IGN Review of Stacked with Daniel Negreanu
After a lengthy waiting period, the most-hyped poker game has finally arrived on the PS2, PC and Xbox. Stacked with Daniel Negreanu has been one of the most highly anticipated poker games for some time due to the fact that its AI routines were built off of the Poki engine, a complex poker AI system developed by the University of Alberta. Unfortunately, while a certain quote on the box would trick you to believe that Stacked is "Halo with chips" (we're not making this up), the game simply comes up short-stacked in just about every way possible.
Despite the fact that Stacked is supposed to contain the strongest opponents since Einstein played his last game of chess, it's anything but perfect. On one of the most extreme occasions, we managed to get the game stuck going all in every hand by first doing so ourselves about five or six hands in a row, and then subsequently fold every hand thereafter. At least one player at the table would then push in all of their chips every round following this until we finally checked the big blind about 10 minutes later. And we're not talking last-ditch moves here where players were getting killed by the blinds - every player at the table was about even in chip count and the blinds were still low, but someone at some point would go all in every single hand.
Aside from this extreme case, the AI seems fairly consistent but rather restrained. You'll find a player at the table every now and then that'll actually play the game aggressively (protecting hands, push players out of a pot, etc.) but for the most part the play is quite subdued, even at the highest difficulty level, which is where you'll need to set the game in order to get any sort of competition. As an example of how careful the AI will play, even when the blinds are 0.5% of the average stack at the table, a majority of players at the table will fold without calling the blinds. When they're this low, you're better off calling as many hands as possible and try to hit something on the flop. For whatever reason, it simply seems that the computer doesn't take chip count into consideration until an actual bet has been made and will fold without thinking even if the big blind is pennies on their millions.
One of the hard things about reviewing a poker game is that as you only see the hands of players who finish out the hand, it's hard to determine if the computer is doing anything dumb when it folds. We didn't notice anything entirely wrong, though the game's advice feature hints that it has a hard time at figuring out what is and isn't a good hand. During any hand, you're able to ask for advice from Daniel Negreanu and he'll give you a quick synopsis of what you should do. On special cases he'll have specific instructions, like if you're dealt pocket aces, A-K or even a middle pair. The problem is that his general advice can be way off, again hinting that the game may have a hard time picking up on hand strength or proper moves.
For example, on one occasion I had 8-6 off-suit, so Daniel tells me to be careful about raising before the flop because I'd have to fold if anyone re-raised. Sounds good, so I just call. The flop comes Q-10-2, then someone ahead of me makes a nice bet. Daniel then says it's perfectly fine to call. Um, no, it's not perfectly fine to call, especially since he suggested I would have to fold if anyone re-raised pre-flop when I still had a decent chance to hit something.
One great piece of advice Daniel gave me was, "Protect your hand! Put in a decent sized bet." The problem was that I had just been dealt 9-2 off-suit. Thanks for the great advice. The very next hand I get the same message with 3-7 off-suit. My favorite of all though was when I was told, "I know you've been waiting for this. Stick it all in."
I had 6-2 off-suit.
One presentation problem related to this is that while the advice can sometimes be correct, it almost never tells you why you should make a certain play. For instance, I once had 5-7 off-suit with only five players left in a tournament. Daniel suggests I not only bet, but bet big. Sure, that's a nice bluff, but simply suggesting I throw out a huge bet with no explanation doesn't help you understand why you should make certain plays.
While that's one problem with the presentation, Stacked unfortunately doesn't fare much better in its other presentation aspects. One problem is with the game's interface. Rather than using a radial dial of some sort to choose multiple options, you need to scroll through a linear menu in order to get advice, look at your cards or a number of other options. Then you have to scroll back in order to close it and bet. At least on the PC you're able to click the end of the menu to fold it up, but that doesn't help with the betting.
When raising or lowering a bet total, the game will accelerate the amount you're changing the bet very quickly. This makes it very hard to dial in a certain number, as you'll often have to stop a good bit away from your intended bet and then dial it in one-by-one. In other words, it's a giant pain to make specific bets. The PC version allows you to grab the slider with your mouse and move it up and down, but it's actually difficult to grab hold of the slider so it doesn't wind up being any easier than the console versions.
While visuals aren't exactly the end-all-be-all of any poker game, it's bad when they're actually detrimental to the experience. One major problem in Stacked is that the game doesn't properly represent how many chips you have graphically. The PC version sort of does it, but you only wind up with one large stack and the color values seem off. On the console versions, you'll be lucky to see more than two chips in your possession even if you have some entirely odd chip total, like $1,638 or something. One major problem with this is that as the game only prints how much money someone has while they're still in the hand, you can't look around and plan for the next hand. You can't even tell how much money you have unless you're in the hand or travel through a series of pause menus.
Speaking of traveling through pause menus, the only way to see how many players are left in a multi-table tournament is to either wait for the count to scroll by in the update ticker or head to the pause menu and scroll all the way to the bottom of a long stats menu. It's not nearly as easy to find this count as it is in basically every other poker game on the market.
There are other weird things about the game that seem like they could be cool, but don't amount to anything useful. For instance, you're able to smile and frown at will, and when you go to make a play you can either do so neutrally, tentatively or aggressively. The problem is that these don't appear to have any bearing on what happens in the game, and you really never see the AI do them either. Maybe they'll sneak in a smile or frown now and then, but it's so subtle, hard to see and honestly unimportant that it simply doesn't matter whether you notice or not.
While the game does feature very capable (if unsurprising) online play and even multi-table tournaments, the player customization features are very weak for a poker game in this day and age, meaning that your online avatar is simply one of a number of options. When half of the online poker experience is social in nature, you should have as many options as possible to portray yourself, and being that many other games have had player creators that rival even Tiger Woods' Game Face feature, simply picking from a few different body types, hair colors and shirt styles seems very limiting.
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