Publisher: Myelin Media
Release Date: May 30, 2006
Before I get started, let me just get something out of the way: I love Texas Hold 'em, but I'm not very good at it. This means I'm looking at Stacked to help me get better as a practice tool for the World Series of Poker.
I play online on pokerstars.net, but I have a hard time getting into it. The top-down view bugs me, and since I only play on the funny money tables, I've run into more idiots than decent human beings. I've played World Championship Poker 2 on my PSP, but I'm turned off by its broad view. Its career mode forces you to play all types of poker, but I just want to play Hold 'Em. Stacked only deals (no pun intended) in Hold 'Em, thrilling me to no end. I had the chance to play it on both PSP and the PC, and it'll also be out for PS2 and Xbox. It's a testament to how much fun I had that even though I ran into some serious, progress-stopping bugs on the PSP build I received (more on those in a bit) that the UMD disk is still in my travel pack until the retail version comes out.
At the heart of Stacked is the POKITM artificial intelligence system. People with too much time on their hands spent over 10 years doing university research studying game theory and machine learning to develop what they hope is the ultimate Hold 'Em playing machine. How'd you liked to be in the room when they made that pitch to the dean? As I said earlier, I'm not the greatest player, so it's hard for me to get a feel on just how great the AI played, but the first complete muti-table, no-limit tournament I played in, I was able to win. I attribute this to two things: my cat standing on the keyboard, forcing me to push in on what I thought was a weak hand, but broke into a winning flush; and the helpful advice of Daniel Negreanu, a top player with over 35 tournament victories who has given his name and advice to Stacked.
Unlike World Championship Poker 2, if you get stuck on whether to play 'em or fold 'em, you can ask Daniel for advice. While it's quite helpful, most of the time the tip will be, "You gotta get rid of that hand buddy," or "Call 'em!" There were times he advised me to bet big on what I thought were garbage hands, and I'd have liked to receive more feedback on why he recommended them. I couldn't tell if there was a legitimate reason for it I wasn't good enough to see, or if he thought I stood chance of bluffing my way through. In addition to his in-game advice, there's a Poker School where he gives an overview of hand rankings, bluffing, table position, etc. It's very helpful, but I'd have been happier if a lot of these were also wrapped into his in-game advice.
Stacked boasts what looks to be an impressive single-player career mode. You'll start off with one unlocked casino, the Brattle Born. As you progress through the ladders, you'll unlock two others (the Stratosphere Casino and Stratosphere Tower) and seven pro players (Evelyn Ng, Erick Lindgren, Jennifer Harman, David Williams, Josh Arieh, Juan Carlos Mortensen, and of course, Daniel Negreanu). To unlock these, you'll need to place or win a variety or tournaments, which is where I ran into the aforementioned problem with the PSP build.
If I tried a multi-table tournament, the PSP consistently hard-locked during the tournaments, blocking my progress. It appears the problem occurred when the game attempts to re-balance the tables as players are eliminated. Normally, I'd just say it's inevitably going to get fixed before release, but it's potentially too huge an issue to ignore. So, if you're going to get this for the PSP, check the early PSP-specific reviews to see if this is still a problem. While I could probably progress through the single-table tournaments for most of career mode, the single-table tourneys require you to win most of them, and the early ones are limit tables, an area of poker at which I'm especially weak. Also, you can only unlock some things by winning multi-table tournaments. I only ran into this problem on the PSP, but this bug definitely does not affect the PC version.
Where Stacked has the potential to shine is multiplayer, an area I wasn't able to test. It appeared that some of the multiplayer bits were active on the preview builds, but there weren't any games running during the many times I looked, which is too bad because playing against living opponents is a true test of one's skill. According to the developers, Stacked is set up for those who just want to play with their buds cross-country or play in massive tournaments. There will also be MTV-sanctioned Masters Tournaments for the best players, and the poker pros who have lent their identities to Stacked will also drop in on the tournaments – the real players, not the in-game bots. While that's all well and good, my feeling is if you're going to buy Stacked for the chance to play against one of the pros, don't hold your breath.
I'm not 100% certain how getting access to the tournaments is going to work, but looking through the list of unlockables, there are prizes such as "Place first and win the Bronze MTV Stacked Masters buy-in chip." I also do not know how often these events will run. Playing in a tournament on the PSP isn't recommended as the game is a battery killer, and a lengthy tournament might be very uncomfortable with the small screen size. I am, however, very curious to see how it integrates with Xbox Live. I wish there were an X360 version that used the achievements on XBL.
The graphics on both the PSP and PC were decent, and they appear to share the same models. There are some subtle differences: the PSP version doesn't show how many chips the other players have, which is an important visual aid. One other subtle visual I liked is that your pocket cards aren't always displayed. I think it'll be a great touch during multiplayer – why does that person keep looking at their hole cards? There's also too much chatter with the other players making too many snide comments, and worse, they're very repetitive. You also can't customize your avatar's voice style.
Since it has been delayed until May 30th, I'm hoping the PSP issues are resolved; while the PC version looks great, I prefer being portable. I'm a sucker for poker games, and both versions impressed me enough to keep Stacked on my radar screen.
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