Back in the days of the Amiga, DICE released a trilogy of stonking pinball games - Pinball Dreams, Pinball Fantasies and Pinball Illusions. They set the standard for video game pinball and, despite having dated graphically, still hold up today. It’s fair to say that Zen Studios are worthy successors to their crown, with both Pinball FX and Pinball FX 2 winning accolades with their fun theme tables, excellent physics and incredible attention to detail. The release of Star Wars Pinball earlier this year merged all of their pinball-crafting skill with enough Lucasfilm goodness to keep even the most rabid of fanboys happy, so it was merely a matter of time before Zen took another bite of the lucrative franchise cherry.
Balance of the Force is a triple pack of tables which are at least on a par with Zen’s previous offering, and in some ways improve on it. The most appealing aspect of the bundle is the variety on offer: a combination of traditional pinball play and more complex tables. Like other Pinball FX2 tables, this pack is classed as DLC which means you will need to download the free Pinball FX2 game from the Marketplace in order to play them. The table pack will then slot neatly into your available table list.
First up is Return of the Jedi. Like the table based on The Empire Strikes Back in the earlier pack, this is a more straightforward flipper-fest. In that respect, it’s also the least engaging of the three. Hitting a bucket in the centre of the table to spell out JEDI will launch a series of missions to pick from. These are all scenes from the film, and include iconic moments such as defeating the Rancor, the battle of Endor and the duel with Darth Vader. These missions incorporate some fun props: AT-ST walkers, a targetable model of the dark lord and more. They’re the kind of thing that you’d love to see on a real pinball table and an example of where video game pinball’s lack of real-world limitations really shine. It’s a shame, then, that the middle of the table is devoid of much to aim for. A handful of ramps, the previously mentioned mission bucket, and some annoyingly grabby outlanes mean that you’ll struggle to hit big scores on the table. You’ll also find the dialogue repeats more often on this table than the others, but it isn’t a huge issue. There’s a fair amount to uncover here, but you’ll soon move on to one of the other tables.
The second table - Darth Vader - is a shamelessly high-scoring blast, chock full of generous kickbacks, hurry-ups and ball saves. You have the option to rebuild Vader at the beginning or skip the scene entirely. The plus side of doing so is that targets become available which are worth a million points a pop; this is counterbalanced by having to watch the same scene every time he is rebuilt, complete with cringeworthy “NOOOOO!” dialogue. Such are the dilemmas the hardened Star Wars fan faces, but it begs the question of why you wouldn’t take the option of scoring extra millions. That aside, the missions are tough but varied, and there are plenty of other opportunities to score mega-points. Out of the three tables, Darth’s is arguably the easiest - especially with the intro bonus - and therefore the most enjoyable for newbies. Seasoned players will find their speeder mileage varies, however.
The final table, Starfighter Assault, is the most contentious and certainly the most complex. Picking the side of either the rebels or the Empire, you’ll launch the ball from their respective side of the table (the Empire launcher encases the ball in a TIE fighter before it blasts onto the table, so automatically wins). From there, it’s a case of completing missions for whichever side you’re playing on - whether that’s repairing starcraft, launching all-out assaults or having dogfights take place over the table itself whilst you’re playing. It’s a tremendous piece of theatre, and so enjoyable that you’ll find yourself cradling the ball in a flipper just to watch it play out. It’s also the toughest table - a lot of play occurs in the centre of the table and there’s far less space, so you’ll need concentration and a keen aim to get big scores. Outlane losses aren’t as frequent as in RotJ, but you’ll still be punished if you get distracted, and whilst you may initially consider the table to be superficial - all effects, no depth - there’s much more to it than first impressions suggest. Missions are layered and vary dependent on the flag you’re flying, and perseverance will reward you with new secrets and features which go beyond anything the other tables offer. Essentially, you’ll get out what you put in, and whilst it may not be the best place for a pinball beginner to start, it’ll certainly be worth your time once you’ve exhausted the other two options.
One of the joys of these tables is in the discovery of different missions and minigames, most of which are executed with the panache expected from a well-crafted universe handled by veterans in the pinball trade. Whether you’re chasing Salacious Crumb around ramps or protecting balls from a rogue Stormtrooper taking pot shots from behind his speeder, or even launching into a Galaga minigame with an X-wing squadron, the presentation never falters. This attention to minutiae drills down to the actual table mechanics, with an engineer option off the main menu allowing you to recalibrate the tables - including difficulty - with a level of granularity which is probably unnecessary, but a welcome thought nonetheless.
The voice acting throughout the tables ranges from a passable Darth and C-3PO, to a barely recognisable Luke, via a Han Solo who is just plain awful. The official John Williams score redeems it though, expertly cut and seamlessly inserted into the gameplay, and it’s often hard not to get swept up in the orchestral cues. Multiplayer options are unchanged from other Pinball FX2 tables, with the option to play in either local split-screen or 4-player hotseat as well as facing online challengers. Different point targets and time limits are customisable, alongside penalties for losing balls. Local play is a lot of fun, although the split-screen requires a good-sized screen to pick out the detail. Issues finding online matches also remain, with the lobbies empty more often than not - a side effect, perhaps, of having so many tables available.
With even the weakest of the three tables providing plenty of game time, there’s a lot of value for money in this pack. In fact, anyone with an interest in pinball will find plenty to enjoy here, and if you’re a Star Wars fan then there simply isn’t a reason not to invest. The game engine is superb, and it’s easy to forget you’re not playing an actual table which, all told, is the biggest compliment that we can pay Balance of the Force.