The thing about adapting simple, traditional tabletop or card games into video games is that the experience we have with them is largely not defined by any work on that specific video game, but by the quality of the game it’s replicating. This has its advantages, it means that the developers behind the game need to do relatively little to create something engaging because the engaging components have already been designed and are easy to implement, but when basic implementation of something like Poker is so easy to do, everyone is going to be at it, and the little details of the games begin to matter more as each title has to do something exceptional to set itself apart from the rest. On that note let’s look at World Series of Poker: Full House Pro, a free-to-play downloadable Poker game which builds off of Microsoft’s 2011 game Full House Poker.
A lot here should be familiar to players of Full House Poker, as World Series of Poker gives you your own persistent pool of chips which carries between games and allows you to either go single-player or drop into matches of Texas Hold ‘Em against up to nine other players with your Xbox LIVE avatar as your virtual representative. For better or for worse that’s probably the best thing that can be said about WSoP, that there’s a fully functioning Poker game in here bearing all the gambles, tension, victories, and failures of any Poker game. It’s fun and it also comes with some of those familiar and pleasant sights and sounds we associate with gambling card games: swanky casinos with laid-back atmospheres, the flick of the cards as they’re dealt off the top of the deck, and so on. However, the game is not always on top form when it comes to the systems that surround the central gameplay.
One thing it does get right is including a “Sit Out” option which has you automatically fold every hand for the next five minutes, allowing you to basically pause the game even during live play, and the in-game tournaments are a nice addition, even if it’s often hard to get enough players together for one. There’s also an XP system in here which allows a more concrete acknowledgement of your wins that isn’t based on the often variable reward that you get when you take a pot, and allows for you to be rewarded for making the right move even when you fold and aren’t going to rake in any money for that hand. The game just doesn’t always give out right amount of experience at the right time. For example, a little generosity isn’t a bad thing, but WSoP goes a smidge too far in that direction, giving you experience even for being dealt into a hand, and consider that the amount of points you get for winning a pot while another player is still in is the same amount you get for two decent folds.
The level-ups that all these experience points contribute to provide you with the opportunity to buy new in-game items using your chips. These items are all aesthetic and range from clothing or animations which carry between games, to ways to customise the games you host like different card backs or table felts. Purely superficial rewards like these might seem like a cheap and insubstantial prize in another game, but here being able to add your own visual touch to the games you host makes them feel a little more personal, and the “chip trick” animations which you can perform during games using specific button combinations are enjoyable to pull off. Not all is well with the graphical aspects of WSoP however.
You’ll begin to notice something’s up as soon as you boot the game and you’re greeted with an opening in which the live-action shots of Poker games play perfectly smoothly but gameplay footage stutters and falters, and then you hit the menus which you can’t scroll through as quickly as you might like because they have an obviously high input latency. These set the stage for one of WSoP’s most irksome flaws: it drops more frames than a clumsy window fitter. Keep in mind this is coming from someone who is by no means a stickler for framerates, but when you can see regular gameplay dropping below 10 FPS it’s hard not to feel that an unacceptable performance is being given for what is not by any stretch a graphically demanding task. Generally these dips in framerate are more prone to happen at specific times or on specific tables, but they shouldn’t happen anywhere, and neither should the momentary hanging that the game is capable of conjuring up. Given what it is, connection times to get into matches are also surprisingly lengthy. This is a particular problem when you’re jumping between tables, trying to find one that feels comfortable, e.g. one that doesn’t have a 2,500 buy-in but a player who bets 700 chips before every flop. Then there’s the camera.
To be fair, some good use of the camera is made at times. At the end of a hand it will orient itself in front of players, sometimes using a split-screen effect if two players are duking it out over a pot, and you can see the avatars lay their cards out on the table and their final reactions to the outcome. If you managed to muscle everyone else into folding there’s even the option to reveal one, both, or neither of your cards to other players at this point, which allows you to lightly influence how other players perceive your strategy. Outside of these scenarios however, the camera rarely feels like it’s in an ideal position.
You can always see what cards are on the table in the game’s graphical overlay and you can rotate the camera around the table to try and get a good view, but attempt to do anything apart from place it top-down over the play space and you’ll usually find that either the camera is too low to the table to give a good view of the cards, or that your line of sight is obstructed by players, and wherever you place the camera you can’t get a good view of the any of the avatars from the front which somewhat invalidates the idea of having them sitting around a table, happily gesturing away. Many camera angles, including the top-down view also cut off the thought bubbles which appear above players’ heads indicating how much they’re betting, how much longer they’ve got to make a move, etc. Sometimes though, it’s best you don’t see the avatars, as interactions between these virtual doppelgangers can feel uncanny and lifeless. Some avatars might talk to other avatars even when their supposed conversation partners seem oblivious to their existence, or a few of them may spontaneously stand up in unison at the end of a hand only for their chairs to slide forwards and clip through their legs before they sit right back down again. What the avatars do best is act as a way to reflect the natural emotions you feel upon winning or losing a hand, but in certain ways they seem more like glass-eyed dolls than people.
Then come the disheartening imbalances and manipulations which we’ve come to expect from free-to-play games. I don’t really mind the game letting you use real money to purchase XP boosts or aesthetic items, I’m not even particularly adverse to it giving you new chips every 12 hours you return to it. It seems like a ploy to keep you compulsively coming back to the game, but it does provide a much needed safety net to stop players from completely bankrupting themselves. No, the bit where this all falls apart for me is where you can straight-out buy chips. I understand why it’s there, it’s not that surprising, but remember this isn’t like an online Poker site where you can buy chips and cash them out, this is an F2P game played purely for fun, but where the most tangible reward of the game can simply be bought. What’s more, because people with more chips are in a better position to make wild gambles or try and bet high to strongarm other players out of pots, this means you can essentially buy your way into having power in games. WSoP simply manages to present the kind of purchasing opportunities which give microtransactions a bad name.
So if you’re just looking for an active Poker game on the Xbox 360, World Series of Poker: Full House Pro may be exactly what you want. It’s good old-fashioned Texas Hold ‘Em with an XP system and some customisation options thrown in, and it’s totally free. However, if you’re seriously looking for a quality Poker game, you needn’t lose any sleep over passing up WSoP, a title with significant technical, graphical, and animation issues, and a groanworthy microtransaction setup.