Publisher: Myelin Media
Release Date: May 30, 2006
The success of poker in recent years can be attributed to any number of things. ESPN began covering it with their now-widespread pocket card camera angles. The movie "Rounders" became a huge hit on cable, leading to an innumerable number of people thinking that poker was never a game of luck, but always of skill. Most importantly, however, might be the internet boom, which brought about web sites such as Party Poker, allowing players to raise against others at any time. This led to millions of users, both young and old, looking for challenges as they honed their skills online. Suddenly, the "World Series of Poker" was featuring no-names winning; guys who had been playing online poker were winning millions. The entire game changed, and as the popularity continued to increase, so did the number of video game adaptations, most recently with Stacked with Daniel Negreanu.
Designed with accessibility in mind, the title features Negreanu giving players helpful tips as they progress through career mode and attempt to rise through the ranks of the poker elite. Joining him are a host of other professional poker players and digitized competitors who are trying to send you packing.
For those who know nothing about poker, there is a fairly in-depth and lengthy tutorial featuring Negreanu. According to him, anyone can play and win in Texas Hold 'Em games, and if Stacked is good for anything, it might be this tutorial. The way it is presented allows for novices to comprehend a complex game, or veterans to learn just a bit more. In all reality, this feature might be more interesting than the actual game, as it will teach you things in an afternoon that it takes years to understand through playing.
The game could not be any simpler to play. You are given the standard options to call, raise or fold, along with a few other choices. Players can frown or smile to try throwing opponents off their hands. Negreanu can also be asked for help on every hand, although he seemed to tell me to throw it out quite a bit. This "Ask Madden" -like feature really helps out those who are unsure about poker or have the occasional mental lapse while holding hands that are never going to win. Gameplay is fairly standard for a poker title, however, with nothing particularly special about the core mechanics.
One of the key differences in Stacked versus other games is the specially designed A.I., which supposedly learns as you play. Each move you make is calculated along with any facial gestures or groans. Just like in the real game, opponents can size you up and try to determine if you have a winning hand. For a title that features nothing but standard Hold 'Em, it is important that the A.I. be strong, and for all intents and purposes, it is. There really does seem to be changes at the table as the game goes on, especially toward the end, as pros skewer you for making bad calls. Even with the A.I. being what it is, poker is a game to play against others, and Stacked tries to provide that experience.
Featuring an online mode that holds true to the single-player formula, you are given the chance to compete against friends or enemies. The problem? Why go through the trouble of playing an average console game when you can just load a room online and keep surfing or checking your email? It truly is strange that anyone would rather play this online than any number of sites, which are far more fun. Visually, the console game is a giant step up from any of those online offerings, but how important is that to anyone who really wants to play? Worst of all is that this is not real money. So, after an all-day tournament of Stacked, I can walk away with … well, I guess I could say some dignity, but nothing in the way of cash.
It's a shame really because even with the game playing well enough over the 'net, there is just no real incentive to make others buy this title just to play with them. You could download a free program and do the exact same thing, talking over Skype or Ventrilo, and have a far better time with real money. The game also moves at a slow pace and is made slower by individual players, so speed is definitely an issue. Similarly, it's hard to even find an online game in Stacked, so when you do, you are forced to just sit and wait for your opponents to ever-so-carefully make their calls. It's an irritating concession to make and one that only makes players want to play on their PCs again.
Graphically, Stacked is average at best. The environments are not actual casinos, so the chance to play at the real haunts of world poker champions is impossible. More importantly, however, they are empty of life and not really particularly interesting. The character models also leave much to be desired; although not terrible, seeing similar characters through hours of Stacked makes you want human competitors that much more. Audio-wise, the dialogue is terrible. Hearing the computer characters speak a few times is all right, but with the same monotonous comments over and over, you're ready to turn it down by the end of a single game.
It should be said that although Texas Hold 'Em is the preeminent online and real-life poker game, a few more options would have been fun. People do still play the Stud and Omaha variations of poker, but neither is present in Stacked. That really limits the replay value of this title because although mastering Hold 'Em is impossible, playing the same exact game can get old. Even with the different betting limits, by the end of career mode, I found myself growing tired of Hold 'Em in Stacked. It is important that I say "in Stacked" because the real game is still interesting against other humans; it's just that here, it seems to grow tiring with repeated playings.
Poker's success lies in its complications through its own simplicity. You can know nothing and win with the same hand that a world poker champion might lose on because even with all the strategy in the world, there is still luck involved. Stacked seems to keep things fairly accurate to the real game in that regard. This is a title that a poker enthusiast should try out and a novice might want to look at for the tutorials alone. With the chance to transfer between the PSP and PS2 versions coming eventually, there are even more options for someone who wants to really commit to Stacked. However, casual fans or those who have no need to play a game like Stacked need not apply here. With too little in the way of additional options, it becomes almost a chore to play this game for the non-enthusiast. However, Stacked has its merits, especially as a tutorial, so it is worth a try for those interested in Texas Hold 'Em and all of its different intricacies.
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