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One of the best things about virtual reality is that it allows the player to have gaming experiences that would otherwise be impossible. That's exactly what's offered by Zen Studios' Pinball FX2 VR, which brings an arcade's worth of pinball tables straight into your living room without forcing you to ditch all of your other furniture.
I should probably preface this by stating that I'm a pretty big pinhead. I love hunting down and playing physical pin tables but, since I have neither the funds nor the room to buy machines of my own, I've grown to rely on games like Zen Pinball, Pinball FX 2 and The Pinball Arcade to bring the joy of the silver ball into my living room. But while these games are fantastic for learning the rules of real tables or, in the case of everything from Zen, experiencing wholly new pinball tables thanks to their original creations, playing on my television can't really compare to having the real deal in front of me.
That all changed when I dove into Pinball FX2 VR this past week, which went above and beyond my expectations for what virtual reality pinball could offer. With a PlayStation VR headset strapped to my face and a standard DualShock 4 controller in my hand, booting up this new offering from Zen Studios proved to be the next best thing to visiting an actual arcade.
When you first get dropped into Pinball FX2 VR, you'll find yourself standing in a rather swank apartment. There's a TV near the heart of the room, a trio of pinball tables surrounding it, a trophy wall and a room with holographic leaderboards. Navigating the room is as easy as looking at the thing you want to select and then hitting the X button. The trophy wall is exactly what it sounds like, giving you the ability to scroll through virtual representations of the trophies you've earned for each of the game's tables. If you want to see how your scores stack up against friends or everybody else in the world, you'll find those listings in the leaderboard room.
The first thing you'll want to do is visit the TV, which is where you'll find the game's options and a list of all of your tables. As mentioned above, you can only have three tables loaded in the room at one time. From the TV, you can select which three tables you'd like to have available for play. Once you select a table, it'll pop into that respective slot in the room.
When you're ready to play a table, just look at it and press X. What's cool about this is that you don't have to mess around with menus when you're actually playing the table. Whether you've just wrapped up a game or you're in the middle of a run, you can actually just look over your shoulder at another table, hit the X button and, after a short load, you're now playing on that table instead. The whole system is elegant and easy to understand and, most importantly, it lets you get in and out of playing the tables with a quickness.
Going into my first rounds of play with Pinball FX2 VR, I remember thinking to myself "Please, please, please feel like I'm playing a real pinball table." As much as VR gaming has surprised me in these first several weeks following the launch of the PlayStation VR, I still wasn't convinced that I'd be getting a proper "real life" experience from a virtual table. The first table I loaded up was my favorite from the entire Zen collection, Paranormal. In short, I was floored.
Ignoring the table itself for a moment, the team at Zen Studios went the extra mile to make the gameplay environment truly special. You remember how I said that the VR world you're occupying is a swank apartment? Well, the apartment remains basically the same when you're at a table, but it also undergoes changes depending on which table you're playing. For Paranormal, the views outside the apartment window now looked out on a creepy swamp, and the table itself now appeared to be set up in a watery bog. Nessy craned her head out of the water and around the table to look up at me and a Ouija board floated into view.
When playing a pinball game on a standard television, your options are usually to have the full table in a static view or have a zoomed in view that follows the ball around the table. Neither option feels quite like playing a real table, though.
That all changes in VR. Standing in front of me was a full-size, lifelike version of the Paranormal table, complete with all of the animated toys and nifty features I've grown to love on the non-VR version of the game. It's one of those VR experiences that's hard to put into words, really. But if you've ever stood in front of a real pinball table, then you've got the idea of what I was looking at. For me, that was a pretty magical experience.
The base game for Pinball FX2 VR comes with three tables, including Mars, Secrets of the Deep and Epic Quest; a well-rounded selection that does a good job of showing off Zen's brand of pinball. Mars boasts a wide-open play field that rewards more carefully aimed shots and features toys that activate on the table as you achieve objectives. Secrets of the Deep is the polar opposite, cramming two play fields onto a tightly-packed body that boast loads of ramps, alleys and toys. Epic Quest is a unique table in that it is persistent. You'll earn gear and rewards as you achieve objectives, which will carry over between play sessions. This table consists primarily of an open field and eight lanes that are utilized to achieve objectives, as well as a raised second field with its own mini-game. If a mini-game would be a bit tricky to see, or it doesn't take place on the actual field, it pops up larger than life in your VR view, another nice touch that couldn't really be accomplished on a real table.
Each table also offers its own environmental effects surrounding the table, with asteroids and solar flares rolling past as you play Mars, complete with an apartment that now looks out on a desolate landscape from the Red Planet. As for Epic Quest, a life-sized version of your goofy knight and a killer plant will keep you company at that table. With Secrets of the Deep, the apartment is now an aquarium with a bunch of fish cruising by.
Outside of the base game, Zen Studios has two more pieces of content available that inject the game with some of their best offerings to date. First up is the standalone The Walking Dead table, which is based on the first season of the Telltale series. You can read my full review of that table but, long story short, it's a solid offering that nails the decision-making and oppressive tone of the source material. I also really liked the environmental touches, with a life-sized Clementine hiding on one side of the table and a walker prowling on the other. You've also got hordes of the undead beating on the apartment windows, with fog covering the floor.
Finally, there's a bundle of tables in the Season One expansion, featuring CastleStorm, Wild West Rampage, the Paranormal table I adore so much, BioLab and Earth Defense. Rather than go through these tables one by one, I'll just point you to yet another review that covers CastleStorm and Wild West Rampage and say that everything else stacks up quite nicely. Zen doesn't really make bad pinball tables, and everything here is a lot of fun to play and, yep, they all offer their own unique environmental effects that are just a heck of a lot of fun.
While I found myself grinning from ear to ear playing what feels like real-life versions of these tables I've been enjoying for years, I was a little bummed to discover that VR drift could be a problem from time to time. This isn't a major issue, since readjusting the view is as easy as straightening yourself up a bit and hitting the Square button, but when you have to do that a few times per play, it gets a bit frustrating.
I don't know enough about developing for VR to make a guess as to why the tables aren't just held in a static space, but what they do is adjust a bit depending on where the player is looking. If you keep your head tilted to the right, for instance, the table may slowly slide in that direction over time. I tend to lean over a real pinball table and, since these tables are so convincing, I found myself doing exactly that even in the VR space. The result was typically a table that kept trying to slide away from me to keep me from getting too close. Thankfully I found that trying to play with better posture actually lessened the effect, but I still needed to readjust the tables from time to time.
But while drifting tables was certainly a nuisance, the setback of cradling the ball from time to time to quickly readjust the view is something I consider a small price to pay to be able to play what feels like legitimate pinball tables without needing to drive nearly an hour to the closest arcade. From their original IPs to tables based on the Marvel and Star Wars universes -- and so many others -- Zen Studios never ceases to surprise me. They've done it again with Pinball FX2 VR. They've got an impressive roster of tables on the market at this point, and I can't wait to see what gets added to this virtual arcade next.
This review based on download copies of the game and DLC provided by the publisher.
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