Isn't it a quaint thought to remember back to last year, when a game like World Championship Poker could provide a fairly unassuming but playable game of console poker, and could be good simply by virtue of the fact that there weren't 12 billion other poker games available on the market? Yeah, well, those days are over. Marginal poker games are the new World War II first-person shooters, and you can't walk past a bargain bin in a game store without tripping over the spillage of middling card games for various platforms. But even with all that said, that doesn't mean that a poker game can't still deliver the goods when done right--it's just not done very often. World Championship Poker 2: Featuring Howard Lederer does just that. Despite a changing of the guard for the franchise to developer Point of View, the game bearing the Professor of Poker's name manages to improve in a number of key areas over its predecessor, not the least of which is in the realm of artificial intelligence. It's still got some presentational hurdles that you'll need to overcome to truly appreciate it, but in a year in which poker games became the most groanworthy trend in the industry, World Championship Poker 2 stands out as a diamond in the rough--if only comparatively.
There's a bunch of games to play in World Championship Poker 2, including a multitude of draw and stud variations. But of course, like all modern poker games, Texas Hold 'em is the star of the show, and thus the game that has had the most focus put on it. But unlike a lot of other poker games, these other games of poker don't play completely broken because of that focus. You'll find quite intelligent players across the board in WCP 2. Opponents follow realistic betting patterns that fit certain personality types. You'll encounter specifically aggressive, tight, and midrange players, though none play precisely to type. Aggressive guys won't just go all-in on every hand. They'll pick their spots just like everybody else, and create completely believable betting styles. Computer opponents will check raise, fold good hands when they think they're beat, and even try to bluff you now and again. Certainly, the system has its flaws--you'll see questionable calls, and even more questionable raises in certain situations--but even with those issues, this is the most realistic-playing poker game out there. Sometimes, it's even a little too realistic.
While realism is something poker games seem to be eternally grasping at, there's something to be said for creating a game that snaps along at a brisker pace than your average card tournament. Artificially creating action via dumb bets and calls definitely isn't the right answer, but when you find yourself up against players this smart, it can be very, very difficult to get through any elimination match in a timely fashion, especially if you're playing in a limit game. No-limit games are, by nature, easier to knock people out of, since some moron can just go all-in with a pair of twos and be on his way to the nearest bar five minutes later. In limit games, it's tough to really milk large sums of chips out of opponents, unless you're in a rare situation in which all the players involved think they have a made hand. What this leads to is matchups in which you could find yourself playing in the same game for hours at a time. Maybe the answer is just to avoid such matches, but the game's career mode dishes out plenty of these limit games, so you'll have to deal with them eventually. It's not that they're not fun, but you'd better be willing to commit some time.
If things like fancy AI and realistic pacing don't impress you, you might be swayed by a couple of unique mechanical spins on the game World Championship Poker 2 offers. For one, as you play through the game's career mode, you'll find yourself earning points you can use to upgrade your game. No, this isn't some insidious method of cheating. Basically, these are just subtle little things you can use to help measure the strength of your hand based on odds, detect specific tells in an opponent's game, and the like. It's all clever stuff, and it adds a cool dimension to the game you won't find elsewhere.
Slightly less inventive, but cool all the same, is the new tell/bluff system. World Poker Tour did something like this earlier this year, but not to the same extent. Basically, whenever the game feels like you've misplayed a hand or are generally doing something devious, a little circular meter pops up. In it are two notches, red and black, as well as a yellow icon you can move around. The circle starts spinning, and it's your goal to keep the yellow marker inside one of the other marks as the circle spins. If you pull it off, you'll either give off a stalwart poker face, or do some goofy theatrics to try and trick your opponent (depending on which marker you picked). Screw it up, and you'll do precisely the wrong reaction for the given situation, like, say, groaning loudly right as about you're about to bet big on a bluff, or act excited as you check to slow play a big hand.
The notion of making tells a specific gameplay mechanic is really a good one, but here it's just not fleshed out enough to be useful, and in fact it's more of a detriment to the multiplayer game than it should be. AI players will just choose to either react to or ignore your gesticulations, but when you're playing the game online, people will basically know you're doing the minigame because you'll have to pause for five seconds to do the thing before you can bet. One solution might be to just wait five seconds before betting every time, but even when you're finished with the game, it's not tough to identify what's just gone on. The reactions are so extreme, and not particularly varied, so it's not tough to tell who's doing what and why. It doesn't completely ruin the online game or anything, mind you. There are plenty of times where the minigames won't even come into play. It's just annoying when the game gives you away. Then again, your average online poker player probably isn't terribly perceptive and might not even notice. It's just something to watch for.
Features wise, World Championship Poker 2 includes all the requisite options, and does all of them fairly well. The career mode is a mostly enjoyable endeavor, letting you build a bankroll you can use both offline and online. The weird map system the mode employs to shuffle you around the world to its different tournaments is a little odd, and really none of the big card rooms or casinos seem remarkably different from one another, but otherwise this is a pretty good career mode. The online play is available on all four platforms, and the PlayStation 2 version includes the now obligatory EyeToy support. There's nothing exactly remarkable about the online play, really. It's got all the different game types, some basic stat tracking, and of course, the silly bluffing minigame. We also did run into a couple of hang-ups here and there while playing online, specifically in heads-up games. We'd jump into a room against one player, play through a hand, and then when the hand ended, the game would soft crash. The opponent would think it was our turn, and we'd see a screen that made us think the opposite. This exact issue happened on both the PC and PSP versions of the game, so it does appear to be something of a cross-platform issue. However, it only happened a couple of times, and for the most part, our online play experiences were issue-free across all platforms.
One area where World Championship Poker 2 has improved (though not remarkably so) is in terms of presentation. Between the character models, casinos, and voice acting, you'll find yourself far more impressed with what the game manages to do with its graphics and audio. The character models are definitely the most improved of the bunch, with far more realistic builds, mannerisms, and movements. The trade-off for that is that the character-creation tool featured in this year's game is much less customizable. There's only a scant list of clothing and physical attributes to mess with, so you won't have much luck trying to create that perfect version of yourself. There are also some weird animations here and there; things like card dealing still look quite odd. With each of the different personality types you can pick for a character comes a different voice, and for the most part the voice acting isn't bad at all. It's cheesy, and the lines do get repetitive, but the snarky jabs and excited victory exclamations in this game come across as the least obnoxious of any poker game out there. The announcer that commentates during games is still pretty robotic, and the cheesy swing music that plays in the background during games kind of sucks, but thankfully you can turn both of them off, should you get tired of them.
No matter which version of World Championship Poker 2 you buy, you'll be getting effectively the same experience across the board. The PSP game is the only one that stands out a little differently, since it generally runs a bit slower than the other three versions, and also inexplicably costs a little more than all the other versions. But apart from these quibbles, it measures up to the console and PC games just as well.
If you're the kind of person that'd rather just pick up a deck of cards and call some buddies up for a quick game, World Championship Poker 2 won't do an awful lot to get you into the mind-set that playing video game poker is the way to go. But for those who do enjoy console, handheld, and PC poker, WCP 2 is simply the best there currently is. That might not sound like a ringing endorsement, considering the quality of the competition, but really, it's got the smartest offline game, a perfectly serviceable online game, and a style of presentation that, while not anything to write home about, does what it needs to to stay out of the way of your enjoyment. There's fun to be had here for the poker enthusiast, and fun that comes without too many caveats.