Review: Star Wars Pinball: The Force Awakens (Sony PlayStation 4/PlayStation 3/PlayStation Vita)

Star Wars Pinball: The Force Awakens
Genre: Pinball
Developer: Zen Studios
Publisher: Zen Studios
Release Date: 01/12/16

2015 was a big year for Zen Pinball and Pinball FX fans, as Zen Studios went all out on releasing tables, from their own tables to licensed tables for Marvel and the Star Wars franchise, in addition to Balls of Glory, which we’ve discussed previously. There were a lot of great tables for fans in 2015, in other words, and it’s no surprise that Zen Studios would want to continue that trend by starting strong in 2016. Fortunately, with a brand new Star Wars film having just released, they had a perfect opportunity to build some tables around it, and that’s exactly what happened, as Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a two-table package based around the events of the first film to a certain extent. It’s no surprise to say up-front that, as pinball tables are concerned, these are quite good on their own merits and accomplish exactly what they’re designed to do (be fine tables), so those who like adding every table that comes out to their collection will find this to be a fine decision here. That said, let’s see if these are some of the better tables to come from Zen Studios in general and thematically, or if they’re simply fine and nothing more.

The Force Awakens comes with two tables, each themed after the titular movie. The first, also titled The Force Awakens, seems to mostly be themed around events from the film (to a point) and looks to be based on Jakku, a desert planet that’s a fair part of the movie proper. The second, Might of the First Order, is based around the Imperial military group from the film and features a very industrial, Imperial feeling aesthetic, as one would expect. Thematically, both tables feel appropriate to their franchise subject matter, but regardless of whether you’re a fan of Star Wars or not, the themes also lend themselves to some very interesting table design concepts. This being a digital pinball table, the tables don’t exactly have to lend themselves to realistic design elements, so while the actual gameplay is all pretty much rooted in real pinball physics, you’ll see things like sand monsters bursting up in the middle of the table, tractor beams, flamethrowers and the various cast members performing activities during missions, which adds a life to the proceedings that real tables can’t quite match. Each table can be played alone or with friends, on and offline, as players compete against each other for top scores, either simultaneously online or by taking turns offline, so you can get your pinball on with up to four players if you’ve got some friends who like it too.

The tables in The Force Awakens pack each look authentic, as each table captures both the appropriate aesthetics one would expect of a pinball table and the visual elements one would expect of the characters. The Force Awakens features an internal design that blends the expected imperial and rebel color schemes into one impressive central art piece, as well as a desert planet backdrop meant to reference Jakku. The table is also full of references to plot-important characters, from the art centerpiece showing a cast portrait to the appearances by Kylo Ren, Rey, Finn, BB8 and even the Millennium Falcon, which is outstanding for fans of the film. Might of the First Order, on the other hand, is very much an Imperial themed table, from its black-and-white color contrasting color palette with red and blue highlights to its heavy visual reliance on Imperial iconography, including TIE Fighters and Stormtroopers. The table also features a lot of Imperial key art, including a central art piece focused in Kylo Ren and various Imperial agents, several Stormtroopers who appear around the playfield, and even dogfights between TIE Fighters and X-Wings at some points. Aurally, the tables also sound top-notch, featuring various John Williams score pieces as background music that set the tone nicely and really give a lot of gravitas to a pinball game. The voice work that pops up is also well cast, and the various aural effects that go off while playing mix traditional pinball sounds in with Star Wars appropriate effects to great effect, making both tables far more thematically appropriate than might be expected.

The core gameplay of Zen Pinball in general, and The Force Awakens pack in specific, is incredibly simplistic to understand: hold and release a button to fire the ball into the playing field (or use the right analog stick, which tends to work better), then press buttons associated to the left and right flippers to attempt to keep the ball in play and hit scoring areas of the table. You can also tilt the controller in the console versions to perform actual “tilt” actions in the game if you want, you big cheater you. If you’ve played any pinball table in your life you already know how the basics of the game work, and Zen Studios has managed to replicate the experience more or less perfectly. The ball physics, while not one hundred percept accurate to real-life pinball, are among the best around at replicating the experience, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of how the ball will react across all of the tables to your shots and scoring attempts. Now, of course, pinball tables aren’t just about keeping the ball in play, they’re about what you can do with the ball to earn the highest score possible, and each of the four tables has its own unique elements that make it fun and interesting in its own way. So let’s break down the individual tables a little bit:

THE FORCE AWAKENSThe Force Awakens is a table that feels very beginner friendly, between its fairly accessible table layout and its scoring friendliness, and the color scheme of the table is mostly pleasing to the eyes and rarely interferes with play except in rare cases, so it’s generally an excellent table for anyone to jump right into. The table features six flippers, between the default left and right bottom flippers, a left flipper on the left center side of the table, a right flipper towards the center of the table, and two more left flippers in a small alcove in the upper-right corner that are part of a specific event, but they’re all easy enough to keep track of when needed. There are eight primary missions on the table that have their own unique activation requirements, including Scrapyard (hitting locations lets Rey collect scrap for points), Freighter Madness (shoot the center hole for points, then the targets for more points) and Attack of the Rathtars (shoot monsters for points) among others, each of which are fairly easy to set off and fun to score on. There’s also a Movie Scene mode that runs through twelve sequences from the film which can all be activated by the left ramp, and each has its own clear conditions that get progressively more challenging as you go, which gives the table a solid challenge for even veteran players. The table makes scoring fairly simple, as several of the missions offer easy scoring options that even novice players can hit, while offering a decent challenge for skilled players, and it’s one of the better tables to come out for Zen Pinball because of it.

