How hard is it to make a great gambling simulation? The task would seem to be relatively straightforward: You pick a selection of interesting casino games, develop a well-rounded tutorial that teaches both rules and strategies for those games, season it with some Las Vegas ambience, and toss in a multiplayer component so you can test your newly learned skills online against other players. Actually, you'd probably have a pretty decent game if even one of those components were fully realized. Unfortunately, Microsoft Casino is only the latest in a long line of gambling simulations that doesn't achieve any of those goals. In fact, it doesn't even try to deliver most of them.
Instead of offering a robust gambling simulation that'll help you hone your craft for a trip to a real casino, Microsoft Casino aims to re-create the Las Vegas experience itself by giving you the opportunity to virtually visit one of three world-renowned Vegas resorts: Treasure Island, The Mirage, and the Bellagio. As you lay down your virtual dollars playing the ten casino games featured in the game, you'll be comped drinks, meals, day trips, shows, rooms, massages, golf outings - you name it. To spice things up, you might just get lucky and have the privilege of viewing brief video clips of big-name performers and other Vegas attractions. Then again you might not: Even after winning close to a million bucks, no one led me to a table in the showroom, so I wound up using a Bink video player to see what I was missing.
Not much, it turns out. You'd have to be desperately in need of that Vegas feeling to be satisfied by the brief MTV-style clips of Siegfried and Roy, Las Vegas Entertainer of the Year Danny Gans (who also hosts the program), or the yo-ho-ho pirate battle outside Treasure Island. As far as what you can actually see in the three casinos, all you get is a single digitized photo with hot spots indicating where you can gamble or use an ATM to refurbish your bankroll. If you were expecting to explore virtual versions of these fine resorts or to "follow the boulevards of blazing neon" (as it says on the box) in Vegas, you're in for a letdown.
The actual selection of casino games is pretty good. Serious gamblers will gravitate toward blackjack, craps, Pai Gow poker, video poker, and Caribbean stud poker, while those in search of something less mentally taxing will enjoy baccarat, video keno, roulette, slots, and of course the Big 6 Wheel. Three game modes are featured: Free play lets you pick any hotel and any game, tournaments can be set up at varying skill levels for single games, and the three-round casino challenge tests your skills and luck on all the games, starting out with low stakes at Treasure Island and ending up with ultrahigh wagers at the Bellagio.
Regardless of the game mode, you'll be playing alongside poorly rendered characters whose banter is repetitive and mundane: Once one player yells "Aces and tens!" at the blackjack table, the rest will chime in as if they were at a football game. At least you might get a laugh out of who appears to be a rich English blue blood solemnly intoning "Baby needs a new pair of shoes" at the craps table.
They say it's better to be lucky than good at gambling, and that's apparently the mantra the developers were chanting when they created the opponents in Microsoft Casino. These opponents' ineptitude isn't so glaring in the first round of the casino challenge - three of the six games are the no-brainers video keno, the Big 6 Wheel, and slots. But after the top ten winners in the first round move on to round two, you'd expect to see better decisions in games involving a little strategy. But you won't. In blackjack, one of the high rollers didn't split a pair of aces and chose to hit instead, and on the next hand two players with 13s hit when the dealer showed a six. That was stupid enough, but soon thereafter the tourney leader had a 12 with a dealer showing a ten - and for some reason decided to double down! But then again, that was a pretty smart move compared to those opponents who doubled down on 13s.
This sort of behavior isn't unreasonable for casual games or even single-game tourneys - heaven knows you'll see it happen in real casinos - but you would expect the computer players to display a moderate degree of intelligence when you're competing in the advanced casino challenge. But they won't, and about all you have to do to win the challenge is bet heavily on games where the house has the least advantage (craps, blackjack, and to a lesser extent video poker and Caribbean stud poker) and back off slightly on the games of pure chance.
The opponents are even worse at craps than at blackjack. Apparently they've never heard of come bets or odds bets and instead choose only less-advantageous wagers like place and field bets (though at least very few put down foolish bets like hard ways or big six). Don't be surprised to see more than one of these computer-controlled suckers split his or her entire bankroll on a pass and place bet, which means a single roll of seven will clean him out. Sure, they'll sometimes get lucky as they move their place bets around faster than a hostess can deliver free drinks at the baccarat tables, but luck is all it is - no sane craps player would pull the stunts these guys do.
So with little Vegas atmosphere and wretched computer opponents, all you're left to hope for is good gambling tutelage and solid online play. But the only game where advice is available is blackjack, and about the best you can say is the tips are almost always correct - not surprising, since even real-life casinos will hand out cards telling you when to hit, stand, or double down. As far as competing against human players, forget it - there's not even an option for hot-seat play, much less competing over a network or the Internet. What makes this even more surprising is that Microsoft's own Gaming Zone would seem to be an ideal place for online competition.
While the interface used for Microsoft Casino is generally efficient, it does have one frustrating flaw: It constantly forces you to click on a "continue" button after each play in a table game. The dealer should simply clear the table after any hand of cards, and after a roll in craps you should automatically be placed in betting mode instead of being forced to repeatedly give permission for the action to continue.
It would be a lot easier to recommend Microsoft Casino if it were priced at around $20, since you do get a big variety of casino games, but apparently paying Mirage Resorts and Danny Gans upped the ante on production costs, so the game retails for closer to $30. So unless you simply must see digitized photos of three of the hotels owned by Mirage Resorts, you're much better off spending your money on Hoyle Casino instead.