It's official: Poker has taken over the world. Thanks to the popularization of the World Series of Poker tournament on ESPN, movies like Rounders, and the rise of poker celebrities like Annie Duke, Phil Helmuth, Daniel Negreanu, and Johnny Chan, you can't throw a brick nowadays without hitting someone who claims to be some manner of poker enthusiast. With this sudden onset of poker fever, it's only natural that some console game publisher would step forward to take advantage of the craze. In this case, that publisher is Crave Entertainment, with the Coresoft-developed World Championship Poker for the Xbox. Why should you bother picking up a $20 poker game for your Xbox, when you can easily play any number of poker games online for free? Actually, you probably shouldn't. That is, unless you have Xbox Live.
When you first boot up the game, you'll be given a chance to create a player to represent you at each table you join. You can simply skip this process and use the default model, but you'd be doing yourself a disservice by doing so, since there's actually a wealth of options for character customization here. Apart from choosing from multiple types of clothing, you can actually make a number of changes to your character's face, shaping it in ways that rival the character-customization options in most any other game currently on the market. The one problem is that, despite the wealth of options, the models themselves simply aren't that great to look at. But it is nice to be able to create the poker player you think best represents you.
Though World Championship Poker features both offline and online capabilities, the offline play is mostly irrelevant. There are 12 different variations of the game of poker in WCP, including an assortment of stud, draw, and hold 'em games, not the least of which is the immensely popular Texas hold 'em--the game of choice for pro poker players everywhere. When playing offline, you can opt to simply play a quick game, or participate in any number of different tournaments. These tournaments all have specific buy-ins, and depending on the ranking, they can net you a hefty sum of cash. The trouble is that, apart from unlocking some new tournaments as you go, there never feels like there's much point to any of it. There's no real career aspect to the game, so you're basically just adding meaningless cash to your stack.
The other problem with the offline play is that it's predictable and boring. On the default difficulty, the AI is just plain bad, checking away bets while sitting on a nut straight, or getting into raising and reraising battles while holding only a garbage pair. Once you up the difficulty, the betting becomes more realistic, but it's still totally predictable. Your computer opponents hardly ever seem to have any tricks up their sleeves, so usually, when they bet, they bet according to what they have, and never try to bluff you. And even then, they still seem to slow-play too many hands, betting only on the river or checking away after a big draw, even if they have a great hand.
The good news, though, is that online, all predictability goes flying out the window. The online game is just like the offline one, letting you play in sit-and-go tournaments or just open-table games against up to five other opponents. You can also create your own tables and choose the game type, number of players, and so on. Your created character shows up online too, as well as everybody else's, and unlike the PS2 version of the game, the Xbox version features leaderboards. For the most part, the online support in the game is very good. We didn't run into any lag, and there always seemed to be a healthy number of people playing. However, the online component does have a couple of quirks. For one, the interface itself is pretty bad. Setting up a game is easy enough, but the menu system that shows you games you can join is not only ugly, but it can also be inaccurate. It generally gets the buy-in amounts right, but it often gives you incorrect information about what tables are actually available to play at. Many times sit-and-go tables that start the game before all the seats are filled remain on the board, even though you can't sit down there. Other times games that ended who knows how long ago inexplicably remain on the list. Sometimes the information is there and correct, but a lot of times it isn't. Still, interface problems aside, the online play is mostly quite fun, and should be enjoyable to most any poker fan.
In terms of presentation, it would be unfair to expect a whole lot out of a budget poker game, but it wouldn't be unfair to ask for more than this game provides. As previously mentioned, the character models aren't very easy on the eyes, apart from the fact that they can be highly customized. There are a number of different environments to play in, like a penthouse suite, a saloon, a riverboat, and a basement card room, but the locales are all entirely incidental in the scheme of the game. Not even the cards, dealer, or card tables look good, which is kind of distressing, since you'd think they'd be the parts of the game that would look the best. The audio in the game is beyond annoying, consisting of some badly mixed music, an insipid announcer, and dealers who sound like badly programmed robots when they're reading off the winning hands.
World Championship Poker is ultimately a decent effort, but only because of its online play. The offline component of the game is simply too pointless and spotty to hold anyone's attention, which basically limits the game's appeal strictly to those who have an Xbox Live subscription. Ultimately, this game is only for the serious poker enthusiast, as casual fans can easily find comparable games just about anywhere on the Internet.