Well, it's official. If there's a poker tournament or TV show in existence, it's got a video game to call its own, too. The lone holdout, cable TV's World Poker Tour, is now covered thanks to 2K Sports and developer Coresoft, the team that made last year's competent but unremarkable World Championship Poker. It's with no level of shock, then, that World Poker Tour's visuals, core mechanics, and, yes, even most of its problems closely resemble that year-old game. Still, the addition of the WPT license has given the game a level of focus and direction that the developer's previous effort lacked. And that, coupled with a revamped career mode and more online play (not to mention its budget price tag), make it a worthwhile choice for poker players on the hunt for a new game for their PlayStation 2 or Xbox.
First and foremost, World Poker Tour does an entirely decent job emulating its license. Multiple real-life international casinos are represented here in apparently fully realistic detail (although the necessity of said realism is questionable, since you rarely look at the casino itself, and more so the cards and players), and the commentating duo of Mike Sexton and "Hollywood Home Game Hero" Vince Van Patten is on hand to lend its expertise to the game. Well, sort of. Admittedly, the commentary is more than a little flat. Sexton has a few enjoyable quips, but they're repeated far too often. Van Patten also has his moments, but at times he also comes across as absolutely robotic.
There are also a few pro players on hand, like Phil "Unabomber" Laak, Evelyn Ng, and Antonio Esfandiari, though you don't run into them terribly often. Frankly, most of them just aren't as notable as most of the other big-name players who have lent their names to decidedly less-impressive poker games. Seriously, was Phil Ivey too busy? Could Phil Helmuth not be roused from one of his many meditation sessions long enough to sign a licensing contract? And would it have killed anyone to get a little more Shana Hiatt in here?
Lack of big poker celebrities aside, World Poker Tour plays pretty well. There's a myriad of different poker offerings, from the obvious ones like Texas hold 'em and seven-card stud, to entirely esoteric offerings like pinapple, billabong, and double-flop hold 'em. When playing offline, the game has some problems. For one, the opponent artificial intelligence is mostly a pushover. It actually isn't as bad as in Coresoft's last game, but it's much too easy to get free cards in this game simply because opponents get into these checking battles where they'll just check, check, and check away, even if they've got a made hand. It's not that they all play the same, mind you. You'll actually see distinct differences between more-aggressive players and tighter players, but even the aggressive guys will check much too often. Usually it's not until the very end of a tournament that you'll get out of this checking rut. Players will finally start both betting aggressively and forcing you to pay for fourth-street and river cards. And on some level, that probably makes sense, since the better players are naturally the ones that should get to the end of a tournament. It's just silly that any measure of aggression is often reserved for the endgame.
But apart from these nonaggressive tendencies, the game mostly plays it smart. You'll see some really, really dumbfounding calls from time to time, but generally the computer knows how to play a hand pretty well, and it'll even try to steal a pot from time to time. World Poker Tour also tries to toss in a bit of mind-game action into the fold with emotional reactions. By pressing one of four directions on the left analog stick at any time during play, you can make your player show excitement, satisfaction, depression, or disappointment. It's a neat idea that's been woefully ignored in pretty much every other poker game. Unfortunately, it's not exactly clear how much effect your emotional tells have during a game. And it's even harder to properly decipher what kinds of tells the computer might be giving off, since you often don't get to play against the same people for particularly long stretches of time. Still, if nothing else it's a starting point for a better-executed system in the future.
The best part of the offline game is the career mode. Here you'll get a chance to play in each of the big World Poker Tour tournaments. You start out with satellite and supersatellite games, and by placing high in them, you advance to the finals. It sounds simple enough, but unlike most poker games, you actually feel like you're making forward progress as you go through the career. Like in World Championship Poker, you can create a character of your own design to represent you, and the character-customization elements are actually quite robust. Plenty of facial and body edits are available, as well as quite a few outfits. Interestingly, you can't use most any of the outfits until you buy them, but you don't buy them with your winnings. Instead, you earn chips for notable hands, bluffs, and takedowns. It's a nice idea, although it's kind of annoying to have to actively try to earn these chips, especially since you usually have plenty of money after winning a couple of tournaments.
When you get in to the online portion of the game, you'll get about what you'd expect from a console poker offering at this point in time. You can switch between tournament-style games and sit-and-go tables, and the game tracks your stats, wins, and cash. Functionally, the online play seems to be working pretty well, although we did run into some issues with our created character sometimes displaying the wrong clothing items and build settings. Furthermore, the online menu interface on the PS2 is absolutely atrocious. It also bears mentioning that the PS2 version yet again features EyeToy support for online play, letting you see your opponents face-to-face. Or at least face to whatever body part they feel like displaying for you. Thankfully, there is an ignore option this time around, so you can block any unsavory characters' cameras.
One thing Coresoft didn't improve much over its last game is the graphics. The player models still look like dead-eyed mutants who move and act like robot zombies. Again, the casinos are all fairly well detailed, but the things you spend the most time staring at are the players and the card table. And neither looks good at all.
All told, for $20 World Poker Tour has enough to offer poker fans to make it worth checking out. Like every other retail poker game out there, this one has its share of flaws. But those flaws don't add up to nearly as much of an overall detriment as the other poker options currently available, thus making it the best one out there for consoles to date. Maybe that's sort of a loaded statement, since many of these games are just flat-out bad. But given those circumstances, we'll take a good solid game of poker any day of the week.