Strangely, 2K Sports' World Poker Tour is more like World Championship Poker 2 than World Championship Poker 2. This is because WPT features technology similar to WCP the first, an identical character creation system, comparable AI routines, and even the same basic online functionality. On the other hand, WCP2 is unlike its predecessor because of a different engine, a revamped singleplayer career, a new AI system, and a few online to singleplayer tie-ins. Because of these changes, WCP2 manages to fix many of the AI issues we criticized in the first game, but lacks the level of polish we expect from a sequel to 2004's best selling poker title.
WCP2 feels very much like a first outing, in fact; there are some basic presentation issues that need to be addressed. The new character creation system, for a start, is very limited and allows gamers to make a new player from a preset number of skeletons that can be augmented with snap-ons like wacky hats and designer shirts. This is in stark contrast to WCP and WPT's advanced slider-driven character creation system that let us make all kinds of abnormal freaks, like precious Starfug and Hot Pie, the champion of all things. The graphics here have also taken a serious hit, and the characters don't feel nearly as expressive or individualized as they did before. Sometimes giant blocks of color can also be seen on their clothes, which is a clear indication of texturing for the lowest common denominator.
The new career mode is also marred by some basic presentation issues. The idea behind advancing through a poker world and earning money to build a character with skills and items so that he / she can eventually access bigger games is a great one, but the flat world map is not very attractive. There are also odd intercontinental locales to play in, but no venue has a real personality, so there's little difference between playing in China and playing in Wisconsin. The career mode also suffers from funneling players into specific types of games, like Razz (every sane human on Earth hates Razz).
But... Career play at least introduces some legitimately cool RPG-like customization into the poker playing mix. For instance, players can improve the following skills: Keen Eyes, Hand Strength, Stare Down, Tough Read, Stone Face, Actor and Convincing. These skills expand a player's abilities in different ways, like offering better opportunities to capitalize off a bluff / tell mini-game or letting gamers better predict an opponent's hand. It's a great way to personalize oneself and improve over the course of time.
The mini-game is WCP2's answer to WPT's emotion system. It's basically a couple of revolving markers that appear when the computer deems you've made an improper play or when it decides a tell based on your play could be advantageous to other players. When the mini-game pops up you can opt to highlight the 'poker face' or 'bluff' marker so that your character will exhibit animations related to those actions. If you fail to lineup on the marker, your character will give a tell, which will create an animation that either portrays the strength of your hand (shaking and obvious fits of amazement) or the weakness of your hand (pouting and sighing and the like).
This tell system is a great first step that can eventually be expanded to include focusing on opposing players and making better reads, but the support structure isn't in there right now -- there are no indications to really make it an outstanding feature. Instead, it more plays like an unpredictable and often unwanted result of actions that pops up during strange circumstances. For instance, I once had pocket sevens out of position and neglected to raise pre-flop in an eight-player game. The computer determined I had misplayed a strong hand and forced the mini-game on me. But who is the computer to say pocket sevens in an eight-player game is a strong hand? I don't think that's very strong. At another instance I received Queen-Queen and checked a flop to the computer, trying to trap. The mini-game popped up, but I failed to put off a stone cold poker face, so my character exhibited a tell. The computer immediately followed up that tell with a heavy raise. I went all-in and was called by a set of nines! In this way the computer used itself to gain an unfair advantage over me by misleading me into first thinking I had a strong hand (with the pop-up) and then misrepresenting a NPC player's raise post-tell. It's one step away from out and out cheating.
But in general, I really like where Crave is taking the poker genre. The ideas behind these tells and skills are good ones. I just need to see some more work put into polishing them and backing them up with more clearly identifiable prompts and voiced commentary so that they can really go someplace.
Unlike the presentation and some of the quirky new additions, the AI, fortunately, seems to have made a big step up. Computers are not afraid to bluff, check-raise, check-call for positive expectation, fold losing hands, value bet, or throw out security bets to isolate all-ins. I really was impressed by the AI in here. It's obviously not perfect (no game ever will be because the game itself isn't), but it at least doesn't fall into the trappings of older poker game design. That is, the AI doesn't seem prone to making absurd calls to ensure action -- it does not equate action to flops seen. It also doesn't check flops and turns to always give the player the option of seeing a river. It will actually bet you off hands!
The AI still seems to have a problem calculating pot-odds and often over bets to throw off odds, even on teasers, but the fact that it will at least make an effort to obtain pots shows the developers have acknowledged some of the major faults in today's other available poker games and are working to fix them.
Finally, we have multiplayer. On PS2 there's EyeToy in addition to the normal voice support also found on Xbox. Both the Xbox and PS2 games feature a multiplayer mode that's tied into the singleplayer career, too. This means you can import winnings from one mode to the other to keep yourself moving along.
The games also have a cool lobby system that's very easy to come to grips with (as it fits into the game's new Celebrity Poker motif), but if you're looking for a multiplayer game or interface to win awards for originality, you're really not going to find it here. The game is still very basic and still lacks the automatic post and fold options we see in practically all online offerings for the PC. There also needs to be a better stat tracker and a better conversation system that highlights players and associates them to what's being said. That, and more vote to boot and boot options need to be implemented. It's just infuriating when another player lingers on every action just so he can be belligerent.
Still, WCP offers going-rate multiplayer functionality as far as console games are concerned and doesn't seem to be anything less than the status quo. Please note that the lobbies are still relatively unpopulated as of publish time.
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