World Championship Poker 2
Poker is a strange phenomenon in western culture. For years it lay dormant, the single pursuit of a few faithful enthusiasts and gamblers. An all too often set-piece in popular movies where the cards and the play bore little resemblance to real life. Poker was well off the radar of the general consuming public. However, in recent times it has become hard to enter a department store or music shop without seeing poker kits of all shapes and sizes. Poker has entered the collective consciousness of the twenty to thirty something western male to such an extent that it has become an industry in its own right.
This simple game of cards, this exchange of wits and balls between friends has pulled even hardened videogame players away from the console to become card carrying poker players; more likely to throw down on green baize than on Xbox Live or PSN. Well 'if you can't beat them, join them', and the games industry certainly did. Over the last couple of years we have seen a mass of different Poker games on every console and handheld known to man. Many of these games boast some star poker player or franchise to endorse the quality of their play. Regardless, many have failed to deliver anything like the visceral nerve jangling exchange of the head to head action, that agonising search to find the stones to pull the trigger and go all in.
This is the hot-bed of poker love that World Championship Poker 2 (WCP2) is being released into; the bar is a lot higher than it was for the series first edition. Accordingly, this year they stump up with their figure head of choice Howard 'the professor', and deliver to a wide variety of machines; including our dear little PSP we clutch at this very moment in our sweaty palms.
To the game. Poker games live or die by their play-modeling; if you don't have a maths genius on your development team then you may as well shut up shop. The number crunching has to deliver a quality experience that tricks our brains out of recognising artificial play patterns or repetitive moves, and convince us that we are really playing against lifelike opponents. WCP2 certainly succeeds at this hardcore simulation level. The play is smooth and realistic, whilst having an almost tactile human quality. The various computer players offer a game that is both believable and intelligent. Regardless of the particular variation you are playing, draw, stud or hold 'em, the artificial opponents will have you scratching your head with check raises, disciplined folds and even the odd bluff.
Obviously, poker is more than a numbers game. To that end WCP2 introduces some novel touches that aim to make the experience more human. Career mode rewards smart play with points that can be spent to improve your on-screen player (if only it was this simple in real life). These are additional features that give you a better chance of gauging the relative quality of your hand; hand-odds and opponent-tells combine to give you that all important edge over the other players. There is even a poker-face feature that introduces a mini-game that enables you to present the other players with miss-information by pulling a suitable expression.
Graphically, things have been improved somewhat since the previous version. The environments and player characters are more life like, which makes their mannerisms both less laughable and easier to read. The sound and voice work could still do with some attention, although it is not overly prohibitive. As with any poker game, the importance of graphics comes down to a nice clean deck and some decent transition animations, and WCP2 delivers on both these counts.
Whilst WCP2 is a confident poker rendition, it will always find it hard to compete against a real world game; for one thing the beer and snacks aren't quite the same in a virtual world. The algorithms are a good approximation of real world play, but inevitably fall down from time to time, and lack that spark of imagination that makes Poker so addictive. The online play obviously helps with this, and the career mode fleshes out the game to provide better value for money. Combine this with the none-too shabby expert poker style and we probably have one of the best poker games of the year on PSP.