Reviewed: September 23, 2005
Released: August 31, 2005
Wait a second…didn’t we just review this game a few months ago? You know – a game about the new national pastime of table poker? Texas Hold’em? Online play? Does any of this sound familiar to you?
Oh, that’s right. The game we reviewed was World Championship Poker, not the World Series of Poker. This one must be totally different, right? Not really.
So here it comes – the glut of poker video games attempting to capitalize on the recent craze of televised, big money, Vegas-style poker. And you have to imagine – as far as game development is concerned, poker must be a fairly lucrative racket. Think about it, the actual coding must be fairly elementary – cards are drawn at random, simple calculated routines control the AI for betting and calling, visuals are static and unimpressive.
Certainly, developing a poker game cannot be as complex as you would find in developing a standard sports game (even a chess game for that matter). Maybe I am wrong, but I would bet that the biggest chunk of time and money is probably spent in licensing the big-name poker players and casinos, giving your game an air of authenticity.
It is no surprise then that Activision would jump on this wagon with their latest release – the “Officially Licensed” World Series of Poker. It is also no surprise that Activision’s game is a virtual carbon copy of every other poker game out there – so, while it certainly gets the job done, the overall package is just not all that impressive.
The World Series of Poker features a half-dozen variations of Vegas-flavored table poker; Texas Hold’em, Razz, Seven Card Stud, Seven Card Stud Hi-Low Split, Omaha and Omaha Hi-Low Split. Each games has it’s own quirky differences, and thankfully the included manual does a pretty good job explaining the games to newbies like myself.
For gamers with short attention spans, or for those who are new to the game of poker, all variations can be practiced or played freely in the Quickplay mode. For the more adventurous gamers, there is the Career mode.
The Career mode allows you to create a character using a rudimentary editor, and then pits that character up against a slew of computer-controlled AI opponents – including the licensed likenesses of World Series of Poker players Scotty Nguyen, John Phan, and Max Pescatori, Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, Chip Jett, “Minneapolis” Jim Meehan, and Men "The Master" – through a year’s season of tournaments, culminating with the World Series of Poker main event. You can hop around picking tournament events in whatever order you choose (including the main event), but all tournaments must be completed before you may progress to the next season.
Much as we have seen in previous poker games, the computer-controlled AI leaves a bit to be desired compared to actual humans. While the AI players do fill a void at the table and try their best to keep the game moving, they do sometimes make questionable decisions at the table – betting or folding in situations where a human would not dare.
If the Career mode is for the adventurous gamer, then the Multiplayer mode is only for the truly courageous. No AI beats playing against real humans, and in multiplayer is where the game gets tough.
There are two multiplayer options – System Link and Xbox Live. On the outset, the question of why System Link was included seemed a bit mysterious to me. I mean, unless one plans to play online through a System Link “pipeline” like Xbox Connect, wouldn’t you think it would behoove two friends to simply play with a deck of real cards? Ponying up for two copies of World Series of Poker and going through all of electronics hook-up just seemed a bit more work than simply laying cards on a table. But the more I thought of it, you do need an impartial dealer and that is one thing the game does supply.
Really, though, the meat of the multiplayer is playing the game over Xbox Live, which allows you to take your created character online and challenge up to eight other players to a round of poker. Here you will find the best of the best and the worst of the worst – where the fun really starts, is finding out which of those categories your competition fits into.
You are sure to find the bullies, who come to a table slapping down “all-in” after “all-in” to scare the timid out of their pots, then as quickly as they came, they disappear – off to rape another table. You will also find the meek – those who need a sure hand or they will check until they can’t check any more and then fold out. But you will also find the good players, those who really make good decisions, those who really challenge your skills.
The problem is that poker needs to be face-to-face to really be played correctly, for the “art” to be fully appreciated. That is where these poker games really drop the ball. With poorly animated, expressionless characters representing your opponents, you don’t get to see fear, excitement, disdain, and all of the other emotions that help you as a player know what is going on in the other guy’s head and hand. These expressions and emotions are universal to all humans and cross international borders, and they are the intrinsic elements that allow you average American college kid to sit down at a fuzzy green table with a Japanese businessman, a German tourist and a French nobleman and play the very same game without worrying about language barriers, customs, etc.
I know I’m romanticizing this whole poker thing a bit more than I should, but it really is the truth. And, without these emotional clues – without the face-to-face human interaction – the game comes across feeling a lot more like dumb luck and a lot less like skill. Which is exactly what Activision’s World Series of Poker inevitably begins to become – voice communication or not.
In a card game like this, the graphics are bound to be a bit uninspiring. There’s just not a whole lot here to even judge. The backgrounds are nearly static portrayals of casino card rooms, replete with cardboard cutout audience members. The cards – well, they look like cards. The AI characters look like humans for the most part, but they are very blocky and poorly textured – and as I alluded to earlier, pretty much devoid of believable facial expression.
Thankfully, the Xbox version of the game allows for custom soundtracks, because otherwise the game’s audio is downright weak. Lon McEachern, the official voice of the televised World Series of Poker, provides the commentary – albeit only using a mere handful of canned quips and phrases, all of which are repeated incessantly to the point of aggravation. Other than the crowd chants, a few “bet” and “call” phrases and the sounds of cards shuffling – there isn’t much more you are going to get in terms of audio. Moral of the story – plan on playing your own music.
To be completely honest, The World Series of Poker has very little to offer over any of the other poker games coming our way. In fact, it may have less. It’s only $20, so you really aren’t going to be too bummed. Then again, when you really think about all of those Platinum Hits that could be had for the same $20, and this game – which could be played for free on the PC…well, the choice is yours.
In my opinion – if you have Xbox Live, and own absolutely no other poker games, you might want to give it a try. If you don’t have Xbox Live, or if you do and already own another Xbox Live compatible poker title, you probably want to pass on this one.
I’m not saying that the World Series of Poker doesn’t deliver on its promises; it is just that the game of table poker was not meant to be played in an impersonal setting – it just doesn’t feel right, so it’s just not as fun. A few months ago, the table poker video game was a novelty, but as more and more of these games hit the shelves, the quicker the novelty wears off.