Reviewed: October 30, 2006
Released: September 19, 2006
No one can say with any degree of certainty how long the game of poker has been in existence. For many the common consensus is that the game originated in the early 1800’s. While it’s easily been around for centuries, it hasn’t always had predominance in people’s minds; but in recent years, the popularity of poker has seen a resurgence and quickly grown to almost fanatical proportions. It’s strange, but when something becomes extremely popular in a hurry and almost everyone seems to be into it, it’s hard not to describe and classify such a thing as a fad. However, you can’t really describe a 200-year-old game as a fad now can you? I think not. Still, that seems to be that case these days. While the game will never die, you can’t help but wonder if it’s recent swelling of popularity will diminish within a few years, my guess is that most likely it won’t. Poker is back (not that it was ever gone) and bigger than ever.
Right now poker is hot, especially Texas Hold’em. In my neck of the woods you can’t even walk into a department store or grocery store without seeing these metal suitcases full of cards and poker chips for sale; usually branded with the Texas Hold’em rules of play. TV shows endorsing poker games are all over the place, and as funny as it seems, they’re often played on sports networks. Is poker a sport? That’s debatable I guess, while it doesn’t take much if any athletic skill, it sure as hell requires metal stamina and some level of skill and/or luck in order to win. What is a sport anyway? I mean the luge is considered a sport, even though it requires little more than gravity and some toe pointing to participate. So who am I to decide what’s athletic? If TSN or ESPN wants to show poker on their stations, so be it.
I’ll be honest about my own poker history, I don’t really have one, but like a lot of people I was introduced to Texas Hold’em by some friends and about 6-8 of us got together a few times to play the game. We played pretty low stakes stuff. $20 got everyone the same number of chips, and when your chips were gone, that was it, you couldn’t buy in again. Still, the possibility of turning $20 into $160 was pretty cool. We also had a few of our own rules, for example, the first runner-up got their $20 buy-in back. With no one losing more than $20, it ensured fun and no sore losers. Besides, for us the real point of playing the game was to chat, hang out with friends, have a few drinks, and kill an evening.
During the 6 times or so that we played together, I won the works 4 times, call it beginners luck. Call it Kenny Rogers, I knew when to hold’em and knew when to fold’em.
Needless to say, I enjoyed the game enough to jump in on the free 48-hour download of Texas Hold’em over XBLA. It’s a pretty decent game and features a good time to be had with others on Xbox Live, but with the release of World Series of Poker: Tournament of Champions 2007 , I have the opportunity to see how a full fledged game, strictly dedicated to poker holds up. It also affords me the opportunity to see how it compares to a much more affordable, all-be-it graphically inferior arcade release. Here are my impressions.
Gameplay during WSOP couldn’t be more simple. After patiently waiting through the game’s torturous loading screen, you eventually start off by attempting to win a small event in a place that basically looks like your Mom’s basement. After that, several Texas Hold’em tournaments open up and you can move on to places like the Grand Casino in Tunica, Harrah’s in New Orleans and Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Some of the tables have buy-in prerequisites and some have limits on the betting. While you never really know it, because there are only 9 people, plus the dealer sitting at your table, there are usually several other tables involved in the same tournament. As players are eliminated people move over to join your table and continue the game. In the end, with a little skill and a smidge of luck, it hopefully comes down to yourself and one other player competing for the big money and the tournament championship.
As the game moves along, other modes open up and you can even partake in 1 on 1 invitational events with some of the celebrity players like Chris Ferguson, Men Nguyen and Jennifer Tilly, just to name a few.
Overall, the game plays out rather smooth, although sometimes a little on the slow side, but fortunately you can skip the betting sequences for the AI players in order to move the game along more quickly.
