The popularity of No Limit Texas Hold 'Em has reached an all-time high, due in large part to the way television has embraced the game. As a result, everyone is jumping on the poker bandwagon, including a number of video game publishers. With the likes of Crave Entertainment and Activision Value already in the hand, and 2K Sports waiting on the button, Myelin Media is looking to raise the stakes with their poker video game, Stacked with Daniel Negreanu. While it's a little too early to tell whether or not this title is holding the nuts, we did recently have a chance to play a preview build. So ante up players, as we take an early look at Stacked.
Being the proud Canadian that I am, I can't help but point out a pair of Canadian connections in Stacked. The first and most obvious is the fact that the game is endorsed by Daniel Negreanu, fellow Torontonian and arguably one of the best poker players in the world. But he's not the only professional poker player to appear in Stacked. You'll get the chance to go heads-up with other well-known pros including 2004 World Series of Poker runner-up David Williams, Josh Arieh, Erick Lindgren as well as top female poker players Evelyn Ng and Jennifer Harman.
The other Canadian connection comes in the form of "Poki", a sophisticated Artificial Intelligence system that's been in development for a number of years at the University of Alberta. The evolving AI system is designed to adapt to your playing style in real-time by learning your tendencies and identifying your weaknesses, forcing you to adjust your play to compensate. How well does it work? So far so good. The Poki-controlled players are fairly aggressive in the early going, calling blinds to see as many cheap flops as possible before becoming more conservative as the blinds raise up. The AI system is also fully aware of table position, occasionally raising on the button in an attempt to steal the blinds, or raising big with a strong hand out of position in order to isolate an opponent. The AI isn't afraid to bluff either, or divorce a pocket pair with a couple of over cards on the table.
On the flip side of the coin, I have seen a few questionable decisions by Poki-controlled players; chief among them some odd all-in calls with just a Kx, Qx or Jx. Sometimes they won't call an all-in bet, even if they're pot committed or they've been re-raised a small amount by a player who's gone all-in. Hopefully these pot odds-related issues will be ironed out before the game is completed because the Poki system does show promise. The other gripe I have at this point would have to be with regards to speed of play. The AI-controlled players seem to have a one-liner for every hand, even if they fold before the flop, and this prolongs the game considerably. Here's to hoping they'll be an option to turn off the comments, in case players just want to sit down for a quick 15-minute diversion.
For those players looking for a more social experience, Stacked will feature multiplayer support in the form of a tournament system called Stacked Masters. Here you can choose to compete in casual non-sanctioned tournaments, with full customization of game type, betting structure, etc., or in officially sanctioned Masters events where you have to buy-in using online earnings or by winning a seat in a singleplayer satellite tournament. Myelin Media even claims that Daniel Negreanu and some of the other poker pros will occasionally participate in online Stacked Masters tournaments as well, allowing players to test their skills against the best of the best.
Other features players can look forward to include full character customization, right down to your appearance and clothing. For beginners and intermediate players, a poker school will be available, featuring a series of videos in which Daniel Negreanu lays out the basic rules of Texas Hold 'Em, as well as providing tips on how to become a better player. They'll also be a career mode, where you'll start out in local games before working your way up to full-fledged tournaments and eventually going head-to-head with digital versions of the pros. PlayStation 2 and PSP owners have an added bonus to look forward to, as they can play against each other online and even transfer their career mode progress and custom avatars cross-platform.
Stacked with Daniel Negreanu is shaping up to be a premiere poker game, if there is such a beast. The Poki AI system looks like it'll provide some worthy offline opponents and although we weren't able to test the multiplayer portion of the game, the tournament system sounds very intriguing. As long as the AI kinks can be worked out and the speed of play increased, we just might have to go all-in with Stacked. But let's not get on tilt here, we'll have a full review when the game is released this October.
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