The World Series of Poker is...well, the World Series of poker tournaments. The multiday, multistaged tournament of all-comers in the poker world, be they pro or amateur, is the grandest of grand poker events, culminating in a several-days-long main event where thousands of players test their Texas Hold 'em skills with the hope of taking home the bracelet and millions of dollars in cash winnings. But you wouldn't know any of this by playing Activision Value's game take on the World Series. World Series of Poker for the PS2 and Xbox lacks the grandiose presentation and scale of the real-life tournament, featuring only a handful of familiar poker faces, largely ugly visuals, and barely anything that really feels like the real-life World Series. However, purely judged as a console poker game, it gets more than enough right, including online play for up to nine players and solid computer artificial intelligence. Still, with a license as big as the World Series, you'd hope for something more than a merely competent poker title.
Games included in the World Series of Poker package are Omaha, Omaha Hi-Low Split, Seven Card Stud, Seven Card Stud Hi-Low Split, Razz (Seven Stud Lowball), and, of course, the Cadillac of poker itself, Texas Hold 'em. The bulk of the single-player experience comes from the career mode, where you're given the opportunity to create your own poker persona through some rudimentary but decently varied facial and attire editing tools. Give your player some intimidating sunglasses, a goofy beard, a gold lamé suit, or whatever suits your fancy. After that, you're given $10,000 and sent into the lion's den. With that money, you can begin buying your way into any of the ancillary WSOP tournaments to build your bankroll, or just dive headfirst into the main event. Oddly enough, you will still have to complete almost all of the side tournaments before you can move on into the next year of your career, even if you finish the main event.
The progression of the career is a bit stagnant, but not altogether bad. The main problem with it is that everything you do feels fundamentally the same. Whether you're in a $1,500 Razz tournament or the main event, the presentation and feel of the game never really changes. There are a few invitational tournaments you can check out where you'll play against mostly pro players, but even they don't break up the monotony very well. Not to mention that the game boasts only a small number of real-life pro players, such as Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, Scotty Nguyen, Men "The Master" Nguyen, John Phan, and Max Pescatori--and none of them display their trademark personalities in the game. In fact, they pretty much act like raving lunatics the whole time, wildly gesticulating in ways that would embarrass Mattias "The Screaming Swede" Anderson. Even a few of Scotty Nguyen's trademark jabs would have been wholly welcome. Oh, well.
Thankfully, the game itself plays pretty well. The artificial intelligence is pretty up to speed, and you'll see plenty of players act differently from one another. Some play more aggressively, trying to bully you with their chip stacks, and others prefer the Dan Harrington approach, playing it tightly and waiting for big hands to go in for the kill. Most times, your opponents seem to know when to bow out and when to strike, though there are occasions where the CPU players will put way too much stock in draw hands, only to end up getting burned. Then again, most poker players are guilty of letting pretty-looking flush and straight draws get the best of them at least one time or another, so there are far worse flaws to suffer from.
If the offline play doesn't quite do it for you, both the PS2 and Xbox versions of the game feature online play for up to nine players. You can engage in any of the offline game types, set betting rules and buy-ins, and use leaderboards that show records for both offline and online winnings. The Xbox version of the game definitely has the better online interface, but the PS2 version does have the added bonus of EyeToy support, letting you let people see you while you play. Of course, there's nothing to stop someone from just pointing their camera at their ass the whole time--and frankly, the image quality is pretty bad, regardless--but it's at least a decent inclusion; it would have been a better one, though, if it let you map your own face to your custom character.
World Series of Poker really falls short in the graphics and audio categories. The character models aren't very well put together, with blocky builds, goofy-looking faces, and animations that couldn't be more wildly out of place. Everybody swings their arms about in herky-jerky manners when they win, or makes melodramatic "sad" faces when they lose. It's all so cartoonish and weird, and it just doesn't belong in a licensed product like this one. Not to mention that the game has just about the worst card-flopping animation in history. Fortunately, the basic interface that shows you your cards and the deal is quite good, and it even displays your folded hand over the rest of the hand so you can see what you might have had, as well as those fun little percentage markers that denote how much of a shot you have at winning during an all-in hand. Plus, you can skip quickly through cutscenes of players sitting there, thinking about their hands if you like (except, for some reason, during Omaha games.)
Official WSOP commentator Lon McEachern lends his voice to the proceedings, but his usual sidekick, Norman Chad, is nowhere to be found. As grating as Chad is during the TV broadcasts, his brand of painful self-denigrating humor would be vastly more welcome than the schlub who replaces him here. McEachern himself is bad enough; he's only got around a dozen or so canned comments, none of which provide any real insight. The rest of the audio doesn't consist of much more than the flips of cards, clatters of chips, and what have you. Fortunately, the Xbox version does have custom soundtrack support.
If you're a big fan of poker, and you really want an online console version of the game, World Series of Poker makes a suitable choice. It gets the poker itself right, and the online play is seamless and enjoyable. Unfortunately, for those looking for something that even comes close to associating itself properly with the World Series of Poker, this game simply fails to deliver. The lackluster presentation, lousy use of the pro players, and lack of real differentiation between the circuit events and the main event rob the game of any real legitimacy toward its license. It's solid poker, and nothing more. If that's enough for you, then go for it. If not, then leave this one on the shelf.