"You start the game by constructing a likeness of yourself, have him don any number of silly hats or glasses as you wish and start him off in a seedy basement where his poker career will begin. After a few false starts spearheaded by my unfamiliarity of the genre, I was bluffing like a pro and calling out other players’ attempts to do likewise with eagle-eyed skill. Oh yes, you know the gloating is a-comin’."
How does one review a poker video game?
Every now and then, I’m forced to ask myself the above question. Often (as in, almost every time bar this one) the game’s genre is different, but the overhanging question remains valid. In this case, what I know about poker could be written on the back of a postage stamp (in size 18 IMPACT font, no less), so who am I to judge this game’s worth?
Luckily, my ignorance is saved – or would have been if I didn’t think it would make a jazzy intro – by catering not only to hardened pros of poker, but to relative newbs like myself. You start the game by constructing a likeness of yourself, have him don any number of silly hats or glasses as you wish and start him off in a seedy basement where his poker career will begin. After a few false starts spearheaded by my unfamiliarity of the genre, I was bluffing like a pro and calling out other players’ attempts to do likewise with eagle-eyed skill. Oh yes, you know the gloating is a-comin’.
Then I got too big for my boots and lost epically in the first tourney I was invited to.
World Championship Poker 2 lives and dies on its cleverly-implemented career mode. While it does offer an online multi-player option with support from the Sony-branded eye-toy, letting you take a peep at the otherwise ambiguous playing on the ‘wire for signs of poker-faced shenanigans, the complete lack of community kills this feature off for anyone but the hardest of hardcore. Not only is anything based around the PS2’s less-than-stellar internet capabilities in for a rough ride, but the few players that still cling to this mode of play are fantastically good at what they do. It’s a surprisingly welcoming community, truth be told, but a dwindling one that makes no bones about kicking your arse for fun and profit. Besides, only about 1% of the people reading this are going to have an online PS2 and an eye toy, so we’ll leave that side of the game demoted to this single paragraph. The regularly-scheduled spiel on the career mode will now resume:
You start off as an average Joe, kicking around his dilapidated basement, playing small-stakes games with the other local losers. By winning a significant stake in that game, you earn the right and the funds to buy into a pro tournament. Usually, you’ll end up playing the more recognisable strains of poker such as Texas hold ‘em, but other such strains are inevitably present, and these tourneys seem to almost randomly employ unfamiliar games at will. Sometimes the change of scene is refreshing, but constantly readjusting to the differing styles of game can throw those not expecting the sudden changes. But a bigger problem is the linear path you need to tread. The career mode works in weeks: in order to advance to the next, you have to take part in a tourney or stage your own game in the aforementioned basement. A lot of times, you need to meet a certain criteria before you can move on to the next week: a top five finish in a 100-man sit-in or a solid win in a smaller setting. Don’t meet these goals and find yourself forever trapped in limbo, playing the same tourney over and over.
What works better is how putting time into the game not only improves your skills as a poker player but gives you RPG-like stat upgrades in which to invest into your on-screen avatar, which include Keen Eyes, Hand Strength, Stare Down, Tough Read, Stone Face, Actor and Convincing. These skills will gain you insight into the computer’s attempts to bluff or double-bluff, as well as offer you a better chance in completing the mini-game which governs your own ability to bluff the solid AI you’re up against.
The bluff mini-game is quite a clever little way to replicate poker-faces as best as this media can. What you have is a roulette-esque rotating table that shifts from turning clockwise to counter-clockwise randomly with two coloured tags on them. One tag represents a bluff, while the other, a poker face. You control a third tag, and it’s up to you to land your marker on the appropriate condition and hold it there until the timer runs out. This starts off as fiddly and almost impossible to achieve, but with practice and by investing in the appropriate stats, the process becomes much easier.
This does have a rather annoying habit of popping up at puzzling times, though. I gather that the point of this mini-game is to bluff with a low hand or draw better bids in when you're low-betting with a strong hand, but not only does it not always pop up in such instances, but it sometimes does when you have a decidedly average hand and are doing nothing adventurous with it. Perhaps a better idea would have been to let the player decide when they wanted to try and run a bluff rather than just have the game jam them in now and then.
There are also the problems with trying to raise the funds needed to buy into some of the bigger events, which forces you to take out a loan, ensuring that you’re always battling to stay out of the red. This is a particular shame, as World Championship Poker 2 offers the rather nifty option to use your spare funds to refurbish your dreary basement home into a pimpin’ poker pad and invite players there for straight-out games of winner-takes –all. It’s touches like these that string together a feeling of running a real digital career rather than just having a differing set of poker games loosely strung together, and it’s the ability to build your on-screen player’s skill that helps you feel a deeper sense of progress.
And it’s additions like these that make reviewing a poker game a lot easier. It would have been a cop-out for Point of View to code a straightforward poker simulation, and it would've given me little to write about. As is, they’ve helped me out a great deal by thinking outside the box and adding in several elements that made this card playing sim not only involving but a great deal of fun. Maybe some of the ideas didn’t come off as well as they might have hoped, but the effort there is certainly appreciated. Maybe next year’s rather obvious follow-up can tighten on these aspects, because, as is, there’s a very solid foundation to build upon.
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