(Xbox 360 Review) Marvel Pinball: Civil War

Developer: Zen Studios
Publisher: Zen Studios
Genre: Pinball
Players: 1-4
ESRB: Everyone
Reviewer: Nick Stewart

Overall: 7 = Good

Of the many subjects that have passed through Zen Studios’ hands and into pinball form, the Marvel universe has perhaps seen the greatest degree of highly entertaining success. From Thor to the Hulk, from the Fantastic Four to the Avengers, Marvel’s characters and signature storylines have proven to be especially fertile ground for great table design, creative and compelling animations, and an overall good time. It was only a matter of time before the infamous Civil War storyline found itself a subject of the silver ball, and is now finally available as a single-table piece of Pinball FX2 DLC. While it looks and sounds every bit as good as you’d expect, there are some hitches in this epic clash between superheroes that may keep this outing from reaching quite the same heights as its predecessors.

Given the plot’s pedigree, this new DLC had a lot to live up to, and in some ways, the idea remains one of the best things about this particular table. The story hews closely to that of the original comics, which is that a fatal explosion at a school has created a national call for superhumans to register their identities. Naturally, some of the Marvel roster are less than pleased about having their real lives and loved ones exposed to potential supervillainous backlash, never mind the overall violation of civil liberties.  With this, Captain America leads the anti-registration charge, while other heroes, such as Iron Man, argue that sacrificing privacy is necessary for safety. The stage is soon set for violent clashes that pit hero against hero as the issue splits the superhero world in two.

This storyline is something that’s woven pretty vividly throughout the new table, and gives Zen Studios some opportunities to try a few new ideas. The game opens with an optional prologue segment which takes place much as the comics did: a botched effort to stop a supervillain leads to the disastrous Stamford Incident, resulting in the deaths of hundreds. In pinball terms, this means trying to mitigate as much damage as possible with no room for error or lost balls, and building a score that you can use as the starting point for every new playthrough should you choose to skip the prologue. It’s a nifty idea that gets the game off on the right foot, both in terms of setting the stage for the registration fight, and for providing players with the chance to build a solid cushion for racking up ever-higher scores.

The additional innovations featured at the heart of the game, though, are less appealing. Once you get past the prologue, you can choose whether to play as Iron Man or Cap, and that choice affects some available mission options. These revolve around the true goal of the game, which is to sway undecided mutants to your side before duking it out with your rival in a slow-mo hand-to-hand clobberfest above the middle of the table. With more mutants onboard, your efforts in completing the main task will be much easier.

Taken as a whole, the system sounds great on paper, but it is quite frustrating in practice. The kick is that failing to successfully complete a recruitment mission actually pushes the undecided mutant to the opposing side, making the game considerably harder as you go forward. In other words, every failure amps up the challenge in significant ways, effectively serving as a pretty severe punishment. Worse, there’s very little time to complete these recruitment missions, ensuring that you will fail quite frequently, making the game a powerfully unforgiving experience.

The table’s actual design contributes to this incredible challenge, as it is quite possibly one of the fastest in the Zen Studios collection. While this would typically be an asset, it adds several layers of difficulty where they are certainly not required. This is especially true when the ball exits a ramp almost directly onto the midway point of the bottom flippers with virtually no loss of speed, leading to no end of drained balls.

One could of course argue that these issues are at the heart of what pinball is all about, i.e., adjusting to the table’s inherent challenges and mastering its depth over the course of many replays. There is no disputing this point, but the best tables offer incremental victories along the way, allowing softer hands to become gradually more confident as they put together a better sense of the table’s flow over time. Civil War offers very little in this regard, requiring quite a bit of skill from players right from the get-go, and gives no quarter (so to speak) to those who are unwilling to ignore the stick even without the carrot. This isn’t an experts-only table, but it’s pretty close, and chances are that newer players or those with anything below a middling talent in the genre will find themselves putting it aside before they get a good feel for it.

Zen Studios is the unquestionable king of the genre at the moment, and their standard-setting skill occasionally leaves them free to try some interesting innovations. Sometimes they work, as can be seen in Epic Quest; sometimes it doesn’t, as is unfortunately the case with Civil War. It’s a table that attempts a few new things, with an optional prologue segment and a team-based central conceit, but these concepts largely translate to a difficulty level that will paralyze or punish most players. To be fair, even a less-appealing Zen Studios table is still among the best pinball experiences on the market, and it still stands as an interesting example of the genre. The presentation, as always, is excellent, and fans of the comic series or Marvel in general may find themselves drawn to this table on that basis. Without some serious pinball chops or an awful lot of patience, however, they may not feel as though they really got what they paid for.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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