Poker has experienced an impressive upswing in America over the last few years, becoming one of the most popular pastimes almost overnight. It’s like Law & Order in that at any particular time, a cable station somewhere is showing some kind of poker tournament. Celebrities play for charity benefits and suburban neighborhoods have weekly poker nights and of course with this popularity, comes poker video games, some good, some bad.
Unfortunately, Valusoft’s World Poker Championship falls into the bad category. While claiming to offer “20 of the world’s best poker players” and “the most challenging, most realistic game play,” in truth it delivers little more than a letdown. What’s most disappointing is that the game’s major flaws seem like they could have been easily avoided, and with just a few changes, it could have been so much better.
World Poker Championship offers four different poker variations: five card draw, seven card stud, Omaha hold’em, and the wildly popular Texas hold’em. Most poker fans will be buying the game for this final variant, and it seems that Valusoft was expecting this. The Texas hold’em games play much better than the others, and the AI seems to be particularly designed with it in mind.
This doesn’t mean the other games aren’t fun, but the fact that the title as a whole isn’t designed terribly well and that the other three games appear to have been largely ignored combine to make the design effectively dedicated to Texas hold’em. Five card draw, probably the most well-known poker game, is practically unplayable because of poor presentation. In that game, the number of cards the opponents draw is not shown, which is an integral part of the strategy and results in a pointless exercise of blind guessing. Thankfully, the other three games are faithfully rendered, though you’d better know how to play them already, because aside from a glossary of terms, there are no instructions.
World Poker Championship is paced fairly well, though, as with everything else, the AI throws the flow of the game off a bit. You start single player mode with $5000 in chips and only one of six casinos available. Each of the other five casinos open up once you’ve earned enough winnings, with the first opening at $50,000. This seems like a difficult goal to reach, but because the AI is fairly poor it’s actually easy if somewhat tedious. At the beginner’s casino, you choose from one of four games and three to seven random opponents from the roster of twenty. The box says these are twenty of the world’s best players, but you’re not going to be playing against Chris Moneymaker or Men Nguyen; instead, you have opponents with names like Milo Hand or Odelia Cardigan.
The later casinos are supposed to simulate the championship tour. This is chiefly done by eliminating every game except Texas Hold’em. Once you select a new casino, you’re placed at a table that plays exactly like every other casino. The only differences between the different stages are the amounts of money put in for blinds and how much the AI bets, but since this is always so low compared to how much money you need to enter, it doesn’t make things much more exciting.
A surprisingly useful feature is the practice mode, which can be turned on or off before any hand. When it’s on, you won’t win or lose any money and you get to see what’s in your opponents’ hands – a useful feature for learning how each opponent plays or aiding those unfamiliar with the rules. The interface is bothersome at first; instead of showing the entire table, it’s shown through a first-person view with each computer player sliding in on his or her turn. This can make it difficult to track who does what, but a helpful optional player list can be displayed, showing each player, how much money they have, and what their last action was (check, call, raise, etc.).
While this list is helpful, like everything else in World Poker Championship, it’s just not implemented well. At the end of each hand, this list shows every player’s cards, even if they folded. This is a major faux pas; in poker, you don’t get to look at the hands of players who fold, and in fact it’s part of the strategy of games like Texas Hold’em. This oversight not only makes the game unrealistic, but also strips it of some of the fun of a real poker match.
Although not much is expected graphically from a $20 value game, this title doesn’t even live up to those standards. You would think that the most important thing in a card game would be to make sure the cards are legible on the screen, but apparently you’d be wrong. The card ranks and suits are smudged, and on the face cards it’s sometimes especially difficult to tell the difference between, say, clubs and spades. The player list isn’t much better, as the suit labels aren’t very clear there either.
Also, when you play poker you want some visible sign that you’re winning, particularly that huge stack of chips you accumulate when you’re really on a roll. Here, of course, is more disappointment, since your chips are always represented by the same tiny stack with the dollar amount next to it. The character design is at least on par with the game’s price, and the opponents are caricatured as expected, given the wacky names.
The audio is sadly worse than the video. There is no background music while you’re playing, except at selection screens. This wouldn’t be so bad if the announcers weren’t so annoying; not only do they have annoying voices, but they only have one or two different things to say in each situation, so you’re going to hear “Another fold? Yikes!” and “It looks like it’s down to just the two of them” so many times that there should be a warning on the box indemnifying Valusoft in the event of ear hemorrhaging. Thankfully, one of the two game options available is to turn off the commentary.
What a poker video game really boils down to is the AI. If you couldn’t already guess, World Poker Championship‘s is terrible. The promise of each opponent having a unique play style is technically true, but overall every one of them plays the same basic conservative game. They bet miniscule amounts unless you force them to bet high, and you won’t see them strategically slow play a good hand or bluff a bad one. If they don’t have a great hand and you bet, they’ll fold every time.
What’s worse is that in Texas hold-em, the AI is overly aggressive before the flop, calling high bets on hands that could be potentially good like King-Queen or Ace-Jack. However, if they don’t get the cards they’re looking for, any bet will make them fold, making it look a little strange when they give up a pot they’ve put $1000 into because you’ve bet only $30.
Overall, it’s the AI problem that really mars World Poker Championship. The other minor quibbles could be written off to strange but understandable design decisions if the computer players were savvy enough to make the game interesting. Or, perhaps if true Internet play were enabled instead of only LAN multiplayer, this would be a worthwhile title. As it is, you’re better off saving your $20 and signing up for one of the many online poker games out there, or better yet, using it to buy a deck of cards and some chips so you can play with your friends. To put it another way, World Poker Championship folds before it even gets to the flop.