Poker, and especially the variant known as Texas Hold’Em, has become immensely popular over the past few years, with a multitude of games, books and television shows based around the game, not to mention the huge number of tournaments and the millions of dollars being thrown around on the poker table.

It seems lately that nearly every professional player has come out with their own game, with Daniel Negreanu and Myelin Media LLC coming out with Stacked with Daniel Negreanu.  The hook that Stacked uses to set itself apart from its peers is the inclusion of the Poki poker AI that has been used on the internet for a number of years to give Stacked not only the best AI out there, but also an AI which evolves to challenge the player, with the goal of making the game’s player actually be better at the game of poker.

Does it call the raises of other games, or does it fold before the flop?  We’ll determine the answer to that question in the following review of Stacked with Daniel Negreanu for the Playstation 2.

The graphics in Stacked are rather solid, with definite differences in color and shade between the various chip denominations, some good detail in the background details and generally good detail overall.  The character animations are quite solid, each character showing solid expression, pausing when they’re looking at their cards, and essentially doing the best that can possibly be expected from a video game to emulate human behavior patterns.

Each table is distinctly different, as is each room that you play in.  There’s some decent variety in the character creation mode, allowing a number of different body types, skin tones and various clothing and accessories to wear.  The pros in the game are also very well done, making it quite obvious that either motion capturing was used, or developer 5000ft has some incredible character animators.

Unfortunately, it’s not all wine and roses.  Character creation (both human and computer) is highly limited by the fact that each body type is tied to its voice, and there’s no way to modify this.  Also, there’s no way to change facial features or anything else as far as small details go.  This leads to the troubling issue of playing against twins at a poker table, as they’re using the same body type and voice, which can be pretty distracting.

Each of the pros in Stacked have lent their voices to the game, which is a nice touch.  Outside of them, the voices of the other characters are all solidly acted, with each voice having its own personality.  Indeed, a couple of the female voices sounded very cute, and in a real poker game, could have been pretty distracting. 

Also, it’s obvious that the people voicing the game knew that it was a poker game, as the various emotions played out via the animations were also voiced appropriately.  Pausing too long while looking at your hand, for example, could lead your opponents to razz you about your playing ability or your hand.  Winning or losing a good hand would likewise draw the response of the others at the table.

The only major problem with the voices were that at the end of a hand, when the characters would be talking or responding to your play, the dealer would sometimes jump over the top, cutting off the other sentence in mid-stream.  While it may not be possible for the Playstation 2 to process two sound files at the same time, it would have been nice to instead hear the two voices at the same time, overlapping, much as it would sound in normal conversation.

The music in the game is nice, although it really doesn’t stand out.  This is a good thing, however, not a bad one, as when you’re playing poker, you don’t want to be distracted by music that jumps out at you.  Then again, given how many professionals listen to Ipods during tournaments, I could be wrong on this score.

First, let me get this sentence out of the way.  Stacked is a poker game.  I don’t expect the controls to be very extensive.  And they’re not.  This is in no way a bad thing.

Basically, everything you do in the game is going to be a combination of the directional pad and the X or triangle button.  When you’re at the table, pressing down and then X will cause you to fold.  Pressing just X will cause you to either call or check.  Pressing up followed by X allows you to bet or raise, with further presses of the up directional will allow you to increase the bet or raise in No Limit poker. 

Pressing to the right opens up your in-game options.  You have the ability to look at your hole cards, ask Daniel Negreaneu for advice as far as what you should do at that moment, and also have the ability to smile or frown.  Lastly, you have the ability to change from a standard TV-style camera presentation to a first-person POV camera.  I really didn’t see much use in the POV camera, although some of the more hardcore poker players may prefer that.

The one thing that really bothered me about the controls were that you had to confirm everything.  If you went to ask Daniel for advice, for example, you had to press X to choose the advice, then press X again and go back to your bet.  You couldn’t just go back to the bet while listening to Daniel talk.  It would have been nice, and it’s more of a minor issue than any type of deal-killer.

The use of triangle for cancel was a bit confusing, but easy enough to handle after a few moments.

Stacked starts with a very basic premise.  You can choose from any of the following three modes. Quick Play, where you can play any game mode you’ve unlocked so far. Career Mode, which allows you to create a character and start with $2,000 in an effort to basically become the best poker player possible.  Finally, there’s Multiplayer in either Online or LAN modes, which allows you to do anything from play a table of friends to the MTV Stacked Masters series, which is a tournament series sponsored by MTV. 

There are basically two types of poker in the game: No Limit and Limit play.  Limit play is simply Texas Hold’Em where you can only bet the table limit at any particular time.  This amount is equal to the Big Blind before the Flop, and equal to twice that after.  No Limit is still Texas Hold’Em, but without any limit on your bet.  You can bet anything from the amount of the Big Blind all the way up to every last chip you’ve got.  Most of the time on TV, this is the type of poker that you’re going to be seeing.

Beyond that, there’s also a variety of tournaments, going from single table sit and go tournies to a variety of multi-table tournaments.  You begin with the ability to play house games, and by doing well in the house games you unlock VIP events.  Doing well in the VIP events allows you to play in Masters events.  Eventually, you will play against professional players, and have the ability to unlock them as well as unlock two more casinos to play in. 

One thing of note with online multiplayer is that no one is able to use the pros for online play.  The reason, as described in the manual, is quite simple.  The only people who can use the pros for online play are…the pros themselves.  If you get in a tournament online, and have Daniel Negreanu sitting across from you….that’s actually him.  Good luck.  You’ll need it.

Another very nice factor of the game is the addition of a series of video tutorials hosted by Daniel Negreanu himself.  These go from the basics of what poker is and the hands all the way through how to play certain hands, how to play position and even how to bluff, as well as four major types of poker players.

Unfortunately, some of this information is useless, as you almost never see the Maniac or the Rock at a table.  The AI seems to think that every player in the game is a professional, even if you’re playing at a $10/$20 Limit table.  The players play extremely tight, folding more often than not, and it’s rare to see a hand go to completion with more than two players.  In fact, quite a few times I witnessed the AI cause everyone to fold except for the Big Blind, with no raises on the table! 

This gives the game a very slow pace.  Now, while poker itself is a rather slow-paced game, especially when it comes to professional play, people playing a video game don’t necessairly want to sit and wait for their game.  Luckily, there is a fast-forward mode, but it’s only available when you’re not actually playing. 

The game also tends to load every time you change tables, including during a multi-table tournament.  While the loading times by themselves aren’t really bad, clocking in somewhere between 10 to 20 seconds on average, when it happens every five to ten minutes sometimes, it can get very frustrating, especially in an age of GTA and Tony Hawk’s no-loading zones. 

The nice thing about games coming out toward the end of the development cycle of a platform is that the prices tend to get lowered.  Stacked benefits from this, retailing at a decent $30.  For that money you get a very solid poker game which really will help you learn the game, and if nothing else the video tutorials provided will teach you something new. 

While the AI may be spotty, and Daniel’s tips tend to look more at your cards and position while ignoring your stack size and the type of situation you’re in, it’s still a very solid poker experience, and if MTV continues to show solid support of the title, a very good multiplayer mode. 

If you’re unsure about the whole Texas Hold’Em poker game, this is a solid title to rent and try out the game for the first time without having to worry about losing your life’s savings.  If you know how to play already, and want a solid AI to play against as well as some good multiplayer action, this is pretty much the title to get.  Be warned, however.  This is a poker game, and that’s all you’re going to get.  If you’re wanting more of the casino experience or something with more variety than just Hold’Em, you might want another title.