Let's assume you're like me — you've watched the
on the Travel Channel, you've watched the
on ESPN, you've dabbled in a few on-line games over at Yahoo!, and you've played your buddies a few times in small games at home. Now you're thinking about picking up a poker video game, but you don't know what's out there or if any of them are any good.
I haven't played 'em all, but World Championship Poker is certainly more than sufficient for my needs (and it retails for only $20). It serves up the rules, strategies, and nuances of various types of poker in both sit-and-go and tournament style setups. The game features the five most popular variations of poker — Texas Hold 'em, Omaha, 5 Card Draw, 7 Card Stud, and Tahoe — as well as seven other off-shoot variations, such as Double Flop Hold 'Em, Pineapple, and Triple Draw 2-7.
The game doesn't support offline multiplayer, but you can go online using the PS2 Network Adapter and compete against other players in sit-and-go and elimination games. Up to 6 players can be present at a "table" at any given time, and it's not uncommon to play at a table where players come and go as time passes. Like most online games, this one supports the use of keyboard and headset peripherals for communication, but, in a spark of innovation, this one also supports the use of the EyeToy camera–allowing you to see in real-time the facial expressions of your opponents as they react to their cards.
One of the more interesting aspects of World Championship Poker is that it keeps track of your winnings in both the offline and online modes. In that regard, the whole game lets you embark on one big poker career. Some tournaments in the offline mode are locked until you beat lesser tournaments or reach a certain money level. The same is true of tourneys in the online mode as well. You can even create your own custom character–from more than 100 different body variables and clothing options–to represent you in the game.
Play against the CPU is good. Usually, you'll find yourself seated at a table against seven computer-controlled opponents. The computer does a very decent job of bluffing and inducing check-raise situations, especially in higher-level tournaments. The poker gurus say most people should fold at least 70% of the hands they're dealt, and that sure seems to happen here. When it's your turn, you can cycle through your play options (check, fold, bet, raise, etc.) by pressing left and right on the analog stick and make selections using the x button. In most cases, the appropriate choice is already selected, so all you need to do is pick it. The game automatically raises antes, blinds, and minimums after every so-many hands, and has no problem dealing with side pots that arise from "all in" situations. In tournaments, empty spots at the table are automatically filled when players are eliminated.
A particularly user-friendly feature is the save interface, which you can access from the pause menu at any time during an offline game. If mom, or honey, or boss, or whoever calls you away, you can always save and return right where you left off–even in the middle of a hand.
If you've already clicked and had a look at the screenshots we have of the game (and I suggest you do so, eventually), then you already know where the corners were cut to make this game come in on a budget that'd enable the publisher to sell it for $20. What you see in those images really is what you get. The venues are dull and the characters look like average Joes and Janes, all rendered using 3D polygons, but not in the flashy way you've come to expect from 3D games. Likewise, World Championship Poker hasn't been dolled up with TV logos or cutaways in an effort to help it resemble one of those big budget broadcasts you've seen on ESPN, Bravo, or the Travel Channel. The developers did at least copycat the "odds of winning" percentage display that TV tourneys show next to hands during heads-up situations.
Another thing I appreciate about the game's graphics is that CPU players actually exhibit distinctive facial mannerisms, just like real players do, which you can use to figure out their play patterns or guess their cards. For instance, if Brandi scratches her ear after making a large bet, that means she's bluffing. Being able to look at players' faces and figure out their mannerisms is a huge aspect of poker, and I was so happy to discover that the developers implemented that aspect here.
The audio is also mostly lacking in frills. Players give the dealer the usual set of "check," "fold," "raise", or "all in" commands, but don't say much more than that except for a few choice whines and hoorays that they utter when they win or lose a hand. An invisible commentator backs up the onscreen action by calling out the various checks, bets, and raises, and he'll throw-in an anecdote or two (usually about folding at the right time), but his vocabulary seems to be limited to about 30 phrases or so.
Ultimately, World Championship Poker fulfills my needs. For $20, I can play my favorite poker variations against decently-skilled CPU opponents or go online and play against live opponents (and actually see them if they're using an EyeToy camera). I wish the presentation were more exciting, particularly the graphics, which could possibly put poker newbies to sleep before the first hand is over, but the game makes up for that shortcoming (somewhat) thanks to its deep selection of poker variants and tournaments.