Ever since amateur poker player Chris Moneymaker won the World Series of Poker in 2003, poker's popularity has skyrocketed. You can't channel surf these days without coming across one poker tournament or another; online poker sites are popping up like mushrooms; and we've seen an influx of poker video games. The latest title to ante up is Activision Publishing's World Series of Poker: Tournament of Champions. If you recall it's predecessor, World Series of Poker released just over a year ago, my condolences to you. Has the 2007 Edition improved its hand at all? Is this the poker game you want to move all-in with this holiday season?
Here's the scenario: You're playing in your home game when Jesus selects you to become his protege and bankrolls you five large for buy-ins at the Grand Casino in Tunica, Mississippi. We're of course talking about Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, the professional poker player. That's how the Career Mode gets underway in WSOP: Tournament of Champions. The goal is to accumulate enough points, by finishing in the money in each of the events at the Grand Casino Tunica, to unlock the next destination, Harrah's Rincon San Diego, and so on until you reach the Tournament of Champions in Rio, four casinos later.
Each venue features four events: one limit, one pot-limit and two no-limit hold ‘em tournaments. The buy-ins start at $500 and increase incrementally, as do the number of players, professional and amateur, participating in each tournament. As you progress through your career various pros will invite you to special heads-up matches, including Jennifer Tilly, Phil Laak and mentor Chris Ferguson. You can also enter a heads-up tournament pitting you against top pro players one-on-one in a round robin format. But before you do all that, you have to customize your poker avatar.
Customization options include the basics, such as gender, age, body type and eye color, but you can delve deeper with options for hair, voice, clothing, accessories and even card protectors, the later of which are unlocked by defeating various pros throughout the game. If you have the Xbox Vision Camera, you can take the customization one step further and capture your image with the DigiMask feature. All it takes is one picture from the front and one from the side and the game will do the rest, mapping your face onto your avatar. There are a couple of factors to consider however. First, you need excellent lighting for the process to work properly and second, your character will cease to animate if you capture your own image. For example, they won't blink. It's kind of strange in that regard but this is the first game to offer the DigiMask feature so we'll let it slide.
Outside of the Career Mode, WSOP: Tournament of Champions offers an assortment of quickplay modes. You can customize a tournament or sit-and-go match in all sorts of poker variations, including limit, pot- and no-limit Texas Hold'Em, Omaha and High-Low Omaha, Seven Card Stuff, Razz and HORSE. Arguably the game's best feature is the Poker Tools you can unlock after you play enough hands. The Poker Tools include such gems as a calculator for Pot Odds and Hand Odds, as well as a grid indicating how many outs you have left in the deck during any given hand; great tools for amateurs and pros alike.
The number of poker variations, the presence of a Career Mode, it all means very little if the poker AI isn't solid. In WSOP: Tournament of Champions, that AI can be best described as super aggressive. The AI plays short table and heads-up situations competently enough but when there's a full table, you'll see players raise and re-raise out of position with marginal hands at best, like Q-4 suited. In one instance, holding pocket aces, I tripled the blind. The AI controlled player in the dealer position re-raised my bet, to which I responded by moving all-in. My opponent called and showed 4-5 suited. He wasn't pot committed at that point, nor did he have the pot odds to make the call, but he did nonetheless. He went on to hit two pair on the turn, busting my aces. I wasn't upset mind you, there are no sure things at the poker table, but I was surprised by the actions of the AI. In another situation, it was just Phil Laak and myself left in the pot after the flop. After the turn, I bet out with top pair, kings, to which Phil re-raised. When I moved all-in, Phil called. Again, he wasn't pot committed and when he showed A-Q, I was shocked to see that he made such a call only drawing to an ace. His card didn't fall and I won the pot. Would Phil Laak have made that same move in real life? I don't think so. It's one thing to bluff at a pot, but it's a whole other story to call an all-in bet while bluffing. Bluffing is something you'll see a lot in WSOP: Tournament of Champions so if you're style is passive-aggressive, or even passive-tight, you can expect to do quite well in the game.
Of course you can always ditch the AI altogether and jump online for some real-life poker competition. You can create all sorts of matches: multi-table tournaments, open tables and sit-and-go. Besides selecting the poker variation, you can also adjust the number of players, starting cash, limit type, antes, blinds, timer, and even whether or not you want players to be able to use the Poker Tools during play. Not unlike online poker sites, you do have to take into consideration that some online players will move all-in on the first hand, just because they can, and you might have to deal with the host dropping connection after receiving a bad beat. The server will attempt to migrate the match to another user at that point but it's not always successful and thus, can be a little frustrating, especially during ranked matches.
WSOP: Tournament of Champions features over 25 professional players and while most of them resemble their real-life counterpart, including Chris Ferguson, Scott Fischman and Scotty Nguyen, others not so much. I could barely recognize Jennifer Tilly and Mark Seif didn't quite look right either. The game also features World Series of Poker commentators Norman Chad and Lon McEachern. It's great that they were able to secure such talent but they didn't put them to good use. Norman and Lon have about a dozen lines apiece that they repeat ad nauseam and if I hear another sneeze at the poker table...seriously, a poker game doesn't have to look or sound sensational but with a line-up like this, it should have taken better advantage of its stars. Luckily, if you increase the speed at which the hands are played, you also eliminate most of the table banter.
World Series of Poker: Tournament of Champions is better than last year's edition, but there's still a lot of room for improvement. It's great that the developers were able to secure the all-star poker talent they did, but for the most part they squander the opportunity. The Career Mode is solid but the AI is a little too aggressive, particularly with a full table. You'll see a lot of bluffing and a lot of bad poker decisions by supposedly professional poker players. The Poker Tools are a nice touch and playing online can be fun, if you can find the right players. That's a big if however. I've yet to come across the definitive poker video game and WSOP: Tournament of Champions doesn't change that outlook, but at $39.99 USD, it's certainly cheaper than a trip to a real casino.