Granted, poker video games still have a ways to go before they're as lavishly presented or as fun to watch as the coverage produced by ESPN, Fox Sports, and other TV networks. Nevertheless, they're at least starting to get the nuances of the game right, much to the delight of us "snobs of the game." Take, for example, World Championship Poker 2 featuring Howard Lederer. It doesn't "wow" players with television style camera angles or flashy casino environments, and it doesn't have any famous people lending their voices to the commentary. What it does offer, though, is 14 wonderfully executed variants of poker, with nuanced CPU opponents that actually display lifelike behavior patterns over time, and an online mode that makes it easy to log on and dive into a game with live opponents. Some aspects could be better, sure;
; but, on the whole, this is probably the best poker game currently available for consoles.
Though the disc isn't overloaded with features, it does contain all of the things that a self-professed poker aficionado will need to satisfy his or her couch-based poker needs. Fourteen poker variations are present, including everyone's favorite, Texas hold 'em, along with popular casino and table variants like 5 card draw, Omaha, Razz, Pineapple, and 7 card stud. Play modes include quick play, career, and multiplayer. That's a sufficient selection. You can setup a quick table and adjust limits and such in the quick play mode, let the game lead you all over the world on a weekly quest against CPU opponents in the career mode, or pop online to challenge human opponents in the multiplayer mode. Howard Lederer, as the tiny lettering on the packaging suggests, lent his likeness and play style to the game, as did six other poker professionals. Annie Duke, Howard's sister and the ESPN-proclaimed "Queen of poker" is on the roster, as are Greg "Fossilman" Raymer (the 2004 W.S.O.P. champ), Amir Vahedi, Paul Darden, Clonie Gowen, and Robert Williamson III. If you've ever watched televised programs, like the World Series of Poker , the World Poker Tour , or Late Night Poker , you'll recognize these folks. You can't play as any of them, which bites, and they only appear infrequently since they're used as milestone opponents in the career mode, which really bites, but their inclusion at least gives the game some street cred. It's also fairly obvious that some poker pros, whether Lederer or otherwise, had input into the game's programming, because the A.I. is frightfully nuanced.
We've seen CPU players bluff and play the odds in poker video games before, but not to the degree that they do in World Championship Poker 2. These programmed bots are smart. Not all of them are pro class, but you won't run into any dummies either. They'll ride Ace-Ace, Ace-King, or King-King all the way. When holding a weak pair, they'll match your bets if the flop doesn't show high cards. In heads-up or three-way play, they'll bet any pair or suited connectors aggressively. Don't try to steal the blinds by going all-in pre-flop with crappy cards either, because you'll likely get called by the chip leader and end up losing heavily in the end. All of the tricks that work so well in other poker video games don't work here. You'll encounter aggressive players, tight players, and mathematical players alike at the tables. Furthermore, every CPU opponent has "his" or "her" own style, which you can actually figure out over time by observing their play and body movements. Just as in real life, some CPU players exhibit subtle visual tells that can tip you off to the strength or weakness of their hands. These physical behaviors take time to figure out, but they are there, just waiting to be discovered. That's undoubtedly why the development team stuck to close-ups for the majority of camera angles, and why hands play out at normal speed even when you've folded out of a hand. Even though CPU players repeat many of their actions and comments frequently, thus re-affirming that they're all programmed bots, it's eerie how lifelike their actual card play and tell behaviors are.
Poker diehards will likely adore the game's sluggish pacing, whereas beginners and those people merely interested in quick hands most likely will not. The slow pacing is the main reason why the game feels so realistic. CPU opponents squirm and "take time to think" before they act, which is a wonderful advance in the realm of home-based poker video games, even if it's also somewhat new and alien. Admittedly, it definitely would have been nice if the developers had also implemented a way to adjust the CPU's decision-making speed or to have the game fast-forward through hands you're not involved in. After all, sometimes it's nice to just play fast and loose based on the odds alone.
The actual process of juggling cards and participating is nothing short of a breeze, although there is one controversial caveat to keep in mind. You can fold or bet at the touch of a button (square or circle, respectively), make discards if the variant calls for it by pressing the X button, and toggle between the standard camera and a first-person view by tapping the left shoulder button. In first-person view, you can use the analog stick or nub to look around. The controversial aspect to consider is the bluff-tell minigame that appears whenever you underbet a strong hand or overbet a weak hand. Basically, when you make a frivolous bet, the game forces you to gamble on a bluff, poker face, or tell by playing a quick game that involves balancing a tiny indicator inside small hot zones on a rotating wheel. The bluff and poker face spots are tiny, while the tell area is large. Therein lies the challenge. To successfully bluff a weak hand or slow play a strong hand, you'll have to win the minigame. Otherwise, everyone at the table will be tipped off. What a stupid idea. It's meant to be a learning tool, and it definitely gets the job done, but it's a major annoyance to anyone that's played poker before or that happens to have a style that involves slow-playing strong hands. Thankfully, you'll earn points throughout the course of the career mode that you can use to make the minigame easier and gradually tone down how frequently it appears.
