The World Series of Poker has become one of the hottest properties on TV today.  On ESPN they are playing World Series of Poker. ESPN2?  World Series of Poker.  My wife called a Karaoke bar that we usually go to so she could sing on a Friday night…you guessed it, cancelled as they are hosting World Series of Poker.  Even my inbox spam has been taken over by World Series of Poker. The phenomenon of no-limit gaming where your whole bankroll can be lost or doubled in just a single hand has taken the United States by storm! 

Activision Value has teamed up with Left Field Productions to bring the World Series of Poker to the small screen with a game of the same name.  There are several Texas Hold-Em titles being released in the next few weeks, but only this is the officially licensed title.  We sat down with a final build of the game to see just what is so mesmerizing about this sport and whether this game is ‘all in’, or has left the table.

Put plainly, the graphics in World Series of Poker are not up to par.  The graphics are often muddy and the same animations are re-used throughout the game.  When Lon McEachmem, official commentator for World Series of Poker, is on screen you might find yourself doing a double-take to make sure you didn’t just fire up your original Playstation. 

It isn’t all bad.  There are real professional Poker players who will swing by to hand you your hind end, Vegas Style, and they tend to look pretty good.  Some of the players you might see would include John Phan, Chip Jett, and “Minneapolis” Jim Meehan.  You might also square off against Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, the 2000 World Series of Poker Main Event World Champion.   There are a total of 12 pros on the console versions, 15 on the PSP, and 9 on the PC.   You may not sit with them at the table when you are clutching that $10,000 to your chest, but when you’ve got $100,000 you might catch their attention – they’ll be the ones with the better character models. 

Other than the pros, you will find that the ‘stock’ characters are fairly two-dimensional placeholders.  I look at them as player A, B, C, D, and E, as there is no real reason to know them beyond that.  The graphics won’t suck you in to make you feel like you are really in Vegas hugged up against the felt, so the whole supporting cast feels a bit like nameless shadows. 

Not all of the World Series of Poker takes place in Vegas.  You’ll be traveling to Tokyo and Hawaii as well…if you are good enough.  The backdrop for those areas are really only seen as you pan over to the table.  They are different enough to provide variety, but entirely forgettable.  I suppose they look like the ones on TV but just less ‘animated’.

I was surprised to see that the Tony Hawk Underground 2 character generation system had wandered across the hall to this title.  You can mix and match your character making them fairly individual.  You can dress them like a street pimp, a respectable guy in a suit, or somebody who looks like they might mug you in the parking lot.  You can customize the hair, hat, glasses, shoes, jacket, skin type, etc. just like in THUG 2, just with slightly less options.  If you are inclined you can pick from 20 pre-made configurations, but in the end you know its all about looking absolutely insane – isn’t that what going to Vegas is about?

When I previewed the World Series of Poker a short while ago there was a particular aspect that stuck out like a thumb freshly smacked with a hammer – the voiceovers.  Unfortunately, this was not fixed in the final version so you’ll enjoy hearing the same wooden standee players yap the same lines over and over and without real ties to the game in progress.  It is distracting and I recommend turning it off entirely. 

I did like the background noises in the game – it does lend itself to a busy casino setting and helps with the immersion to a degree.  The inclusion of Lon McEachmem as the official commentator adds greatly to the overall production value of the title. 

What is puzzling to me is why there is no support for custom soundtracks.  With the soundtrack to the title being instantly forgettable, or when you are at the tables, nonexistent, custom soundtracks seemed like a no-brainer.

Honestly, it is very difficult to mess up the controls on a card game.  It isn’t rocket surgery – you flick your control stick in the direction of what you’d like to do, be it raise, call, fold, etc. and hit A to commit.  If there is something deeper here, I didn’t see it.  I’m taking a few points off the top as it is far too easy to accidentally go ‘all-in’ if you are frantically trying to skip the animations and sounds and forget to check the amount of that last bet.  Other than that, it is as straightforward as you can get.

With the graphics looking as they do and the constant pathetic taunts of the AI (e.g. “I’m taking you down…down to Chinatown.” I think I last said that when I was around 8 years old) the focus has got to be on the gameplay, right?  Well, thankfully in this case it is.  Poker is fairly simple and anyone who can play cards knows this game. 

One of the saving graces of the single player game is the collector chip system and official bracelets.  If you push your chips into the center for a big gamble on the flop you can earn a chip.  If you win with a single pair you get another one.  If you topple Chris “Jesus” Ferguson you can get another one.  You can see where this is going.  All of the chips go into a case in your room – the same place you can put your World Series of Poker bracelet if you are good enough to take one home.  It adds something more to strive for than just winning money and gives the gameplay a good shot in the arm.

There are several game types to play in World Series of Poker.  You can play Razz, Omaha, Omaha Hi-Lo Split, 7 Card Stud, 7 Card Stud Hi-Lo Split, and of course Texas Hold ‘Em and No-Limit Texas Hold ‘Em.  You can set up custom tournaments that limit the number of players, the blinds, and more as you see fit.  You are not pushed directly into the tournament unless you are ready for that. 

Let’s get down to brass tacks shall we?  The AI in World Series of Poker is good.  At times I had to question my own skill as a poker player as they often seemed a little too good.  When I pushed away from the felt empty handed at the World Series a few times I slogged over to the ‘kiddie table’ and played for a few bucks at a time.  The algorithms that controlled the AI seemed to have settled down a little bit so it appears to scale with the area of the game you are playing.  Still, it felt like the AI was just a little too smart at the big show. 

The real game begins when you get on Xbox Live.  You can play with 9 players on Live to compete.  You take your custom character from the creation system into the online world so you can look like a pimp with other poker sharks.  The advantage is that you can sometimes glean a little bit of knowledge with the communicator by simply paying attention.  The ‘chatty-cathy’ is probably a little unconfident in his hand. If you notice that he flaps his jaw nonstop when he is bluffing, this could work to your advantage later when you want to call his ‘all-in’ and send him packing.  There is one thing that did bug me about the online game setup, and it is something I have seen in several games – if you find a great group of players you can kiss them goodbye if the host decides to leave.  The token is not passed to somebody else to host the game, so it just simply ends for everyone involved.  Obviously if your host goes ‘all-in’ early it could be a long and boring process for them, and we all know how patient online gamers are, don’t we?

Simply put, the single player will get you practiced up for the big show – Xbox Live.  Playing against the professionals is engaging and they will give you a good run, but it is the living players that you can take on that make this game worthwhile.

The Value and Replay value of this title will be entirely based on how you play it.  If you play the single player only, your mileage will be restricted pretty quickly and as soon as you win a tournament bracelet you might just toss this game back to the shelf.  If you do that, you’ll miss the collectable items and great online play over Xbox Live.  The online component of the game really makes this game worthwhile and can extend the value beyond the faults of the title.

The addition of online leaderboards is a welcome sight for a game so stat-based as Poker.  You can really study your opponents if you check their leaderboard stats – something you can’t do as easily in real life. 

World Series of Poker has enough going for it that you could easily pick it up for a few quick rounds of Poker at your leisure.  Given that this is a value-priced title at an MSRP of $29.99 you might find enough here to warrant the purchase.  If you are still unsure, catch it on sale and you might change your mind.