The 2006 World Series of Poker has come and gone, but the onslaught of World Series of Poker-licensed video games hasn't quite come to a halt. Activision's World Series of Poker: Tournament of Champions has made its debut on the Wii, and in almost every way, this is the exact same game released earlier in the year on the PlayStation 2, PC, and Xbox 360. Much like Activision's previous attempt to turn the World Series into a video game, Tournament of Champions does a serviceable, if unremarkable, job of emulating the event. This game does put a greater emphasis on its included pro players, but the gameplay is still a bit mundane, thanks to off-kilter artificial intelligence and awful presentation. On top of that, the Wii version strips out the online multiplayer, robbing the package of much of its value.
The focus of Tournament of Champions is its career mode. You begin by creating a character, as you do in most poker games. This process is pretty by-the-numbers. There are a decent number of facial and clothing customizations to choose from, and they aren't all crazy and over-the-top like some poker games tend to get with their created players. The basic progression of events in the career mode is simple. You start out at a home game against a few generic guys, but lo and behold, your dealer for the night is Chris "Jesus" Ferguson. It seems Mr. Jesus has lost some kind of bet and is now at your home game, scouting for talent to take to the WSOP Tournament of Champions. Whether you win or lose this game, Jesus takes you under his wing and sets you on the path to poker riches. There are four casinos with four events each for the preliminary rounds, and then there's the final round at the Rio in Las Vegas. You try to earn points in the various preliminary tournaments to move from one to the next. Wins give you more points and cash, but you can earn points just by placing in the final table rankings at each tournament.
Along the way, you'll encounter a variety of pro players, including Scotty Nguyen, Men Nguyen, Antonio Esfandiari, Phil Laak, Jennifer Tilly (yes, the Jennifer Tilly), TJ Cloutier, Kristy Gazes, Clonie Gowen, Andrew Black, and, of course, last year's champion, Joe Hachem. Each of these pros provide some at-the-table dialogue, though it doesn't consist of more than a few token barbs during and after a hand, as well as a few generic "check" and "I raise" statements.
The pros also don't play much like their real-life counterparts. Joe Hachem may say, "Pass the sugar, baby!" from time to time, but you don't get the same flair from his actual play. All the AI opponents play functionally the same. You'll notice that some AI players play fewer hands than others, but that's about the only difference. On the surface, the player AI is reasonably intelligent, if rather robotic. However, there are some issues with overaggressive betting, especially before the flop. It's rare to see a table's worth of players fold around completely to a raise before the flop. You'll see a bunch of reraises, even if the other players don't have anything better than a king-eight off-suit. Table position doesn't seem to play into this. Once the flop comes, it's easier to bully players out by raising heavily, but if an AI player makes a hand of any kind, he or she won't quit unless you try to put the player all-in.
Tournament of Champions isn't a good poker-teaching tool in the way that, for instance, Stacked was. The game's load screens do occasionally toss you some decent nuggets of info that might be useful to new players, but in-game, the tips that scroll across the screen are beyond obtuse. "Poker is a game of position," says Chris Ferguson. Gee, thanks, Jesus! However, one thing the game does offer that might be useful for non-video-game poker play is a tool that unlocks once you've played a decent number of hands. By pressing a button, you can bring up a menu that shows you a wealth of statistical data, such as what your pot odds are, based on the number of people already in the hand; the odds of making a specific type of hand, based on what you have versus what's on the board; which cards are your outs; and the percentage of hands you have played in and raised prior to the flop. For those who find the more mathematical aspects of poker dizzying, this handy little tool gives you a better idea of where you stand. It won't win hands for you, but it might keep you from losing a few.
In case you're waiting for us to get to the part where World Series of Poker takes advantage of the Wii's unique motion controls, you can keep waiting. This game makes no attempt whatsoever to include motion controls of any kind. It just maps all the basic functions to the buttons on the Wii Remote and Nunchuk, and that's it. Granted, motion controls in a poker game probably wouldn't make a ton of sense. If you can actually think of a good way to include motion controls in a middling poker game, feel free to share them with us, because we couldn't think of any. Maybe pushing the remote forward to go all in, or something? OK, maybe not.
Unfortunately, on top of not including any motion-control features, the Wii version also lacks any form of multiplayer. The online mode found in every other version of Tournament of Champions is gone, so this version is strictly a single-player affair. Half the fun of the game is in playing people online, so without it, the game feels rather hollow. Not to mention that Activision is charging $10 more for this version than the other versions currently available. If that sounds like a bad deal, you're wrong--it's an awful deal.
Another huge drag is the game's presentation. It's tough to make an exciting-looking game of poker, considering that players at a poker table don't do much beyond shifting around in their chairs and occasionally screaming wildly when they lose or win a big hand. The basic in-game graphics aren't terrible, though they're fairly bland, and the game lacks the dynamic presentation of one of the TV poker broadcasts. You'll also notice some ugly clipping issues with character models from time to time. Overall, the Wii version looks like a slightly improved update of the PlayStation 2 version, which is to say that it doesn't look like the developer did much to take advantage of the Wii's hardware capabilities.
The audio presentation is problematic as well. Though the developer did at least go to the trouble of getting both Lon McEarchen and Norman Chad this year, it didn't give them anything to do. They have maybe a couple of dozen lines apiece, and both repeat often. Norman doesn't have many of his trademark jokes available, and Lon's play-by-play is badly stitched together, with lots of instances of horrible shifts in voice tone and volume coming at random. The pro player dialogue is at least delivered pretty well. Otherwise, a lot of background casino noise and generic, slide-guitar-heavy music occupies the menu screens.
Tournament of Champions for the Wii is the first attempt to bring poker to the system, and by all accounts, it does exactly that, and nothing more. There's nothing to the game beyond a marginally interesting career mode and artificial intelligence that has some significant issues. With no online play, lame presentation, and not even a hint of motion-control capabilities, World Series of Poker for the Wii is exceedingly hard to recommend.