Full House Poker Review
Developer: Krome Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Available on: Xbox LIVE Arcade, Windows Phone 7 (Xbox LIVE Arcade Version Reviewed)
Two years ago, when Microsoft launched the world’s first massively multiplayer live game show, 1 vs. 100, complete with prizes, many thought it was an idea that could revolutionise online gaming. Both casual and hardcore gamers would play, due to the lure of free Microsoft Points being rewarded to the winners. Sadly, long waiting times, a proliferation of advertising, and prizes not being paid out promptly gave the game a bad reputation, and despite entering the Guinness Book of Records as the biggest Game Show ever held, Microsoft canned the project after just two seasons.
However, the idea of mass gaming on a more casual slant than MMORPG’s, for example, is a solid one. Despite it’s problems, people still played 1 vs. 100, because the unpredictable and exciting nature of competing with hundreds of players from around the world is infectious. Microsoft obviously noticed this, and now the spiritual successor to that title is making its way to Xbox LIVE, in the very familiar guise of a game of Texas Hold ’em Poker.
GRAPHICS: It would probably be safe to assume that graphics aren’t necessarily the most important feature of a Poker game, but good presentation can certainly help elevate a title above the bog standard level of a flash game you could play online for free, to that of a title for which you would be willing to part with your hard-earned cash.
Something that really shines through in this title is the appeal of the Xbox 360 Avatars. Dismissed by many as a quick Mii rip-off, they have grown in their own right and with the regular addition of new attire and accessories, as well as an increasing number of games supporting them (in large thanks to Kinect) they are now accepted as an established part of Xbox LIVE.
The avatars and their animations add a level of personality to the game, and Full House Poker allows players to customise their in-game persona and through the use of expression modifiers, become more animated to further reflect this. Menus and tutorials are all clean and streamlined, and being a casual gaming experience, Microsoft have obviously placed simple, understandable presentation near the top of the list of priorities. The graphics are of course all rendered in full HD, and whilst no-one will be blown away with the locales and settings in the game, they compliment the cartoon style of the avatars but do not distract from the real action, the Poker.
SOUND: Similarly to the graphics, the sound is certainly not a deal breaker in a game like this, perhaps even more so! The game could happily be experienced with your Xbox console playing an audio CD in the background, and nothing would be lost. The announcer behaves in a similar way to that which featured in 1 vs. 100, simply introducing certain game modes or exaggerating some events. Other sounds are simply ambient sounds such as chips, card dealing and the like. An occasional outburst of applause will signify a tight-fought hand, but sound is a fairly minimal component here, though in no way is this to the detriment of the title.
GAMEPLAY: If you are interested in this game, you probably already know everything you need to know to play. Taking the popular Texas Hold ’em variation of Poker as the adopted style, the game will be easy to pick up and play for a large proportion of gamers. Despite that, the game features some tutorials and help screens which try to ease you in, although for the absolute novice these are too basic and won’t be a huge help.
The available game modes are single player, ranked and player-based multiplayer modes, Pro Takedown and Texas Heat. In regular single player, users will be able to set the level of betting the tables will start at and how many players take part. Play consists of rounds of betting and bluffing, as players earn both XP (required for levelling up and unlocking features) and cash. The more money you have, the more high-stakes games you can enter, leading to (hopefully) bigger rewards. As players level up they can customise the play area and equip new clothes or expressions to use in-play, but getting to level 50 and the rewards that provides won’t happen overnight.
The inclusion of Avatars adds an interesting feature to gameplay, trying to read your opponent. Players can use the trigger buttons as modifiers for all in-game actions, so aside from regular animations, you can also act cautiously or aggressively. Of course, players can bluff or be honest in their animations, so it will take a really keen Poker eye to accurately read the reactions of the players around the table.
To make things more interesting, as players level up they will be able to challenge different “Pro” players to a Pro Takedown. These are usually one-on-one showdowns where the aim is to completely wipe out your opponent and take all of their chips. These will get progressively harder, but do reward players with high XP bonuses and extra unlockable items not found anywhere else. Being one-on-one style matches, this does throw a different style of play into the mix, as players must be more aggressive in order to finish the game, as it is either all or bust, there is no middle ground. They act as a good change of pace from the more relaxed standard play, in a way akin to “boss battles” in a regular action title.
MULTIPLAYER: The big draw of the multiplayer side of the game will be the regularly scheduled TV-style tournaments, known as Texas Heat. These 30-minute events hosted by Microsoft will see players compete to meet a certain objective, against other users on Xbox LIVE. That may be winning the most hands, gaining the most XP possible or putting together the strongest winning hand you can. These tournaments are put together as “seasons”, each with associated achievements to be earned.
The attraction of this mode is that by finishing higher up the table, or with more of the prerequisites met, players can earn huge amounts of bonus XP and cash, that will be transferred to your offline bankroll and allow you to level up far quicker than if one were to play regular table games. Regular multiplayer is also available, with both ranked and player matches on offer, and these follow the same blueprint as the standard single-player game mode, albeit with added voice chat functions and a more competitive edge.
LONGEVITY: As mentioned before, levelling your character up from 1 to 50 will be a long road, sped up by participation in online modes. Every time the character moves up a level, certain items and features will also unlock. These unlockables include new casino themes, tables, card decks and chair designs. Avatar clothes (unfortunately only for use in-game) regularly unlock so you can further customise your look, and with chip tricks (that can be acted out at the table when bored) and player titles, there are a lot of extras to be collected. Add to that the fact that specific Pro Takedowns can only be accessed once the player is at a particular level, and you have a lot of factors working to draw you back in to regularly return to the game.
As is typical of an Xbox LIVE game, 200 Gamerpoints are attainable from the get-go, as are two Avatar Awards that can be equipped to your avatar after unlocking. But then in addition to all of that, the seasonal nature of the game will open up a different set of achievements for players to earn when they download the new season title update. In that regard, with achievements being added every season, players will have a constant reason to come back to the game, and you question just how many Gamerpoints will be available for this title when all is said and done. It could go on forever in theory, making this a game that achievement chasers are sure to love. For Windows Phone 7 owners, XP, chips, and earned unlockables are all fully transferable between the console and mobile-based versions.
When you consider that casual players, who might not be interested in XP or achievements will still enjoy the game, the title opens up a whole host of opportunities. For example, I like to play Poker with a group of friends, but find it increasingly difficult to arrange a date that everyone can make it and schedule around their work. But with a game like this, Poker night can be played online. Friends who are separated will be able to meet up and enjoy most of the benefits of a full Poker night, over Xbox LIVE. Some say that it is thinking like this that will destroy the art of conversation and real social interaction, but I believe this could help sustain relationships that might otherwise be lost. How many games could say that? OK, perhaps a slight exaggeration, but you can see my point that a game like this has numerous attractions and applications, and could be enjoyed by a real cross-section of gamers.
VERDICT: There is little to bemoan when you look at the title as a whole. Of course, there are many detractors who cannot see the appeal of a Poker game where money isn’t involved, but then no Poker Videogame is ever going to do that, and if that is what you are looking for, sign up to a gambling website. It seems that legislation related to online gambling will unfortunately prevent Microsoft from offering any kind of prizes for tournament play, which will seem to some like a step backwards from that which was offered by 1 vs. 100, but as Poker games come, this title handles the basics beautifully and then offers enough extras to provide huge replay value.
The online features will be the real heart here, and how the tournaments develop will ultimately determine the fate of Microsoft’s latest “game show” style foray into live online play. But whether you have a full house or just one pair, this game is a winner.