Late last year, 2K Sports delivered its first foray into the world of professional poker with World Poker Tour, a game based on the popular TV show of the same name. The game was based on the engine developed by former World Poker Championship developers Coresoft, and at the time of its release, it was the best console poker game you could get, despite a few significant flaws in design and artificial intelligence. Now, World Poker Tour is a PlayStation Portable game, and for better or for worse, just about everything you could find in the console game is available here. Both online and offline, World Poker Tour is an inferior game to last year's other poker standout on both consoles and the PSP, World Championship Poker 2, but it's got enough to it to make it appealing to poker enthusiasts.
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 comes across as 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 you're playing offline, the game has some problems. For one, the opponent artificial intelligence is mostly a pushover. It 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 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 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 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.
Apart from these nonaggressive tendencies, the game mostly plays it smart. You'll see some really dumbfounding calls from time to time, but generally the computer knows how to play a hand well, and it'll even try to steal a pot from time to time. Incidentally, the right-analog-stick-based tells system from the console versions of WPT is absent here (likely due to the lack of a right analog stick on the PSP). In its place is a PSP-exclusive feature that lets you look at stats that show exactly how the opponents at your table tend to play. It's not a completely exact system, in that it mainly displays tendencies rather than specific behaviors, but the fact that it's there at all is marginally insane. This system gives away all the necessary intel most poker players would have to spend long periods of time collecting. It's a cheat, and a rather easily accessible one, too. Interestingly enough, it doesn't work on the pro players, since their stat bars are always maxed out.
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 in most poker games, you 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 quite robust. Plenty of facial and body edits are available, as well as quite a few outfits. Interestingly, you can't use most 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. The PSP version of the game also includes some additional invitational events, so there's even more stuff to play through.
Like the console games, the PSP version of World Poker Tour includes infrastructure multiplayer. Oddly enough, there's no ad hoc option, but you can play online against opponents that are playing both the PSP version and the PlayStation 2 version of the game. You can create your own games or join others, and you can set up all the basic options like you can offline. The online interface in the PSP version is a bit better than the god-awful interface in the PS2 version, though it's still a bit clunky. We also ran into a number of connection problems when trying to join games. Often the game would simply sit on a "connecting..." screen for endless amounts of time. When we did manage to get into a game, things seemed to run smoothly enough, though the game also has a bad habit of freezing for 20 to 30 seconds whenever a new player joins or leaves a table.
The load times in general are probably the worst part of World Poker Tour's presentation. Loading up a new game is a 30- to 40-second affair, and while you're playing, the game hitches whenever new players join a table, even offline. Once you're in a game, however, things tend to run pretty well. The game looks a little more impressive on the PSP than it did on consoles, simply because it looks like almost no shortcuts were made with the graphics. Granted, the console games looked mediocre, but by the PSP's visual standards, the game does look better. The character models are decent, and the casinos are still modeled accurately and with a fair amount of detail. Some of the animation is still awful, but considering that none of the animations have changed in translation, that's hardly surprising.
World Poker Tour for the PSP is a competent game of poker with a solid roster of features, good gameplay, and a worthwhile license. However, it's not special in any specific way, and that it's a port of a several-month-old console game, and not the best poker game available for the PSP platform, ultimately drags down its overall appeal. Those who are seriously into poker and simply must have something new to play on their PSP won't do themselves wrong by checking out World Poker Tour. But casual poker fans are probably better off with a more friendly game of poker like World Championship Poker 2.