|When I first picked up Empire
Interactive's new game, Pro Pinball: Big Race USA I wondered how they would combine a car
race with a pinball game. The press release blares: "Featuring amazing 3D pinball
action, BRUSA challenges gamers to an adrenaline-pumping race across the US, using 16
major cities as play zones and a cast of wacky characters including Monster Truck,
Mini-Beetle and the deadly Police Car to add to the fun." I envisioned some
bizarre 3D environment with a clunky driving interface and some kind of weird pinball
slant, something like Gran Turismo meets Baby Pac Man.
Sometimes it's so great to be wrong. My fears were completely erased when I loaded this game up. Far from any kind of hybrid pinball-video game, having BRUSA is like having a real pinball game on your desk. I have since learned that this is the third title in Empire's Pro Pinball series, and the previous two were also pinball "simulations." These folks have obviously found a niche, and their specialization has really paid off for them.
That first night I loaded BRUSA, I sat with a group of friends, not sure of what we'd see. Like good video junkies, we checked out the options menu to figure out how to play. The preview disk came with no directions, just a glowing press release. In the options menu, along with completely customizable keyboard controls, three different POVs of the table top, and the basic controls, is a choice to read the directions. These are presented as graphics paper glued to the side of the pinball machine. This was our first clue about the true nature of this game. BRUSA is for chicks and dudes who like pinball down and dirty, nudge and tilt, four flippers and a plunger. We ended up putting a dictionary, a couple of lit anthologies, and the compleat works of William Shakespeare under the keyboard, shoving the chair away from the desk, and playing pinball all night.
What's so amazing about this game is how successful it is at getting you to suspend your disbelief. The ball occasionally smacks the glass of the virtual table, it sports that signature "knock" when you get a free game or set a record, and the movement is truly remarkable. The ball, which is a reflective silver, spins on it's axis and the game simulates really lifelike "english." Nudging, in three different directions via three different keys, has the same effect it does in real life. The sound effects are perfect, down to the rattle and hum of a table during play. The only thing missing are the reflections on the glass, but even so, Empire has included one reflection that is really cool. As you play the game, you keep an eye on the reflection of the LED display (corrected for easy reading). Just like modern pinball games, BRUSA even has some "video" sequences where you use the flipper buttons to run cars off the road.
The whole thing is rendered in 3D. You can peruse the entire table, as closely as you want, via an option that allows you to move a camera in and out of every nook and cranny. You can see exactly what the scoops and slides look like up close, and get a ball's-eye view of your virtual machine. The rendering is incredibly fast. With a full install I noticed no lag at all. Everything looked very smooth and never flickered or cut out.
The design of the game is excellent because of its timelessness. It's a race game just like the Guns and Roses pinball game was all about Guns and Roses: The premise gives the game cohesive visual and audio themes. The design consists of cartoony graphics and car characters in the style of Speed Buggy, with goofy smiles and silly voices. The music is actually really cool kind of a light-funk mixed with bubblegum pop that makes you want to say, "Move over, beep! beep!"
In a way, the biggest flaw of BRUSA is that it is just a simulation of a single pinball game. This might turn off a lot of vidiots out there who need 40 levels to be entertained, but for anybody who knows the power of the old arcade standby this won't be a concern. The other drawback to BRUSA is its size: 240 meg for the full install. This isn't intolerable, and can be cut down to 60 meg by not installing the tunes, but I found it disappointing that the partial install made it lag before starting things like "Passenger Frenzy" multiball and the other special sequences. Of course, the ball play was still great on the partial install, so it wasn't impossible to deal with the lag.
The only other flaw in BRUSA is inherent in computer gaming: The monitor is too small. It's impossible to show the table at full size, and anybody who's been by Tilt lately knows that pinball machines are horribly congested little dioramas. After an evening of bleary play, the flippers all but disappear into the bumpers and scoops making it hard to make those last games really count. In fact, even early on several of my friends asked where the flippers were because they couldn't readily pick them out. I can't wait until monitors are large enough to allow games like this to be played at life size.
Overall, I enjoy this game in much the same way I enjoy Solitaire: It sucks you in and you crave playing it, but it's a little disappointing to brag about it to your friends because everybody's seen a pinball game. BRUSA is an amazing simulation, and I suppose the real question you should ask yourself is this: Would you pay $34.95 for a pinball table? It's a heck of a deal, if you ask me.
-- Shawn Rider