Reviewed: March 12, 2006
Released: November 8, 2005
Poker is everywhere nowadays; we have televised poker championships, televised celebrity charity tournaments, casino-based reality shows, casino-based cop-dramas, workplace poker tournaments and yes – many, many poker video games.
Unlike the consoles – which only have a half-dozen or so poker games to choose from – the PC has been inundated with hundreds (if not thousands) of commercial, shareware, freeware, adware, spyware, and internet-based versions of poker. There is even a whole underground of offshore online gambling for real money.
In the sea of poker games hitting the consoles, a successful title must have a unique hook to separate it from the others. All feature some form of character creation, a persistent career mode, a robust online mode, and a dozen or more variations on poker. So what does World Championship Poker 2 Featuring Howard Lederer have that the others don’t?
The most noticeable hook would have to be the unique character personality modeling. While the overall character creation is fairly generic in nature – only allowing you to pick from a limited set of character models, and a handful of overall personality traits like “loose cannon”, “salesman” and “mellow” – it’s when the game starts that things get interesting.
Almost RPG in nature, World Championship Poker 2 allows the player to apply values to various poker-themed skills like “hand strength”, “stone face”, “keen eyes”, “actor” and “convincing”. These skills will determine the way the character’s table language will play out throughout the game. As the player’s career progresses, upgrade points are awarded which can be used to beef up the character’s skill set.
This brings up the second unique feature of World Championship Poker 2 – the bluffing “minigame” which kicks in during tight situations or when you have made a less than optimal decision. What you get, is a small rotating disc with dots that you must line up – the results of which will determine whether your character will bluff or tell the cards in his (or her) hand.
The problem with both of these features is that they really don’t do a whole lot to enhance the overall gameplay. I mean, we aren’t talking about a sports game where the skills really help how the character handles the ball or how fast he can run – this is poker, and 100% of the decision is based on the instincts of the human player, not the onscreen avatar’s keen eye or stone face skills. Basically, this whole skills mechanic only really helps the game decide when to kick into the minigame, and how the minigame will play out – by making certain results either easier or harder to line up than the others.
Still, the overall gameplay is quite solid. The AI opponents are quite challenging, and are not overly cautious about making risky calls. In some of the previous poker games I’ve reviewed, games stretched on and on, because the AI opponents seemed willing to fold at the slightest inkling of risk.
Unlike the competition, World Championship Poker 2’s characters are more than willing –almost too willing in fact – to drop an “all-in” and instantly put you in defensive mode. And, in the same vein, is definitely much more difficult to scare off AI opponents with a mid-hand all-in of your own.
The career mode is tracked with an overhead map showing open games ranging from early-on basement games and eventually onto the World Championship. The player can slider the cursor over each of the open games and get a readout of the match info – buy-in, game type, blinds, etc.. As the character wins (or at least doesn’t lose) matches, he will become noticed by new promoters who will invite the player to bigger and better competitions.
Interestingly, the map also features pawn shops, where players can either spend their winnings on items like sofas and stereos to furnish their character’s virtual apartments – and conversely, were the player can pawn previously purchased items for cash.
There is a robust online mode that utilizes USB webcams and headset/microphone accessories to help gameplay with up to eight online opponents. It should not come as a surprise that the online competition is a bit stiffer than you will find in the AI opponents, and keeping you money against some of the top players will prove to be a bit difficult.
The online community is strong, and it is a snap to jump into any of the available games and get right into play. You will still find the random hothead hopping around from table to table dropping massive mid-hand bets of “all-in” to intimidate and scare lesser gamers from their pots, but I have found it easy to just throw caution to the wind and call them on their bluff. Sure, sometimes you lose big, but it’s only virtual money, and compared to the feeling you get when it pays off in your favor – it is all worth it. Getting thanked by the other players for driving off a jerk is by far the best reward in the game.
Bluffing with a USB web camera adds a new dimension to the usually faceless online poker play. But, you will want to beware of some of the creepy people out there who like to do certain antics on camera to break concentration. You definitely see some weird people playing online out there.
When talking about a poker game, there really isn’t any great necessity in having superb visuals – why, the biggest card-based video games in history, Solitaire and Freecell, are nothing more than a handful of playing cards and a green felt table.
Still, the developers know that for better or worse, graphics sell games – and there enters one of the biggest problems we found with World Championship Poker 2; the limited out of the box graphical support. The cover clearly lists the only supported video cards being the desktop models of the GeForce 2 or higher and the ATI 7500.
Now I know that those cards are nothing too powerful, but for a game with the limited visual quality of World Championship Poker 2, and especially one marketed for the masses and selling at the bargain price of $20 – I would expect developers to consider their low-tech target audience and give their game the ability to run on just about any stock PC made in the last five years. I had problems getting the game to run successfully on my two-year-old stock PC, and that really shouldn’t happen with a bargain-priced poker game with such a wide appeal.
The overall quality of the visual presentation is passable. The characters’ looks and animations (what little there are) all are acceptable – if not a bit bobble-headed in appearance. Overall, there is a general lack of expression or emotion to their faces and movements, and the characters tend to look like plasticized animatronics than real people.
The backgrounds are quite varied, from dank basements to large-scale casinos, but there is little or no reason to really look beyond the table of play. Really, the most visual enjoyment you will find is in pondering the various gaudy combinations of attire that gamers have come up with.
Is there sound in this game? Oh yeah, I do remember a couple of guys talking every now and then, and I even think my mustachioed Frenchman with his beret said a few “laid back” words here and there. Then again, I cannot be sure it was he, because he sounded like Keanu Reeves and all.
Seriously, World Championship Poker 2 is bereft of any good quality sound bits. The soft background music quickly becomes dull and repetitive, and the voiceovers are definitely below the bar for quality.
The only real enjoyment to find here is the unintentional humor you will find in the matching of the characters’ voices to their faces – which is apparently set during the character design portion. As I mentioned, my avatar looked like a flamboyant Frenchman with moustache, and because I made his personality “laid back” he ended up using a Keanu Reeves voice for all of his quips and cracks. Believe me, it didn’t fit the bill.
If there is one area these poker games truly shine in, it is value. For a mere $20, you get fourteen variations on poker, a hefty single-player mode, and an even greater online mode. The result is gameplay that – much like the Energizer bunny – just keeps going and going and going…
But this unlimited gameplay comes with a limited appeal, and only true poker fans will have the gumption to ride this one out for more than a handful of dry, dull hands before popping in something a bit more exciting.
How many more of these poker games do we need? What was a novelty just a few years ago, the whole poker phenomenon is quickly becoming a tired and overused theme in gaming. When the whole of the game revolves around a half-moon aquamarine card table, should I really care about having new avatars to play against, or different locales for a background? No, not really. So why bother?
Despite the lackluster presentation, the core card gameplay in the World Championship Poker 2 is solid. Fans of poker should definitely find the game both challenging and entertaining. And those who take it online are sure to be pleased. And hey, $20 for a game with limitless gameplay is a lot cheaper than even a half an hour at most casino tables.
As for the thousands of competing titles already on the market – sure, there are plenty of “better” titles, and plenty of “cheaper” (if not “free”) titles with all the bells and whistles of World Championship Poker 2. But for the price, you probably won’t find a better game of poker, and the ease of mind of knowing that you are playing an honest-to-goodness game that won’t incite a lot of unwanted spyware or spam for a little “free” play makes it worth every cent.