Last year, Activision brought us World Series of Poker, featuring the only game licensed by the World Series of Poker.  This year, they’ve expanded on the concept with World Series of Poker: Tournament of Champions, adding in more pros, more tournaments, and a career mode with a storyline:  becoming a professional player at the side of Chris ‘Jesus’ Ferguson with the goal of winning the Tournament of Champions.

I was somewhat disappointed with last year’s game, mostly due to the lack of anything beyond the WSoP, but also because of how boring the game felt to play.  Activision and developer Left Field have worked to try to improve the gameplay of the game as well as improve on the game experience.  The question is, will this be a monster hand, or will it suffer from another bad beat, and bust out early?

While it’s obvious that the various poker pros were digitally scanned for inclusion into the game, and generally look quite nice, there are a number of things that detract from the graphical elements of the game. 

The first thing that pops up is a rather odd graphical error involving looking at your hands.  At various times when you pull your hand up to see what you have, the hand will ‘freeze’, and you’ll be left looking at either the corners of the cards, or the inside of your player’s hand for a number of seconds until the system resets back to the table and shows you what you had.  While it doesn’t happen often, it’s often enough that it becomes an issue, especially when you’re wanting to see your cards.

Next, there’s a timing issue on conversation.  The lip syncing honestly isn’t very good, and it shows early and often, as you see lips move when no words are being heard, or the character’s lips stop moving only to have more words follow.

The game also seems to graphically run behind the game play, in that when you choose to throw in chips or fold, periodically the game will sit there for five to ten seconds, sometimes longer, before it’ll show your character doing what you directed him to do, and then go on to the next.  Likewise with the computer-controller characters, the game will be showing the previous person acting out their move while the next one in line is ‘thinking’, or while you as the player are looking at your turn.

The final issue, and something that’s occured in other poker games, is that the game doesn’t seem to visually handle the chips very well.  When you’ve got $1,000 in chips, and you bet $30 only to see your character take his entire stack and set it in the table, or if you bet $300 and only see him flip a single chip, it detracts from the gameplay somewhat.  About the only time the game consistantly gets it right is on an all-in call, when it shows you shoving the stack to the center of the table. 

There are some good points in the graphics, as they’re somewhat improved over last year, and the outfits all look rather nice.  Unfortunately, the problems with the game take away much more than can be easily stomached.

One of the biggest problems any game with a ‘presentation’ aspect has is generally going to be the commentary.  WSoP:ToC is no different, unfortunately. 

The commentary is generally pretty true to how the “World Series of Poker” television show runs, with Lon McEachem and Norman Chad providing commentary, and each of the twenty-plus pros offering their sound bites, as well as stock sound clips for the other random players.  The problem is that there’re simply not enough sound clips for the length of time any particular tournament takes and both the players and especially the commentators repeat themselves early and with a high amount of frenquency. 

Part of this problem stems from the fact that the video game tries very hard to present itself like the “World Series of Poker” television show on ESPN.  But, as Chris Ferguson says in one of the well-done video tutorials, poker is a game of patience, and what is shown on TV is usually nothing like an actual tournament is in practice.

When you throw in the commentary, and the fact that a high percentage of the time the players themselves will have a comment to add to the action, it makes the game feel much more plodding in nature, and rather boring.  Luckily, the options to turn off the voices and speed up the game itself are both available.

This brings us to another issue.  The game’s system of tells involve coughing and sneezing.  When you turn off the voices and speed up the game, you tend to get a lot of both, which makes it sound like the tournament is suffering from an outbreak of the flu.   There’s got to be a better way to portray tells than with this.

The nice thing about reviewing a game with a simple control set is that generally there’s nothing bad to be said about it.  This is definitely the case with WSoP:ToC, as the controls are very simple and do their job as well as they need to.

The X button generally selects options while the triangle button cancels out.  The left analog stick and the directional pad both control moving within menus.  In play, the triangle allows you to peek at your cards, and the square button has numerous uses, most of which are covered with on-screen help, including hints from Chris Ferguson.  The L2 button switches between a number of ticker views on the bottom of the screen, R1 brings up the help screen while R2 brings up the various unlockable poker tools that you can use in-game.  The Start button pauses the game while pressing down on the right analog stick puts the game in first person view. 

There are a few other control changes, but all are generally handled with the help of on-screen cues, so everything is pretty self-explanatory while actually playing the game.  Everything works as it’s supposed to, and there’s not much confusion about what does what.  This is a good thing.

The focus for WSoP:ToC the new career mode.  The story is that because of a lost bet, Chris “Jesus” Ferguson has to sit in and deal at a local poker game that you and a group of friends are at, and he promises that he will take the most promising player under his wing and sponsor him for the World Series of Poker.

Of course, before this happens, you have to use a pretty nice character generator to create your own custom character, down to the voice pack used for him.  Once this is done, you go into the first game of poker.  Win or lose, Chris Ferguson will decide that you show the most promise, and will lead you towards the first of the WSoP circuit events in an attempt to build your bankroll and garner points required to make it to the Tournament of Champions. 

In order to do this, you’ll have to go to four different casinos and take part in four different events in each casino, including the $10,000 World Series of Poker Main Event with the ultimate goal being the Tournament of Champions in Rio.  Along the way, you’ll be invited to various invitational tournaments. 

While you’re doing all this, you’ll unlock new outfits, new furnishings for your personal poker room that you can import for online play and win a number of chips for various achievements, from hitting certain poker hands, knocking certain pros out of play, to winning certain amounts of money overall.  It’s a nice idea to let players collect the chips.

The game also includes some very nice video tutorials from Chris ‘Jesus’ Ferguson, which cover not only the basics but some more advanced concepts as far as what you want to look at playing in certain positions, and various ways to play poker, with emphasis being on playing as a shark; that is, tight and agressive, only playing the best hands based on position, and playing them quite aggressively.

Beyond the career play, there’s also the option to participate in a 16 player Heads-Up Tournament, or a standard Hold ‘Em Tournanment.  Multiplayer is here as well, allowing players to play either a sit-and-go tournament or a full tournament.  The EyeToy camera can be used with the game, although it’s really no substitute for sitting across from another player at a table. 

It has to be said from the beginning that this is somewhat of a ‘value’ game, coming in at $29.99.  That being said, there are still a lot of problems with the game that can detract from one’s desire to play it for long stretches at a time.

However, with all the unlockables, the collectible chips, and the solid number of pros available in the game, there’s a fair amount of replay value, especially if you want to win each of the twenty-one tournaments available in career mode.  Once you’re past the visual and audio problems, and have the settings set to make the game run faster, it’s a lot more enjoyable and you can settle down to playing some serious poker.

It has to be said here, though, that if yearly poker games are going to be the norm, there’s going to have to be some serious improvement each year to make a game worth the purchase, even at the budget price of $30.  This year, the reason is the story mode, and hopefully Left Field and Activision will continue to put together a quality product.