Developer: Left Field
Release Date: September 26, 2007
I remember about five years ago when poker was all the rage. You couldn't turn on ESPN without tripping over a Texas Hold 'Em tournament, and even stations like Bravo got into the act with "Celebrity Poker Showdown." My buddies and I would even get together, order some pizza, and break out the cards to perfect our game faces and bluffing skills. At the time, I thought the ride would never end, and that I'd be checking, raising and going all in for the rest of my days. Now however, all I have left is a stack of dusty poker chips and a copy of World Series of Poker 2008: Battle for the Bracelets for the Xbox 360. Unfortunately, pretending to play poker is infinitely more boring than the real thing, and you'd be better served spending $60 to buy into a real poker tournament than playing this game.
The main focus of WSoP '08 is the career mode. You play as a new rookie on the tour with the twin goals of winning money and earning "Player of the Year" points. Choosing your difficulty level will determine both your starting bankroll and the number of events you will be eligible to play. The higher level you tackle, the less cash you have on hand and the more tournaments you can enter. There is a variety of tournaments to attack, featuring everything from staples like No-Limit Texas and Omaha Hold 'Em, to more obscure fare such as Omaha Hi/Lo and Razz. When you eventually exhaust your chips and bow out of a tournament, you'll be invited by various pros to jump into cash games in an effort to bolster your injured bankroll.
The game strives to look and feel like its tournament namesake, complete with television-style presentation, recognizable poker pros and authentic sounds. Unfortunately, the title fails in almost all these categories, and you are left with a half-baked mess.
For starters, the first time you fire up WSoP '08 and take a gander at the screen, you'll likely be simultaneously confused and overwhelmed. The left side of the screen features a list of all players and their chips, the center gives you a shot of the table, the right side features a close-up of the next active player's avatar, the top of the screen is home to a worthless text crawl and the bottom shows which cards are on the table. Does it sound a little busy and confusing? Well, it is, and if you don't know what to expect, you'll likely spend your first couple of tournaments trying to figure out just what it is that you're looking at. I understand that a lot of information needs to be displayed at once in a game like this, but I think WSoP '08 could have done much better by getting rid of the constant shot of the entire table and the crawl that really only serves as a source of advertising and irrelevant poker advice. As it stands, everything onscreen at once is just a bit too much, and the developers would be well-served to clean it up and simplify things before next year's outing.
One thing you'd expect from a licensed poker game is a roster of professional poker players who play the game like their real-life counterparts. Sadly, that isn't the case here. All computer-controlled characters, be they professional or merely seat-filler, are set as either aggressive or defensive players. Once you determine how the other folks at the table are playing, it's fairly easy to develop the strategies necessary to win. Most times, if you commit to super-aggressive play, you can outlast all but the most committed AI characters. From time to time an opponent may try to bluff his or her way through a hand, but it's so rare that it feels more like a fluke than a strategy.
Normally, when you end up head-to-head with another player for a big pot, it's because that character was playing for a draw, and whether or not they continue betting will be a pretty good tip-off as to whether or not they hit the cards for which they were looking. Perhaps the developers thought it would be unfair to include specific playing styles for each pro and therefore make things too hard for amateur card enthusiasts, but honestly, the kind of people who are going to buy this game already know how the pros will play and would likely want to test out their strategies against them.
In addition to the tour professionals, WSoP '08 also features the ESPN announcers who call the televised tournaments. Lon McEachern and Norman Chad provide commentary, but as any sports game fan can tell you, big-name announcers don't always equate to top-notch sportscasting. Unfortunately, since the broadcast team can't see all of the cards, they can't fill the time talking about strategy, potential draws and outs, and ways to play the hand in a given situation. Instead, they are stuck making unfunny comments about ugly flops and over-emoting every time the dealer turns up a new card. I swear, if Chad calls, "Here comes the River!" with the same intensity as Vin Scully narrating the final out of Game 7 of the World Series, I'm going to flip my coffee table. Most of what makes these guys such a great on-air duo is that they have a fair knowledge of the game and can provide genuine analysis on what's happening at the table. This doesn't translate well into a game where they can't talk about anything about what you can already see, so their abilities are mostly wasted.
Compounding the issue of the announcing is the downright awful catchphrases that spew forth from the other players every time they take down a pot. Unless you look forward to gems like, "I wish we could get cold snaps like this where I'm from in August," you'd be best served playing this game on mute and firing up iTunes.
Further damaging the title's sub-par presentation is a case of stiff and ugly graphics. For the most part, players look as if they have plastic skin, and every time I saw the announcers introducing a tournament, I couldn't help but wonder if McEachern had contracted some form of leprosy. The actual characters aren't much better, with a highly limited repertoire of animations and expressions. I lost count of how many times when I called or raised a bet that my character would just grab a random stack of chips, shuffle them around for a bit, and then lay them out. It didn't matter if it was $30 or $3,000 —apparently you just plunk down chips and tell the dealer how much you're betting afterwards.
As if that weren't enough of a slap in the face, WSoP '08 has a horrible tendency to lag, sometimes forcing you to sit for up to 10 seconds before your character takes action. You can't tell me that this game is so taxing on the 360 processor that you can't interrupt one animation for another; that's just inexcusable. However, the felt on the table looks great, and that facial hair sure is detailed, so I guess that's all I'm supposed to expect.
While this is hardly a title I'd recommend to any but the most hardcore poker fans, I should make like Thumper and at least say something nice. For starters, the WSoP '08 has an excellent online mode, and it does offer a few tutorials to teach new poker players a little bit of betting and position strategy. Jumping on Xbox Live allows you to take on real people whose playing styles will likely more closely reflect what you would see in an actual tournament, and continued online play will allow you to develop rivals. Of course, since you aren't playing with real money, you'll still run up against some idiots who will go all in every hand or do nothing but check and fold until you want to embed your cards in their faces, but thankfully these folks seem to be in the minority. While the online play is probably the title's best feature, it's hardly a strong selling point, as you can go on any number of poker web sites and play for free. The game really needs to pack more punch into its modes before it becomes worth the price of admission.
WSoP '08 also offers several tutorials hosted by the tour pros themselves. It's nice to get tips from Phil "the Brat" Helmuth and Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, but even these modes need some work. While the pro will walk you through the first hand of the tutorial, you are on your own after that. It would have been nicer for them to stick with you for every hand and sort of play over your shoulder, but all you're going to get are pre-recorded congratulations or condolences depending on your performance. This mode that could have done so much to teach new players the rules of the game and effective strategies to succeed, but the title seems content to just plop you down at the table and wish you all the best. Chalk this up as a wasted opportunity.
As I reflect on World Series of Poker 2008: Battle for the Bracelets, it's difficult for me to find any reason to recommend to any but the most ardent poker players. If you're the type who will set up the TiVo to record the tournaments airing at 3am or whose greatest dream is finding yourself at the final table of a big Vegas tournament, then you likely already own this game and don't need a reviewer to tell you to play it. However, if you're just a casual poker fan or are looking for a way to brush up on your skills for friendly games, you'd probably be better off just playing online for free. WSoP '08 tries to go all in and steal the pot, but I'm here to call its bluff.