If you're looking for a solid, no-frills poker video game with an affordable price tag, then you need not look any further than World Series of Poker from Activision. The game doesn't go to great lengths to emulate the major event it's based on, and the line-up of included poker superstars is rather small, but it does get the fundamentals right and does offer a nice variety of game types and multiplayer options.
Just as you'd see on ESPN, all in-game action takes place at the Rio Hotel & Casino. Lon McEachern, familiar on-air straight man, provides a light, very basic running play-by-play, but his doofus sidekick Norman Chad is absent–replaced by some guy named "Alex" that I can't find any information on. Chad-haters may be thrilled at the alternative, and admittedly Alex does add a few insights to the commentary at times, but "no name Alex" just doesn't bring the same spirit to the experience that Chad does. Poker stargazers will be happy to see some of their favorite cardsharks present in the game, including Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, Men "The Master" Nyugen, Scotty Nguyen, and Beth Fischman. In all, 12 superstars have lent their likenesses to the game. Sadly, that means some mondo stars, like Greg Raymer and Dan Harrington, and some fan favorites (Marcel Luske!) are absent. As it is, none of the included stars actually behaves like their real world counterparts. It's so bizarre to see Jesus leap out of his seat after surviving an all-in, or to see Scotty Nguyen sit there without saying any of his loopy witticisms.
Camera coverage is okay. You'll get a nice flyby and an audible "shuffle up and deal" before each round. The camera will automatically focus in above the table, on the community cards, or on individual players depending on what's going on. The "heads up" percentage chart and check-mark display look very similar to their ESPN counterparts. When a player goes all-in, the camera will show them standing up nervously… and a picture-in-picture display will keep tabs on them during the hand. There aren't any ESPN logos or transitions though, and cool TV features like the pocket cam and rabbit cam are absent.
Even though the video game version of World Series of Poker doesn't fully capture the look and feel of the actual ESPN-covered competition, it does at least offer all of the relevant game types and events. There are six different poker variants, including Texas Hold 'Em, Omaha, Omaha Hi-Low, Seven Card Stud, Seven Card Stud Hi-Low, and Razz. You can choose to play them solo just for practice, against as many as nine other players online, or dive into the single player championship mode. The championship mode offers various satellite and bracelet events, as well as the main event itself. And just like the real life main event, the buy-in will cost you $10,000 in-game dollars and the tournament will go on until all 6,000+ entrants (or you) have been eliminated.
Most important of all, the CPU players rank right up with the pros in terms of poker smarts. I've noticed that the CPU won't just quick call all-in bets, which is a problem in many poker video games. It's also savvy enough to force short-stacks all in, to check-raise for action, and to bluff pots with high cards showing on the board. Developer Left Field also has done a nice job of implementing tell behaviors. Over time, you really can figure out a player's style of play by taking note of how they bet and what they do with their eyes, hands, and mouth when they bet. In order to stay alive in the main event, I had to fold a ton of hands and pick my battles, which is exactly how poker works in a casino environment.
Despite the rock-steady fundamentals, the game is tough to fully embrace because of its weak presentation. It's not just that Norman Chad and some poker stars are missing. It's that the whole game looks and sounds "blah." There are too few camera angles and the players don't chat or scream enough. What's really tragic are the character models, which look like puffy Muppets as opposed to real people. Poker isn't the most active kind of competition, so there's no excuse for not pouring polygons and photographic elements into the players. Lon McEachern and his sidekick aren't very talkative either, although it's nice to hear Lon say "his tournament life is on the line" once in a while.
Activision and Left Field should have poured more resources into this game, considering it's based on the largest and most popular poker competition on the planet. World Series of Poker, while delivering solid table action, just doesn't deliver the superstars and televised gloss that people are going to want out of a game carrying the WSOP license.