To squeeze the most out of the single-player experience, playing through the career mode is a must. It's setup to mimic the lifestyle of a poker jetsetter. You start out by creating a custom character and setting off with $1,000 in your pocket. Each week, new side games and tournaments open up on the world map. A week passes by for every event you join and leave, whether win or lose. There are always two or three events to pick from each week, typically a limit "sit and go," a Texas hold 'em side game or tourney, and a game involving one of the other poker variations (Omaha or stud, for example). In the beginning, you only have enough cash to play in "cheap" events, but as you rack up winnings you'll be able to enter large buy-in tournaments and side games headed-up by the poker professionals that lent their names and likenesses to the video game. You can also use your winnings to purchase furniture, electronics, and artwork for your in-game apartments, which seems silly in the beginning but actually turns out to be rather amusing once you have enough money in reserve to really go on a shopping spree. Career mode's biggest drawback is that, inevitably, you'll be forced during certain weeks to participate in a small budget limit game or to sit down at a side game involving a poker variant you're not well-versed in. Limit games seem like snail races compared to non limit games, and, let's face it, it's no fun to be thrown into a type of poker you've never played before when all you want to do is play Texas hold 'em or 7 card stud. Thankfully, the game on the whole is programmed to favor Texas hold 'em, so the occasional "off" week is tolerable.
Considering how smart and varied the CPU opponents are and how involved the career mode is, it's actually rather surprising that the game doesn't have a standalone tutorial mode or at least implement an optional training portion at the start of the career mode. There's no way to adjust the CPU's skill level either. The only bone the game throws beginners and newcomers is a selection of quiz style minigames, which are accessible from the extras menu, that drill on a few basic rules and starter strategies. Otherwise, newbies will have to endure a trial by fire in order to learn the rules of each poker variant and to uncover strategies they can actually put to use.
Online play is a whole different ballgame entirely from the career mode and its stable of artificially intelligent bots. It's also probably a better way for beginners to get their feet wet, since humans are more likely to play loose and offer useful advice. The fact that the game doesn't penalize for disconnects or force you to save your bankroll after going online will upset some people, but that also makes online play much more inviting for low-level newbies. Overall, the whole experience of taking World Championship Poker 2 online is very laid back. Both the PS2 and PSP versions of the game support online multiplayer play. Logging in is as simple as setting up a username and password the first time and tapping a few controller buttons on subsequent visits. Either version lets you create and join tables with as many as six participants. Tables are all "sit and go," which means that you can leave and join tables whenever you want. Online play is interoperable between the two versions. That's especially nice for PSP owners who often have trouble finding anyone else online to play with. Communication in either version is limited to text input in a chat window, but the PS2 game trumps its little brother by also including support for Sony's EyeToy camera. Being able to see your opponent's faces and reactions is a major plus, assuming of course that you play against people who don't point the lens at their pets or constantly make obscene gestures. Online play in the PS2 game is stable and smooth, for the most part. Lag and drop-outs happen a little more often in the PSP game.
There's isn't much that can be said about the game's presentation. The graphics, the audio, and all of that stuff are fine, but there's no pop or sizzle worth bragging about. If you played the first World Championship Poker, you'll be happy to learn that the character models and environments are much, much nicer in the sequel. The clothing and faces look better, and there is a better variety of subtle behavioral animations for things like hand gestures, eye movements, and mouth movements. Nonetheless, there's nothing going on in the environments surrounding the tables, and the character animation is a bit on the sluggish side (particularly in the PSP version of the game). Certain card suits are also tough to differentiate between (clubs vs. spades) on the PSP, since the graphics have merely been scaled down from the PS2 game. Audio consists of some cheesy 60's music that's reminiscent of TV's Bewitched , along with a few chip sound effects and a fair selection of voice comments from table participants and the off-screen commentator. Basically, you can see the cards and the players, and the atmosphere resembles a quiet game played in someone's basement. The home equivalent of the W.S.O.P. this game is not.
Those people that own both a PS2 and PSP, that are considering picking up the game, have a decision to make, as in which version to buy. The PS2 and PSP games are identical, at least in terms of basic look, feel, and features. Both games have the same modes, including online multiplayer play. The EyeToy camera support in the PS2 game is a significant feather in that version's cap. In terms of sheer portability, however, the PSP version makes a compelling case for itself. Unfortunately, that portability comes at a price, in the form of bugs that aren't evident in the PS2 game. Offline, the PSP game sometimes freezes up while changing tables during large tournaments. Things move along fine when 20 or 30 players are involved, but it's teeth gritting time once the tally reaches upward of 100. Online, the PSP game "loses sync" once in a while, which prevents players from betting or folding until someone leaves the game or a new player sits down. This isn't a constant problem, but when it happens it is frustrating as h-e-l-l. Load times are also lengthier in the PSP version. Ultimately, the PS2 game is the one get if you absolutely want the least buggy version of the game (and that coveted EyeToy support). Still, the portability of the PSP game makes it easy to forgive its annoyances.
Until something better comes along, World Championship Poker 2 featuring Howard Lederer is the best poker video game available for home consoles. Sure, it'd be nice if the presentation were flashier, and if the game offered more configuration options, but the poker itself is damn near perfect. That's what matters most.