Poker Superstars is yet another failure in a long line of licensed poker game failures. This one is based on Fox Sports' Poker Superstars Invitational Tournament, which you've probably seen an awful lot of on TV lately. Unsurprisingly, publisher Funkitron has trotted out a number of pro poker players to endorse the product and appear on the box and in the game, though the actual extent of their in-game involvement was to let the developer put static images of them into the interface as opponents, and nothing else. Also perhaps unsurprisingly, the game features a bargain-basement design and interface that seems like it could have easily been downloaded in a hundred-megabyte client from just about anywhere...and for free at that. However, there's one absolutely shocking thing about Poker Superstars, and it's one that also makes this the most tragic poker game to date. Namely, it's the first in a long line of budget-priced poker games to actually get opponent artificial intelligence right. When you play against any of Poker Superstars' computer-controlled opponents, you feel like you're playing against someone who actually knows what the hell he or she is doing. If that isn't a feat in and of itself in this day of slapdash, stump-dumb poker games, then nothing is. It's just too bad this solid gameplay engine is wrapped in such a shallow, ugly package.
Let's start with the good that Poker Superstars has to offer, which begins and ends with the gameplay. The developer behind this game has finally managed to create an AI engine that makes some kind of sense, without being overly predictable. AI opponents will slow-play hands, bully you with large chip stacks, back off if they get the impressions that their hands aren't worth the bet, and even throw in some bona fide bluffs from time to time. You can't call the AI overly challenging either, but overall, the competition is thoroughly decent. However, as a pure learning tool, Poker Superstars probably isn't your best bet, if only because the rigidity of the AI is such that you don't really get a sense of the unpredictability that makes poker such a great game. Sure, there's a degree of randomness to it, but it almost feels algorithmic in nature rather than genuinely random. Still, it's fun AI to play against, just perhaps not the most educationally beneficial AI to play against.
Though the game features eight real-life names from the poker world, including Doyle Brunson, Phil Ivey, Barry Greenstein, TJ Cloutier, Gus Hansen, Howard Lederer, Chip Reese, and Johnny Chan, none of the opponents really seem to play much differently from one another. Maybe you'll notice some subtle differences in betting philosophy, but it's so subtle that you probably won't. Then again, considering none of the opponent characters animate, emote, or, really, do much of anything, it might have been too hard to really get too deeply into the nuances of each player's style, since you wouldn't be able to get any kind of reads off of them whatsoever. The engine is certainly great, but the one supremely obnoxious thing that Poker Superstars' gameplay interface does--and subsequently is dragged down because of--is show you the winning hand, no matter what, every single time. If a guy goes all in on the flop and nobody bets against him, the game still tells you what he has, which is a big no-no in the real poker world. Maybe this was done for instructional purposes, or maybe just to keep people from throwing away fortunes just to know whether their opponents had top pair. However, it isn't realistic.
While that's all well and good, Poker Superstars contains as much content as your typical shareware client. The game presents you with a structure similar to the actual TV tournament in its season mode. You play two different rounds, each with two preliminary rounds and a final round. The preliminary rounds build up your chip count for the final round. At the end, you play one last final round with the combined chip counts of the two previous final rounds, and then...nothing. Well, your end chip count will be displayed on a leaderboard of sorts on the main menu screen, but that's all. Another problem is that the entire season mode can be completed in about 25 minutes if you know what you're doing. Inexperienced players might get a little more play time out of it simply because they'll want to sit through all the hands they fold out of to try to learn a few things. However, just about everyone else will be skipping through quickly, moving toward the end of the game at a wholly brisk pace.
Apart from the season mode, there's a cash-game option with bet limits, a single-round mode where, you guessed it, you play a single round, and that's the full extent of the package. There's no multiplayer feature, online or otherwise, and there isn't even an opportunity to play any other kinds of poker other than Texas hold 'em. For as good as the gameplay engine is, it isn't enough by itself to sustain you beyond a few plays through the season mode. Ultimately, the game just becomes tediously dull.
It certainly doesn't help matters that Poker Superstars is presented about as well as a cell phone game. It looks exactly like the kind of thing you'd download for free so you could play against random people on the Internet, only you don't even get to do that. All you get at the table are these square, low-res images of your opponents, a simple card interface, and nothing more. There's no animation beyond the dealing of the cards. Not a single bell or whistle. The audio is just about the worst thing in the world, consisting of just one really awful looping MIDI jazz song and a scant couple of repetitive card-shuffling and chip-stacking sounds. Generally, the audio is best left turned all the way down.
What inevitably ends up bringing down Poker Superstars is the same thing that's brought down most every PC poker game released to date. Better options exist for free on the Internet, thus making a $20 product like Poker Superstars completely irrelevant. Yes, the fact that the game's artificially intelligent players actually play like real opponents would is a welcome change of pace. But why would you need to pay for fake players that play like real players when you can just go find real players for free online just about any time you like? Hopefully, you wouldn't. And you won't in the case of Poker Superstars.