MIGHT OF THE FIRST ORDER – This table skews in the opposite direction from The Force Awakens; while it’s not too hard to get a decent score on this table, it’s designed to be a lot more experimental and complicated, and as such will likely be the go-to table for more experienced players. There are five flippers here, between the default left and right bottom flippers, a center-right flipper and two additional bottom flippers inside the table, and while they’re all easy to keep track of, it’s the “table within a table” gimmick where things get interesting. There are several main missions to take on, including Pushing the Frontiers (a Jackpot multiball mode), Turbolaser (using a Star Destroyer to shoot down X-Wings) and a couple modes featuring Poe, each of which have their own unique activations and mechanics. The table’s main appeal, however, comes from its novelties, such as the Tractor Beam and the internal table used for the Crushing the Resistance mission, as these can be really rewarding if used correctly, but can also be quite complex to work with effectively for inexperienced players. As such, this table is going to be a lot more fun for the serious pinball fan; while it’s not a hard table to rack up a decent score on, it decidedly skews harder than The Force Awakens, and feels like a solid compliment to that table once you’ve mastered it and want something with more of a challenge.

Now, if you’re looking to get your name up on the metaphorical wall, you can take on the tables with their default settings, set your own high score, and compete with your friends and/or the world. The game also scores against your Pro Score and Team Score, with the former being a united numerical value that indicates your overall ranking across all of your tables, and the latter indicating your score combined with that of your friends’ scores across all of your and their tables, so, yeah, you’ve got three different scores to try and max out at once if you’re into that. For those who prefer to screw around with the pinball mechanics, you can jump into the Operators Menu, which allows you to adjust all sorts of settings on the different tables. You can play around with things like the tilt warnings, how many extra balls you have in stock, how many extra balls come out in some multiball sequences, how difficult the table is, what the pitch of the playfield is, and so on, depending on how involved you want to get in customizing the table to be easier or harder for you. This, however, disables leaderboard scoring, so bear that in mind. You can also, as noted prior, play the game on or offline with friends. Online play puts you up against one another simultaneously to try and either earn a specific score or the highest score after a period of time, and also allows you to punish players who lose a ball (since you have infinite balls to reach the time limit or winning score) with score penalties. Offline mode is a simple “pass the controller” mode, similar to how a normal pinball table would handle multiple players, where you change player after a ball is lost, depending on the console you play it on.

Honestly, there’s not a lot bad to say about The Force Awakens as a package; for five dollars you get two very solid tables that are fun to play around with and well developed overall. The package offers one table that’s easy to learn and understand for novice players, as well as a more complex and challenging table that’ll appeal to skilled pinball players, and as a package it’s a balanced one. The most obvious issue here is that, if you’re not a Star Wars fan, these tables are heavily stacked with iconography from the newest film, so much so that those who actively don’t like the series won’t be able to get past it, but that’s to be expected honestly. Might of the First Order can also be a bit weird to adjust to, even for experienced players, due to the internal table mechanic, as it can be hard to visually identify when the ball has switched to this table unless you’re actively gunning for it, so you might well miss the change entirely if you’re not spot-on with your shots. This won’t lost you a ball, though, so it’s more focus disrupting than actively costly, but it’s definitely something that takes a bit of getting used to, and it might be off-putting for newbie players outright, which hurts the package deal slightly.

Ultimately, Star Wars Pinball: The Force Awakens is a good two-table package that’s easily worth the five bucks it costs, as both of its tables are well designed and interesting, and unless you really hate Star Wars or you’re really bad at pinball, there’s no reason not to pick it up. The table package features two tables that really do a lot with the concepts and elements of The Force Awakens, whether you’re talking aesthetics, aural presentation or raw mechanics, and fans will actively enjoy how many great ideas Zen Studios crammed into these tables. The game is easy to play and the pinball physics are mostly accurate to real pinball, the table designs are very interesting, and there’s a good variety of challenge across both tables so that newbies and diehard pinball fans can have a blast, both alone or with friends. If you actively hate Star Wars you’re not going to enjoy the tables, obviously, and Might of the First Order might be annoying for newbies, but truthfully, this is one of the best packages Zen Studios has put out to date, and what few complaints could be registered about it are really minimal. The Force Awakens is a table set that is both thematically outstanding for fans and really strong mechanically for players, and it’s a must-have for all but the most ardent of Star Wars haters.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Star Wars Pinball: The Force Awakens is a strong table pack, as five bucks nets you two well-crafted tables of varying difficulty and experimentation that are among the best in the Zen Pinball library, unless you’re really not a fan of Star Wars or something similar. Both tables are based around themes from The Force Awakens, and they’re put together quite well, from the interesting aesthetic setpieces to the well chosen effects and score to the occasionally experimental but always interesting table mechanics. They’re both as simple to play as regular pinball and offers all sorts of fun extra features, like the ability to upload scores online, play around with the table mechanics, and play on or offline with friends that add a lot of worthwhile depth and substance to the experience. The Might of the First Order table skews slightly higher on the difficulty curve if you’re a very casual pinball player, and if you’re opposed to Star Wars the tables are absolutely crammed to the gills with it, so in those cases the tables might be hard to recommend. For everyone else, however, The Force Awakens pack is an outstanding package of strong tables that’s easy to recommend, and it’ll definitely be a good addition to your Zen Pinball library.