was a definite difference in the two titles' physics model. With the release of Zen Pinball 2 on the PS3 and PS Vita, Zen Studios are bringing everything together under one metaphorical roof. It's a change that has been a long time in coming, but has been worth the wait.
What's It About?
While Zen Pinball 2 may officially be the second game in the series, it is the third game to be released on the PS3. It brings a lot of the changes that were introduced in Pinball FX2 to the PlayStation 3 and Vita platforms. The most notable of these is a single contiguous interface where all of your tables reside. It's a pinball platform where you can try out the various tables for free and then purchase only the tables and collections of tables that you like. As of this writing, there are 26 tables available for you to demo and purchase. An extra side benefit is that Zen Pinball 2 supports the PS3 and Vita cross-buy feature. You only have to buy one copy of the game, and you're able to play it on your big screen in the living room, or on the bus headed to work on your Vita. That's definitely a nice perk.
If you already own the original Zen Pinball or Marvel Pinball on the PS3, then you can import your collection of tables into Zen Pinball 2. There's no charge for doing this, other than the time it takes to download the updated tables. While I greatly appreciate Zen Studios giving us all free upgrades for our purchased content, I think the implementation is a little bit tedious. You start the import by pressing Square on the main menu, then the game scans your system for available tables. When it finds them, it prompts you to download them … one at a time. This is really time consuming and means that you have to babysit your console while it downloads, since you can't download in the background. It would have been much better if it would build a list of available tables, then allow you to queue all of the ones you wanted. That way you could just start the download and let the PS3 do its thing. There may be a technical reason why this isn't possible, but it's worth mentioning nonetheless.
Why Should I Care?
When you play with a real pinball table, it will take many quarters to even start learning the layout of the table. Only when you start to really get a feel for the table's rules will you start to see your scores rising. That's when you look up at those glowing LEDs showing you the machine's all-time high score. You look at the score for the game you've just played and realize that you were so close to having that top spot for yourself. That bit of local competition is what drives players to sink even more money into the machine, all in the pursuit of that elusive high score. If and when you do finally take that high score for yourself, you want everyone to know about it. So you brag to your friends about your achievement.
This is what Zen Studios have tried to recreate with their games. When their tables were split up into different titles, this was more difficult, but now that everything is under one banner it works really well. As you play the game, you'll see how far you are to reaching your nearest friend's score. You have instant and constant feedback on how you're doing in relation to your friends. Zen Pinball 2 also has a comprehensive set of leaderboards which let you keep track of how you're doing on individual tables, as well as showing you your ProScore, an aggregate score based on the tables you've played and the scores you've achieved on each. Along with ProScore, there is even a TeamScore, which is your ProScore added to that of everyone on your friends list. There's plenty here to drive competition within the game.
How about that last bit, the part where you brag to your friends? That's covered as well. You can link your Facebook account to the game and have it post your scores to your Facebook wall, so everyone can see your pinball wizardry. It might not be quite the same as standing around a pinball machine at a bar, but it is as close as we've managed to get thus far.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
While Zen Studios have done a great job of capturing the local competitiveness of pinball, a video pinball game lives or dies by two things: physics and table design. Zen Pinball 2's underlying physics engine is the most accurate that they've done to date. The movement of the ball and its interaction with the various table objects feel very natural. The way that the ball can spin and slide along the various surfaces of the table gives the game a very fluid feel. I never once felt like I was limited by the physics engine, more importantly it never felt like I was cheated by the engine either.
The 26 tables available in Zen Pinball 2 really show a huge variety of themes and styles. There are fast playing tight tables, more open and methodical tables, and various levels of in-between. Many of them feature special effects that wouldn't be possible on a real table. My personal favorite of these is the reduced gravity effect that you can activate on the Mars table, but that is by no means all that the game has to offer. Part of the fun is seeing what sorts of neat visual and gameplay twists that Zen Studios have put into the game. Not all the tables will be for everyone, but with 26 available to start with and more being added via DLC, there is something for everyone.
A little less important than the game's physics and table design is the game's presentation. This is another area where the folks at Zen Studios have done a brilliant job. Every table looks brilliant, sharp and colorful. They've even gone back to the older tables and touched them up, bringing them more in line with the more recent releases. If there's one thing I feel could have been improved on as far as the visuals go, it would be the addition of a split perspective camera mode. I'd like to have the option to always keep the flippers in a close up view at the bottom of the screen, but also have the playfield scroll along with the ball. Remember the old NES Pin*Bot and High Speed games? Like that. Beyond this little oversight though, the visuals are quite well done. The same goes for the audio: the table sounds of the flippers, the ball rolling and making contact with objects; they all sound great. Some tables do have some rather cringe-worthy bits of dialog, but that somehow manages to add to the table's charm.
With the social and competitive features that Zen Pinball 2 has, combined with the game's ability to be played on both the PS3 and PS Vita, it's hard not to recommend Zen Pinball 2. It has a great blend of tables and excellent audiovisual presentation. Most importantly though, it's just a fun game. If you've never played a Zen Studios pinball game, you should definitely give this one a try.