The only annoying thing about this WSOP is the fact that I sometimes question the game’s fairness. It’s often seems that if you challenge an “all-in” – you’ll lose, if you initiate the “all-in” – you’ll win. The dealer also seems to love giving me queens on a regular basis, and almost always with a card of 8 or lower. In fact, I think 50% of the time it actually was an 8. It seemed as though a lot of the game was pre-planned and not at all as random as it should be. I could be wrong, I’m not sure. Heck, I’ve played the same tournament of 18 players like 10 times and came in 2nd place about 9 of those times, having yet to take first place. Talk about frustrating, especially when a tournament can take you hours to play through.
While World Series of Poker is a pretty good for a little single player action, for me, the best part of this game is the online play. While a computer can be predictable, there’s nothing predictable about another human being, especially when playing something like poker. Who can foresee how a hand might play out when an opponent can go ”all-in” with little more than a single high card? I can tell you from experience, the computer never goes “all-in” unless it actually has something that can win. Against a real person, you never know what they might be holding; hence the intensity of the game goes up dramatically online.
With the Xbox Live Communicator, the Vision Cam, a good room of players and a few hours to kill, WSOP:TOC can be a great deal of fun and a great way to kick back and relax if you want to play something a little slower paced. Even though I love action games and shooters, on occasion it can be nice to play something a little more casual.
Having a shiny new Xbox Live Vision Camera in my possession, the first thing I tried out was the game’s Digimask feature. This much-publicized addition to the game allows you to take a front and side profile photo of yourself with your web-cam and map your features so they appear on your in-game character. Pretty cool once you get it to work and in some cases, pretty frustrating as well.
Getting the Digimask feature to work is relatively simple in theory, but a lot of factors come into play that determine how well it works. I took the 2 photos of myself no less than 20 times before I was satisfied with the result and willing to keep them. I found that the scans failed more often than not, often reminding me to make sure lighting within the room was bright and even, and that my ear was completely visible during my profile shot.
In the end I found that the best results came from taking the pictures with some actual daylight present and with a white screen on some sort behind me, thus preventing the camera from picking up the sight of plants, furniture and other stuff around my home. After a few hours at night and a few tries the following morning, I finally got results I could live with.
I think the most frustrating issue was that whenever the scanning process failed, the game wasn’t very specific as to what exactly the problem was or how to rectify it. I basically had the same error message appear each and every time something went wrong.
One of my biggest gripes with the digimask procedure came from the limited number of options available to customize my final look. Clothing resulted in one of the more annoying problems. Since many of the shirts have low collars and since the scanning process usually incorporates some of your actual neck, you end up with a very noticeable seam where your real neck ends and the computer-modeled neck begins. Even with a high collared shirt the seam was still noticeable at times, for example, every time my character would tilt his head back to stretch.
More customization would have been nice. While I’m a generally slim person, it seems silly to me that anyone scanning him or herself into the game would pretty much have to live with the same body type. So if your 300lbs in real life, you’re still forced to put your big’ole head on a 180 lbs body. In a few cases online, it was clear the more options were definitely needed to accommodate the many shapes and sizes of real world people. Not all poker players are bone racks.
Still, without harping over the issues I had with the digimask feature, overall, it worked pretty well, and sitting at a table with 7 other players was a cool sight to behold. It was neat, yet at the same time, kinda creepy seeing myself represented digitally within the game.
As for the rest of the visuals in WSOP, well… sometimes they look pretty good, other times they’re a little less than impressive. While most of the casinos are nice and colourful, chalk full of spectators and the like, these visuals don’t really bring a lot of excitement to the table. Sure, it’s just poker with some people gathered around to watch, but for as game as basic as this, I expected a little more life out of these artificial characters. Generally the crowd moves very little, often times they’re completely motionless. In addition to that, they’re extremely basic character models that are far from exquisite and far from detailed. The 360 has butt-loads of horsepower inside, why so little of its potential is used I’ll never understand. You expect weak graphics with a busy game, so with something like poker, the lack of realism is inexcusable. You can’t tell me that all the system power was tapped out with the game’s incredible AI, because that would be a crock.
