Although the much-loved Pinball FX2 sadly never showed up on Windows Phone, Microsoft's mobile phone platform has a long-running pinball series of its own: Pinball League from Tainicom. It started with The Juggler way back in 2011, followed by Dr. Pickaxe the next year. Both games also made it to Windows 8 and RT.
After a two year absence, Tainicom is back with their latest pinball game – Pinball League: Hardhat Zone. This and Tainicom's previous pinball games are universal purchases, so you can buy it once and enjoy on Windows Phone and Windows 8 and RT. Excitingly, Hardhat Zone introduces some new features like portrait and landscape support, Facebook leaderboards, and multiplayer via NFC (Near-Field Communication). See the NFC multiplayer mode in action in our video review!
Men at work
Although the table design skews towards realism, the animated construction zone that surrounds the table makes for an interesting and attractive presentation. The "Hardhat Zone" consists of a skeletal building frame, trucks, bulldozers, backhoes, and other construction equipment. Several animated workers (who resemble LEGO minifigures due to their low-polygon models) toil away, forever waiting for the time clock whistle to tell them the day's work is done.
It's a good thing the stuff surrounding the table is so visually rich, because the design of the table itself is fairly mundane. The top of the main table area consists of several ramps, a trio of bumpers, and approximately five scoring lanes. The bottom side of the table is mostly empty, other than some drop targets on the sides.
For my tastes, there should be some kind of three-dimensional object matching the theme on the table itself, as you'd see with most real tables. Here, it's all in the periphery.
Don't think I'm calling Hardhat Zone a boring game. The developers breathe some life into the game itself with a couple of minigame-like bonus tables that can be accessed by knocking the ball onto specific ramps. Instead of warping to a completely different area like in Pinball League: Dr. Pickaxe, these two bonus tables physically connect to the main table on its left and right sides. The result is a more connected and grounded experience while still maintaining the fun of being able to access new areas.
Hardhat Zone has a combo system, so putting the ball through ramps repeatedly will net big score bonuses. Completing certain actions will cause the game to display messages like "According to plans" and "Weld your combo," the latter complete with a welding animation from one of the construction workers. I'm not sure exactly what these messages mean – they probably indicate bonus modes or something.
For the first time in the Pinball League series, Hardhat Zone supports portrait orientation. Players can switch orientations on the fly, or simply lock the orientation in the Settings menu.
Welcome as the portrait orientation is, landscape still offers a more enjoyable experience. Presentation is one factor – most of the visual flourishes can scarcely be seen in the vertical orientation owing to those touches not appearing on the table itself. Landscape mode is angled and zoomed in more as well, which looks nicer.
I also find the controls difficult when playing with my phone in portrait mode. You have to tap the left side to move the left flipper and the right to move the other one, just as you'd do in landscape. But I find that my thumbs cover more of the critical area you'd need to see while playing pinball (the bottom of the screen). My solution would be the option to move both flippers with a single tap. This would even allow us to hold the phone in one hand and play with the other, increasing comfort.
At last! In score-based games like pinball, online leaderboards are so important. A large part of the appeal is trying to outdo other players' scores and climb the leaderboards.
Hardhat Zone makes some progress in the leaderboard department, but more work still needs to be done. The leaderboard here only displays your Facebook friends' scores. Windows Phone is a minority platform and not every Windows Phone user is going to by any particular game. My leaderboard currently shows my score and no others, so I'm not actually getting any value from it just yet.
A better implementation would be to offer both a global leaderboard *and* a friends leaderboard. Let us see how we stack up against all Hardhat Zone players, not just people we know! Also, some stat tracking (whether online or offline) such as number of games played would be interesting.
Also new to the series is the 2-player versus mode. To use it, both devices must have NFC enabled. Choose "2p Versus" and tap the two devices together when prompted. The game will display Facebook names and profile pictures if connected to Facebook, otherwise you'll just show up as a nameless and faceless player.
The versus mode lasts for two minutes. During this time, each player tries to earn as many points as possible. Lives are unlimited, so don't worry about failing before time runs out. After the match ends, you'll automatically play another unless a player chooses to back out. Versus results are not saved locally or tracked online, unfortunately.
Unlike leaderboards, nobody expects multiplayer from a pinball game. Hardhat Zone's versus mode is purely a bonus. Still, the choice to use NFC instead of WI-Fi for multiplayer is a shame. Many users keep NFC turned off in order to conserve battery life, so having to turn it on is a minor hassle. But the real downside is that many Windows 8 devices such as desktops, laptops, and even the Surface RT/2 and Surface Pro/Pro 2 don't support NFC. Those computers and tablets won't be compatible with this game's multiplayer.
Windows 8 version
The Windows 8 version of Hardhat Zone supports portrait and landscape mode, just like the phone game. It also allows players to adjust antialiasing in order to optimize performance.
In addition to touch controls, the tablet and PC version supports both keyboard and mouse controls. The mouse launches the ball by dragging, and its buttons control the flippers. On keyboard, space bar tilts, the Ctrl keys control the flippers, and the right arrow key also activates the right flipper. That's smart since some tablet keyboards like the Surface Type Cover don't have a right-side Ctrl key.
My only complaint control-wise is that the Controls menu in Settings doesn't display the key bindings. Even if we can't change the bindings, it really should tell players the keyboard controls instead of requiring us to experiment.
Pinball League: Hardhat Zone's many improvements over Dr. Pickaxe make it easily the best pinball game available on Windows Phone. The music is better (though still not good), portrait support is a good option, and the Facebook leaderboards and 2-player mode are imperfect but welcome. Perhaps those latter two features will be refined over time.
Although the construction zone theme and actual table design are not particularly exciting, Tainicom has still made a very good looking and playing pinball game. Let's hope the wait for their next table is less than two years this time!
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