Review: Texas Hold'em Poker (WiiWare)

Can't read my, can't read my poker face, p-p-poker face!

Apologies to Lady Gaga (well, actually to everyone reading this who may have heard that song and will now have it stuck in their heads), but you will be wondering exactly that after playing any amount of the latest Texas Hold 'em game from Gameloft.

Before going further it's important to emphasise that Texas Hold'em Poker is a one trick pony: it plays the Texas Hold 'em poker variant and that's it. If you're not familiar with Texas Hold 'em, it's a version of poker born and bred in casinos as will be quickly apparent once a game starts. Players are dealt two cards each with the two players to the left of the "dealer" (not the actual dealer, but the person used to determine the order of play) putting in the ante. After an initial round of betting (or folding) based upon the strength of the two hole cards, five communal cards are dealt face-up in the middle of the table in three groups: the first three are referred to as "the flop," the fourth card is "the turn," and the fifth and final card is "the river." After each additional round of dealing follows another round of betting, though each player may choose to "check" rather than bet -- assuming no one else bets. Each player is trying to make the best 5-card poker hand possible from the combination of the initial two cards they've been dealt and the cards available to everyone. You cannot exchange cards -- thereby removing the hand-building strategy of games like draw and stud poker -- which makes for a much faster game that is more appealing to casual gamblers and casinos.

Launching the game you'll find that Texas Hold'em Poker is definitely a Gameloft game with a pleasing menu design and visuals that are top quality throughout. You can criticise Gameloft for content, but their games definitely look good. The Gameloft touch can also be seen in the type and variety of avatars used in the game (there are loads included -- though only a few are unlocked to start), which look much like they're modeled on the popular Bratz dolls all the sassy pre-teens want these days. Avatars are caricatures of "celebrities" (Steve Ballmer is a celebrity?) and make audio comments when folding, betting, winning and losing. This could get really annoying, but Gameloft has thankfully not mandated the comments be made every single time a given event occurs. Gameloft has also nicely included the option to stick one of your Mii heads on a body as well -- though only for your own character.

There are three game modes on offer (Quick Match, Career and Multiplayer) and options for adjusting the volume of character speech, background music and sound effects. There's no tutorial but you can review the rules of the game, standard poker hands and play tips (mostly concerning the odds of getting different hands depending on the initial pair of cards dealt) by selecting different options in the in-game pause menu. Control is Remote-only with the pointer moving your cursor over prompts and pressing (A) selecting them. You can either move the cursor over your cards (presented in fancy perspective as if you were really at a casino gaming table!) or click (B) to take a peek at them. Your cash pile is shown in the upper left corner and current pot in the upper right.

The name Quick Match is a bit deceiving in that the game played isn't really any quicker than Career mode, though there's no profile created and you're randomly assigned an avatar rather than given the option to use your Mii. You can choose to play a "cash game" that continues until you get tired of playing (or die -- whichever comes first) or a single tournament against 8 computer-controlled players. You can select the difficulty level (referring to the aggressiveness of the betting style of the CPU players) and choose a casino from the selection of ones you've unlocked (initially only Caribbean is available).

Career is the game mode you're mostly likely to partake of. You choose an avatar (or Mii) and enter your name which creates a save profile. Starting out with a seed of $1500, you play through a series of tournaments in casinos, which are unlocked for use in future Quick Match or Career games -- assuming you win. Rather than having the player choose the difficulty as in Quick Match, the CPU players gradually increase in their betting aggressiveness with two of them being designated "Celebrity Players" and given specific play styles. As in Quick Mode games you can press (A) to skip bits that aren't as important -- like dealing sequences or other players making their betting/folding decisions -- to get to the good parts. This is especially nice if you end up folding early and don't want to just be a spectator. After a game ends you're presented with stats showing your best/worst hands and other vital statistics before moving on to the next tournament (or more likely, back to the menu to start again!).

In this day-and-age of connected consoles you may well be drawn to the online Multiplayer mode, but this ends up being the weakest mode in the game. Unlike the local Quick Match and Career games which are played against 8 CPU-controlled players, multiplayer is features up to 5 human opponents with no CPU players involved. In addition to volume levels, you also have the option of whether or not to view other player's Miis. Whilst this might initially seem like an option you'd like to have enabled, the lack of "witty banter" ends up making multiplayer matches with Miis more Poker of the Living Dead than Texas Hold 'em, with the only sound being background music and sound effects (though in fairness to Gameloft, this could be a limitation of Nintendo's Mii code). With the hand-building aspects of other poker games removed, the principal strategy in Texas Hold 'em (aside from knowing "when to hold 'em" and "when to fold 'em") is bluffing and would normally be where the flesh-and-blood players are separated from the ones residing in silicon. Unfortunately poker skills based around reading your opponent's intentions are non-existent in this game.

The presentation in multiplayer is the same as all the other game modes: fixed camera with a top-down view as if from a security camera above the casino dealer's head. You do get a zoom in on your character when winning a hand or getting knocked out of the tournament (cue happy/frowny face and waving hands), but that's just for effect and has no bearing on gameplay; players to the sides of the table are only visible in profile (in single player you cannot even see the faces on some of them). There's no Wii Speak support, so even the social aspect of playing online with friends is removed; instead you have a few pages of canned "dialogue" which largely consists of trash-talking and emoticons -- and most of the latter are Japanese! There's maybe two lines that could be loosely interpreted as relating to bluffing ("About those two aces I'm holding..." would hardly seem to qualify), but given bringing up dialogue choices contributes nothing to gameplay except making other players wait, the reality is that you're unlikely to bother with anything other than an initial "hi" once the game starts.

Bluffing is the same online or offline and ultimately multiplayer just ends up being a slower -- and if using Miis, more boring -- game with no change in strategy whatsoever. The presence of online leaderboards and the added jeopardy of having a cash allowance that only goes up $200 a day simply aren't enough to offset the slower and more lacklustre experience provided, so you're really better off just playing against the CPU.

Conclusion

As a single player experience, Gameloft's Texas Hold 'em Poker will provide about as much diversion as a good game of Freecell. The visuals are excellent and the game plays well, but the useless online experience and one-note gameplay prevents us from recommending this game to anyone but die hard fans of this poker variant.