I know, who gives a crap about the audience, it’s the players the count right? Well, they’re generally not a whole lot better With all the impressive visuals I’ve seen on the 360 a year after launch, I expected the players to look almost life-like but no such luck here. Facial textures and detail are kept to a minimum. Even your own hands, which visually take up half the screen when you “sneak a peek” at your cards, are okay, but crude overall. Where are the wrinkles, the hairs, the blemished and dirty fingernails? Well they’re not in WSOP, all we get are low polygon hands with some skin colour slapped over them. It’s not to say that the visuals are terrible, they just don’t live up to the capabilities of such a powerful machine.
Overall, the WSOP’s biggest visual failure has to come from the ludicrous representation of real life card player Chris Ferguson during his tutorials or the commentators during their pre-game banter. The commentators look so bad I could hardly control my desire to laugh at the sheer absurdity of their facial movements. Like the characters on the Muppet Show, their mouths did little more than open and close as they spoke their dialogue.
While I would have liked to see a little more out of this game visually, in the end it’s nothing more than a high-res port from a last generation console. At the end of the day the graphics get the job done, but with plenty of room for improvement.
Okay, I have to say this right of the bat, before anything else. What’s with all the sneezing? Are these characters playing poker in a casino or in the middle of a flower-patch during allergy season? It’s amazing, they sneeze constantly! In the span of like 10 minutes you might hear characters sneeze a half dozen times. Were the developers in the sound department so desperate for something to do that they added sneezing just to keep themselves busy? Why not just through in some farts while they were at it, or maybe some vomiting from a drunken spectator? I know it’s a quiet game, but come on!
As for the rest of the sound, well, the voice acting is pretty lifeless and stale, the remarks during play are repetitive, especially from the commentators, and the music is non-existent except on the title screen and menus.
As for the rest of the sound, well the audience is just a dull aurally as they are visually. They cheer a little, and sound out typical “ooOOoohs” and “aaAAaaahs” during key moments, but little else. Obviously they’re pretty uninterested with what they’re seeing; perhaps the free drinks offered by the casino haven’t been around their way for a while. One of the unusual things is that when a big hand is won, the audience will throw their arms into the air and appear to be cheering chaotically, but the volume in the sound department never really goes up. For the most part the game’s sound design seldom matches up with what’s being represented on the screen visually.
Like Test Drive Unlimited, World Series of Poker: Tournament of Champions is one of those games that hit store shelves about $20 cheaper than most other titles. Still, those who downloaded Texas Hold’em over XBLA for free, or those who missed the boat within the free 48-hour period and paid to 800 marketplace points; have to be wondering if the extra money for WSOP is really worth it.
I suppose that all depends on how much you like your poker. If you enjoy the game, then surely the value is there. With a pile of challenging tourneys to join and an entertaining online component, it’s hard not to pick this game up if you have any interest at all in poker. I for one, really enjoyed the game, and personally I’m sure to play it a lot over the years. Still, even though I like the game of poker, I’d have a hard time convincing myself to buy it before it reached the bargain bins.
I rather enjoyed my time with this game. It falls short in some areas, namely the less the impressive graphics and the lame sound, but for poker it’s the gameplay that counts. Overall WSOP presents some great challenge, and pile of different game modes and a great multiplayer option via Xbox Live.
Another cool thing about this game is it finally give owners of the Vision Camera something to use it for besides Uno. The digimask feature, while a real pain in the ass to use in some respects, works rather well if you have the patience to sit down and try to figure it out. I’m still creeped out about seeing myself sitting at the table.
The World Series of Poker: Tournament of Champions is a must have for hardcore poker fans, though maybe more casual players should stick with the Texas Hold’em download. Both are fun to play in their own right, it’s just the WSOP presents a lot more pazzaz and visual splendor, just not the kind of splendor you expect from an Xbox 360 game. If poker is your thing, then go “all-in”, but if you’re only marginally interested in card games, then you best fold’em and cash in your chips.