It's difficult to write a review of a pinball game without cramming in a bunch of 1970s and '80s clichés and references to The Who's "Tommy." Game designers have been trying, with varying degrees of success, to translate pinball tables to video games ever since Raster Blaster was a hit on the Apple II. The Pinball Hall of Fame franchise is nothing new to consoles; The Williams Collection edition is old hat. When was the last time you saw a real pinball table? After all, video killed the pinball star. Oops, see, I did it — I swear it was an accident.
Historically, video versions of pinball have fared well, but most of the PC-based titles, however admirable, were originally designed tables, not replicas of the classic arcade models some of us remember quite fondly. Many of those original tables were very good; I remember playing Crystal Caliburn on a Mac for days on end before I settled down to a saner couple of hours a day. There's nothing like in-game representations of real tables, especially classic Williams tables, available to play anytime you wish. We've had that luxury on consoles for quite some time now, so the only real question is: Does The Williams Collection benefit from top-end HD hardware like the PS3, in any way other than making the title available for gamers who don't have legacy hardware? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is yes.
The whole point of translating pinball to consoles or handhelds is simulating the classic tables as faithfully as possible because this is the sort of game where graphics matter quite a bit. The Williams pinball machines were slick, futuristic devices often installed into old dark bars and pool halls, ill-maintained architectural relics of the 1950s. The PS3's higher resolution makes the video virtualization all the more slick and evocative of the real machines. In fact, this version of The Williams Collection supports up to 1080p resolution if you're connected with HDMI. All of the tables look fantastic, and in this case, beauty is more than skin deep; it's part of the immersion, the suspension of disbelief. With physical pinball tables, you used to get lost under their glass tops, blocking out much of the chaotic din of the arcade or pub around you. At its best, pinball is almost a meditative experience. The Williams Collection on PS3 nicely matches that level of engagement.
The advanced audio fidelity of the PS3 is also used to great effect, even though The Williams Collection is a straight-up, no-frills production. In the central sound field, the table you're presently playing is loud and bold, while at the edge of the right sound field, you'll hear the generic burbling of other tables, as if you're playing in the middle of a crowded arcade. It's a subtle effect: It took me a while to realize exactly how the game developers were making everything sound so real.
The Williams Collection is, potentially, one of those games that sucks you in and won't let go. When I received a review copy, I decided I'd crack the shrink-wrap and give it a half-hour once over, precursor to more attentive review gameplay. Three hours later, I shut down the PS3, and though I'd earned some trophies, set some high scores and unlocked a favorite classic table, I still hadn't come close to mastering the series of initially unlocked tables in the game's Williams Challenge mode.
Challenge mode pits you against a long series of basic, unlocked tables that require overall score targets to progress, with three replays or credits available per table. Burn all your credits at a table, it's over, and you're back at the start of the challenge. Put it this way: I'm an unabashed fan of the thoroughly contemporary Gears of War franchise on another console. I'm only an average online player, so, captive to the game as I am, I can't play online for three hours straight without getting frustrated and calling it a night. The Williams Collection in Challenge mode is perhaps 10 times more frustrating than Gears of War multiplayer — especially Gorgar, that old bastard, the first table in the Challenge mode series. The table's bumpers have a predisposition for firing the ball right at the center drain so fast that even the hallowed double-flipper save is useless. The thing is, that's exactly how I remember the actual table: a real pain in the ass. But I could play for hours, and likewise in The Williams Collection, no matter how frustrating it gets, I can still bang away at sinister, mouthy Gorgar for hours until I get it right — or, more appropriately, get a streak of pure luck rolling on one ball.
The Williams Collection comes with over a dozen classic tables, more than half of which are unlocked at the outset for Challenge mode. Four tables are unlocked for free play in the arcade, and the rest require credits. A few credits are handed out at the door, and more credits are earned in Challenge mode. By completing "table goals" — various criteria for excelling at particular tables — you can eventually unlock all the tables in the multilevel arcade for free play, no credits required. If you play enough, you'll earn enough credits; complete enough of the goal sets for tables, and you'll definitely gain access to all the tables and features.
The game includes a selection of tables ranging from the truly antique 1970s Jive Time to 1997's No Good Gophers. Highlights are personal favorite Space Shuttle, first released in 1984; the super-modern Pinbot from 1986; Sorcerer, which has some great sound effects; and Taxi, of 1988, only a so-so table overall but valuable all the same for its theme loosely derived from the unique geopolitical situation in the year of its design.
The Williams Collection includes enough elements to make it a full-fledged video game, not just a pinball simulator — although the realistic ball physics and action of the tables' features, combined with sharp HD graphics and interesting ambient sound emulation, would likely be enough for any pinball fan. If you're signed into your PSN account, there are competitive leaderboards for each of the tables. The game supports Trophies, awarded for exceeding table high scores and completing table goals. There's the aforementioned Challenge mode and Tournament mode. You can play Tournament mode solo, but there's really nothing to recommend it unless you have at least one sofa-side competitor to play against. There is no online support for Tournament mode.
Taken as a whole, Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection is just as it bills itself, a budget title ported from years of previous console titles, enhanced and upgraded for the PS3. Though my memory may be clouded here and there, favorite old tables play just as I recall — both the thrilling multi-ball streaks and the annoying drain-lane nightmares. The game is likely an outstanding introduction to pinball for kids, some of whom may seek out real pinball tables after playing The Williams Collection. If you're already a pinball player, the PS3 version is enhanced enough visually, so unless you've just purchased one of the versions for an older console, it's probably worth buying this edition for its current-generation glitz. It goes without saying that if you've always hated pinball, The Williams Collection probably won't change your mind about the pastime, but you're definitely missing out.
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