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Pinball FX

Worth flipping over?

It's really not fair. There should be a law against two ball-related games going out within a week of each other. There are only so many puns we can use, people. Won't someone think of the reviewers? Looks like you get off lightly this time, then, as we skip the traditional double-entendres and dip straight into a world where whacking balls with flippers is a very serious business.

Pinball FX places me in troublesome position, and not just because I exhausted all my ball jokes on 3D Ultra Minigolf Adventures last week. It's one of those games that does pretty much everything you'd want, and does it very well, and yet through no fault of its own falls slightly short of a glowing recommendation.

Make no mistake, much like Roger Daltrey, Hungarian developer Zen Studios plays a mean pinball. The physics are pretty much flawless - the silver balls slam and spin and bounce with unerring accuracy. As pinball is pretty much nothing but physics dressed up as something fun, this is extremely good news. It looks a treat as well. It's hard to tell while in the thick of a game, but the level of detail is commendably high. Sure, reflections and silvery objects have been the bread and butter of the rendering community since the early '90s, when scrolling public domain Amiga demos of rotating metallic cubes bounced along to pounding techno while giving shout-outs to "EXXXECUTORZZZ KREW of OSLO!!!" but when you realise that every light on the table is being reflected in real-time on the skittering surface of two or three silver balls at once, it's undeniably impressive.

The close-up view allows you to get a clearer look at what you're hitting, but is tricky to master.

And the tables have benefited from an equal amount of lavish attention. As a lapsed pinball addict, I certainly appreciated the way that the oft-overlooked art of a good pinball table has influenced the table designs. Loaded with features and high scoring modes, the game gives you absolutely no instructions as to how each table should be played, which is just how it should be. Bonuses are discovered through constant play, and part of the joy of a great pinball game is piecing together the sequences of ramps, loops and locks that will yield the greatest score. Suffice to say that the longer you play, the more each table reveals, and your points swiftly go from tens of thousands to tens of millions.

The tables follow a fairly intuitive difficulty curve. Speed Machine, available in the demo, is the easiest with nice wide ramps and a generous attitude to ball-saves. Extreme is the next, and is a table I just can't get to grips with. It's two-tier design makes for very claustrophobic play, and there's no room in the middle of the table for any tactical ball control. Once you adapt to its unusual set-up then the scores rack up, but on a purely aesthetic level this one left me cold. It also features a painfully naff theme, a mixture of breakdancing and extreme sports that reeks of 1980s Children's BBC. "Yeah, boy!" yelps a voice, and it sounds more like an enthusiastic sheperd than Flavor Flav. Finally there's Agents, an action-packed spy table which is crammed with features but places its narrow ramps close together and takes a lot of practice to really milk for points.

The Agents table - stuffed full of cool features, yet its cruel layout and frugal use of ball-saves will frustrate amateurs.

So, yes, there are only three tables. Not a disgraceful number, but it still feels light. Your mileage may vary, but I found myself wishing there was at least one more, if only for variety's sake. More tables will be available via the Xbox Live Marketplace but, I suspect, they won't be freebies. Could Zen Studios have fitted more in? I couldn't say - the download clocks in at just under the old Live Arcade size limit of 50Mb but the closest comparison would be Marble Blast, which featured equally precise physics (and equally shiny balls) yet managed to boast 60 levels and a robust multiplayer mode.

And speaking of multiplayer, this is another area where Pinball FX feels underfed. Most notably, there's absolutely no option to play against a friend on the same console. As the old "taking turns" arrangement is part and parcel of the pinball experience, and as it can't be that hard to implement, its absence leaves a peculiar hole. The multiplayer mode you do get is a passionless affair in which you race against other players to hit an allotted score first. It supports the Live Vision camera, so you can see the other players twitching away, but is an oddly remote and distant way of playing.

The Live Vision camera, incidentally, can also be used as an alternate control method, operating the flippers by waving your arms around like a nelly. It's great to see the camera being supported but, really, why would you opt for such a clunky system when the joypad works so much better?

The multiplayer mode clutters your view with too much screen furniture and genrally fails to excite.

While we're wearing our Gripes Hat, it's hard to avoid the simple fact that the modern widescreen TV is pretty much the exact opposite of the ideal pinball area. There are five viewpoints to choose from to try and compensate for this, but none really work all that well. Playing with the whole table on-screen, albeit viewed at an angle, allows you to aim better at targets and react to erroneous ball placement much more successfully, but makes the features at the top of the table virtually impossible to see. And, if you're not playing on an HD set, you can pretty much forget any hope of reading all the signs and labels, which means you're mostly left aiming for the flashing things and hoping you trigger something good by accident.

A close-up view is available but, unless you've memorised the tables, this makes it very hard to play with any kind of accuracy. The game is crying out for a simple yet effective top-down scrolling view of the sort that worked perfectly fine for Pinball Dreams way back when. It may not show off the HD detail quiet as well, but it'd make things a lot more accessible.

So essentially what we have is a fantastic virtual pinball engine, the practical application of which is slightly hamstrung by the restrictions of the (old) Live Arcade regulations and by the shape of modern TV sets. If, like me, you're a sucker for pinball and don't balk at the prospect of micro-payments extending your enjoyment then download and enjoy. Otherwise you may find the unfortunate compromises make it a less than essential purchase.

7 / 10