Publisher: Myelin Media
Release Date: October 6, 2006
The game of poker has seen an incredible rise in popularity in recent years, mostly due to the proliferation of online poker havens and cable television tournaments. Since it is generally accepted that "art" (and entertainment) often imitate life, it was only a matter of time before we experienced a substantial increase in the number of poker games to hit the gaming shelves.
Stacked with Daniel Negreanu provides players with a solid game of Texas Hold 'em poker, which is probably the most popular poker game being played today, and Stacked may feature about the best poker-playing AI to date. As a single player, you'll have the option of either playing a quick game or spending several hours in a single-table or multi-table tournament. Online play features both Internet-based and Ad-Hoc PSP-to-PSP gameplay. Stacked comes with an 18-page reference manual that includes game mode details and a brief explanation of Texas Hold 'em poker.
If you are new to Texas Hold 'em or the game of poker in general, Stacked includes its own "poker school." There is no two-way interaction or tests in this school, but you can sequence through or select from 15 video tutorials hosted by Daniel Negreanu. Although it feels a bit strange to have video-based game tutorials, the information is provided in concise, well-organized portions that are easy to understand. The tutorials cover the rudimentary concepts of playing Texas-Hold 'em Poker, as well as the rankings of each type of winning hand possible in the game of poker.
Stacked focuses entirely on playing Texas Hold 'em, so you won't find a variety of different poker games, such as baseball or even 5-card stud. The only game variations include limit/no-limit, cash and tournament play. Limit/no-limit places or removes limitations on the maximum allowable bet during the four betting rounds in Texas Hold 'em. The cash variation allows you the most flexibility because you can come and go from the table and bet what you like, regardless of the round. The tournament play variation requires each participating player to buy into the game by purchasing chips. All players start out with the same amount of chips, and the winner (and house) takes all.
From the main menu, you'll choose to either play a quick game or start a career game. Quick Play mode in Stacked is perfect for playing a quick game without worrying about it affecting your career mode stats. You don't even need to worry about setting up a player. In the career mode, you can simulate playing as a professional player, and as you play successfully, you unlock additional professional players, tournaments, and casinos with larger stakes. In this mode, you'll still have the option to play in either the cash games or the single- and multi-table tournaments.
Stacked does a fairly decent job of recreating the poker-playing environment, with flashy casinos, tables, players and dealers. Information is laid out in a reasonable configuration on the screen; pots are tallied and displayed in the upper right-hand corner, while player information is displayed on the left. When you set up your player, you're given the opportunity to customize your own appearance, right down to the body shape. The game's sound effects are not spectacular, but they do an acceptable job of simulating the environment. There does seem to be a problem with the sound when you ask Daniel Negreanu for advice; his voice is extremely high-pitched, almost like it has been sped up. I would've liked to see a background music option in lieu of the periodic game chatter because although typical interactions and comments from players are somewhat adjustable, they can become repetitive over time.
The Stacked interface is fairly well-designed and can be mastered within 15 minutes. The overall presentation is uncluttered, and the flow of the game is easily followed. You can quickly scroll through your play options or activate a slide-out icon menu to activate more advanced options such as getting advice, making facial gestures or accessing the chat system. You can even select actions prior to your turn, and they'll be executed at the correct time. Your hole cards can be reviewed in a convenient pop-up window with a single button press. The facial gesture feature is an interesting element of the game, but I didn't find that it had any real impact on actual gameplay. The game features the ability to ask for advice from Daniel Negreanu while playing, and while this feature seemed to provide reasonably accurate recommendations, I did find myself questioning a few of them. Then again, I'm not a professional poker player, so I may have missed a more subtle point.
Stacked utilizes an AI system known as Poki, which is apparently the result of over 10 years of game theory, machine learning and neural networks. From my own personal observations, playing against the various Poki players with their own unique playing styles didn't result in noticeable differences in gameplay. The Poki AI system can be a formidable opponent, regardless of the style or strategy it may be applying, but I was able to trip the AI up on rare occasions, although it quickly adjusted its play style to prevent a reoccurrence of the same tactics. The AI tends to play on the slightly conservative side, and although this may be considered a sensible strategy, it can take some of the excitement out of the game, especially when you're playing a cash game and the pot is hardly worth taking.
Stacked allows you to go online to compete with others around the world as long as your PSP Wi-Fi connection has access to the Internet (Infrastructure Mode). Unfortunately, my visit to the online community (http://stacked.mtv.com) was a bit disappointing, as it appears the interest in keeping the online system alive has waned for the hosts and the community. Although you'll have no trouble signing up for an online account, the last online tournament date listed was in February of 2007. After multiple searches, I couldn't even locate a player-hosted game to join or watch. As unfortunate as this seems, Stacked also fully supports direct Wi-Fi connections in Ad-Hoc mode, which allows you to link directly to another PSP locally, so a human vs. human game will always be possible if you're in close proximity to another Stacked player.
When all is said and done, what players really want from a poker simulation is a challenging and rewarding game. With its advanced adaptive learning system, Stacked probably offers the best single-player Texas Hold 'em game currently available. If you're more interested in playing against others, your best option will be to host local ad-hoc games with friends, since the online gaming element of Stacked seems to have lost support both from the community and its organizers. Despite a few sharp edges, Stacked comes up a winner and is worthy of adding to your PSP library.
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