Developer: Point of View
Release Date: August 29, 2006
I stink at poker. I really do. In real life, I'm the guy you want to play against, so the measure of how accurate World Championship Poker: Featuring Howard Lederer - All In is to the real-life game can be easily measured by seeing whether I'm any better in a virtual environment.
The short answer is that I was just as terrible and lost just as often in the game as I do in real poker. The longer answer, and considering the bigger picture, is that this game is to other poker titles what I am to Mr. Lederer himself. That is to say it's functional, but technically lacking in several areas.
You can play as a half dozen real-life poker pros, like Howard Lederer, Erin Ness, Marcel Luske, and Annie Duke, or there's a create-a-character mode to build your own avatar to sit in with lots of other very ordinary, stereotypical-looking players, all with cookie-cutter personalities to match their faces. The character editing has a lot of options for goofy hairstyles, skin types (including undead), body types, and clothing. The big, big drawback here is that the textures and poly counts on the models look like something off the cutting room floor for a PS1 game. I could literally count the pixels on some of the accessories.
Really, the entire visual presentation of All In is painfully underwhelming, looking at least an entire generation behind and woefully out of date. Does calculating poker hands really demand so much of the PS2 that the visuals had to suffer so badly? The backgrounds are boxy, the tabletops are pixelated, and the corny map you use to navigate around in Career mode takes a backseat to a Monopoly board in terms of complexity and ocular appeal. The console is capable of better-looking and better-animated character models, but that apparently wasn't the focus here.
The sound department isn't much better. You'll hear most of the character quips in the game within the first hour, meaning it's all repetition from there. The music is pretty easy to ignore, except when it randomly skips around, thrown off constantly by inexplicable load times.
Ahh yes, loading, loading, loading. Let's go back to the character creation screen for a minute. Want to see what the next pair of glasses looks like on your toon? Give it a few seconds to load them. Next body type? Well you could be sitting for half a minute. SSX has this same exact accessory preview feature, but does it with flat sprites and works just as well, and lightning fast, to boot. Just starting up the game or switching modes demands a lot more loading than seems necessary. It's poker, for Pete's sake. This isn't God of War, Drakan or Transformers.
As for multiplayer, you have to option to play alone or online; there's no offline multiplayer. I wanted to play this with my roommates, and as a poker game, it should have been capable of doing so. One could argue that if I had those friends here already, I should just play in real life, but never mind that. For something as simple as poker, offline multiplayer seems like a no-brainer.
Playing online isn't much better, either. The graphical interface goes right out the window and reverts to just names and cards. So with no offline multiplayer and no ability to take your avatar online, what's the point? There was only one game going when I signed on, and it had a ridiculously high buy-in. The problem there is that your buy-in ability exists only if you've made enough money in the offline Career mode to afford it. That could take ages to accumulate and makes playing online impossible for people who had just purchased the title.
One redeeming quality of All In is that it works okay as a tutorial for those who at least roughly understand poker but just want to practice. There are dozens of game types here, ranging from the all-too-popular Texas Hold 'Em to Five-Card Stud, Omaha Hi-Lo to H.O.R.S.E., and everything in between. There are ways of playing I'd never seen before, and they only take a hand or two to learn. However, it's not designed to teach you how to play or offer tips for those just starting out. While each type of "hand" (two pair, flush, full house, etc.) is listed from the pause menu, you'll have to get the hang of odds and knowing when to call/raise/fold on your own.
Something else that could be viewed as a weakness is that there are many other online poker games that allow you to bet real money. This game does not. It's all virtual, and unless you can consistently beat the guys in the offline mode, you're not going to have anything to bet with in the online community. I can see Gameshark money hacking becoming very popular here, essentially destroying the economy of the game.
Sticking with Career mode and doing well awards you more money and skill points to improve your pad and your underlying in-game poker skills, like being able to read other players' reactions, improve your hand strength, or bolster your luck, all of which mean nothing outside of the actual game. Many of these skills are applied and improved by playing odd mini-games, but these amount to little more than indicators on the screen. If the graphics were significantly better and they applied the PS2's much-tooted "Emotion Engine," maybe you could read things right off a player's face.
EyeToy, USB Headsets, and USB Keyboards are all supported to bolster your online experience, but by that time, you've practically built a PC, which is where this kind of thing is already flourishing.
The devs included some ways to minimize the pain of playing All In, including changing viewpoints between switch-cam, overhead static, and first-person. They also have different speed settings at which the dull parts (dealing cards, raising/calling, etc.) can be accelerated. However, certain types of poker have a discard phase, and for some reason, this is always annoyingly slow, regardless of the speed setting. Even on the "Extreme" turbo setting, I could to make a sandwich during eight players' discard phases and not miss a thing. You can generally pound away on the X button to get back to your turn, and you can sometimes auto-set it to Check/Fold or Call Any for you, which is nice, but not nearly enough to save this sinking ship.
In this day and age of graphics over gameplay, no one would buy a PS2 title if the only things they saw were actual cards. That sort of presentation is reserved for Flash games and Live Arcade, which wouldn't be considered "real games." With those as alternatives, however, I'd pass entirely on World Championship Poker: Featuring Howard Lederer - All In. I didn't necessarily expect it to make me a better poker player, but I did at least expect it not make the experience of playing actually more tedious, uninspiring, and unattractive. It's little more than a me-too cash-in on a popular trend, and not a well-executed one at that.