A little less than a year after Microsoft launched the Xbox 360, it released an XBLA game titled Texas Hold 'em. It was a simple game that let people play a few offline or online rounds of Texas Hold 'em poker, a fast-paced version of the original card game. It gained notoriety for being one of the first games that was backed with corporate sponsorship. It also gained notoriety for being a free title for a limited time once that same corporate sponsorship backed off the project. As simple as it was in presentation, it gained a loyal following due to the addictive nature and popularity of the card game it was emulating. Years after that game launched and after the failed attempt in spicing up the game with Texas Cheat 'em, Microsoft has gone back to the popular card game offshoot, this time with a spruced-up presentation and a few addictive elements thrown in for good measure. Despite a few questionable design decisions, Full House Poker ends up being quite a fun title.
Full House Poker only features the Texas Hold 'em variant, and for those unfamiliar with it, it's actually pretty easy to learn. At the start of each game, two players are selected to be the small blind and big blind. The small blind must pay the minimum amount required by the game while the big blind must pay the maximum. Two cards are than distributed, and a round of betting begins. Once the betting amounts are settled, the dealer draws three cards (something called the flop). Another round of betting occurs, followed by the drawing of the fourth card (the turn) then the fifth card (the river) after another round of betting. Using a combination of the two cards in the user's hand and the five cards on the table, the winner is the one with the best hand created according to standard poker rules. The winner then takes all of the chips that have been bet, and play starts again.
The game features a multitude of game types spread across single- and multiplayer modes. The single-player mode houses three different game types that are a little different from one another. Standard mode has you sitting around a table with nine computer-controlled opponents, and you play as many hands as you'd like until you quit. It's an endless mode since you can always buy your way back in the game at any time, so those looking for a few quick hands to play or looking to sharpen up their poker strategy will enjoy this mode the most.
Tournament play is the same as standard mode except that you have to buy your way in the table, and eliminations are permanent. Getting through the tournament nets you the total amount of buy-in chips for that particular tournament. Then there's Pro Takedown, where it's a one-on-one battle against another opponent, and the game only ends when one player completely runs out of chips. The pros involved here aren't real, so those hoping to go up against the likes of Chris Ferguson, Annie Duke or Scotty Nguyen will be out of luck. Each of the pros in the game has his or her own personality and ways to play, so each match is interesting.
Even if you only stick to the single-player modes, you'll notice a couple of little hooks built in to keep you coming back again and again. The biggest hook is experience. Like most multiplayer games in the first-person shooter genre, every hand of poker gives you a certain amount of experience, which translates into things like new felts for the tables, playing card art, chair colors and venues. As expected, experience is given for winning hands, but more is earned through smart and bold playing. Folding at the right time, winning at the river card, or going all-in earns you bonus experience that helps you level up faster. This, in turn, lets you play at the more expensive tournament tables. Experience is also given for simple things like playing a hand, so even those who are terrible at the game can still get something.
Your chip total is another hook since it remains a constant that is tied to your profile. Big wins mean you'll have tons of chips to show off in your bank, and losses means your bank account gets a little lighter. Even though it's all virtual money, you get penalized if you keep making bad plays and just throw in your money without caution; an empty bank account means you'll have to trade in your experience for cash. Even though the effect is negative, it somewhat forces you to learn how to play the game correctly instead of just making plays you normally wouldn't make if real money were on the line. Finally, beating a pro in Pro Takedown allows you to obtain his/her costume for use in the game.
The single-player mode also shows some interesting design choices that could use some work. The biggest one has to do with the pacing. When left alone, the game moves at a smooth, quick pace. Through good hand or bad, each round moves by so quickly that your disappointment or joy won't last too long, keepings you on your toes. This is great, but the fact that the game randomly throws out small tutorial and tip videos breaks that flow. Even though they're only presented in the early levels of play, you wonder why they didn't leave all of it in a tutorial or help section instead of sprinkling it throughout your game.
The other flaw has to do with the costumes won after beating any of the Pro Takedowns. For some reason, the costumes can only be used in the game and aren't given out as Avatar Awards. It's fine if you have nothing but the default outfits and clothing pieces, but if you've begun accumulating awards from other Xbox 360 and XBLA titles or you've spent some cash buying various Avatar clothes in the Xbox Live Marketplace, chances are that your Mjolnir armor and helmet, Super Meat Boy t-shirt, Lady Gaga sunglasses or Lightning outfit would be far more interesting to wear at the table than any poker-themed shirt and hat you'd get from the pros. On the flipside, while the game offers a few Avatar Awards, it's disappointing that you can't flaunt a poker-themed outfit in other games that use Avatars.
Your standard multiplayer mode plays out like you would expect. Both standard play and tournament play are available in player and ranked varieties and, like the single-player game, both affect your overall experience level as well as your bank account. The fast pace of the single-player mode carries over, as each player is given a time limit to determine which play he wants to make. Because of the nature of the game, even games with poor connections seemed to perform fine. A few days removed from launch still produced plenty of online matches, though there were a few times when the game failed to connect despite showing that a few seats were available. Even though human competition always fares better than computer competition, the variety of players you'll meet online, as well as their skill level, is wild enough that both experiences feel almost indistinguishable, with the exception of different Avatars and the presence of voice chat.
The big selling point for the multiplayer is Texas Heat. Like the popular game 1 vs. 100, Texas Heat is designed to be a massive multiplayer experience that takes place at appointed times during the week. It's a faster paced version of tournament mode; your chip lead at certain times during the show determines your next table. Since there will be times when you'll be the only person of that rank in the game, you might get to a table where you're the only human player, but the scoreboard at the end assures you that others are also there. The new addition is something called hot pot, which is achieved once the table's pot reaches a certain amount. The totals in that pot are added to a general pot at the end of the show, and those with high-scoring hands at the end of the show get a piece of that pot in addition to their experience and chip earnings. It may not be giving out real prizes like 1 vs. 100, but it's a nice addition to the main game. With certain theme nights promised as well as unique in-game prizes scheduled for later shows, it may be a feature that gets people to return beyond this initial Spring 2011 season.
Due to the nature of the game, don't expect Full House Poker to be a graphical showcase of the Xbox 360 system. At the same time, it's no slouch in the looks department. The environments are simple but still have some good detail and interesting set pieces. Seeing the pop-art painting of two Avatars, for example, will elicit a chuckle or two the first time you see it. The use of Avatars for your characters automatically gives the game a cartoon look, but it also feels unique. Seeing the different outfits on computer-controlled Avatars is hilarious enough, but going online and seeing the variety of outfits and clothing pieces people have put together ensures that no two sessions will feel alike.
Helping express this personality are the animations. Even though there are only a few animations for playing aggressively or timidly, they add more life to each hand, especially when you've got a full table of characters. The ability to perform chip tricks also adds to that personality and portrays a playfulness that Avatars tend to bring to any game. The animation department, however, is also the source of some of the gaffes in the graphics. The fast motion of cards being dealt by the dealer is fine, but you'll also see plenty of instances where both chips and cards either get magnetized to the player's hand or to the table. It looks sloppy and would have looked better if the items didn't skip around so much during each play. Another problem is that you sometimes show all of your cards before you decide what to show during the end of a play. It doesn't happen often and is only shown for a split second, but it is noticeable.
The game isn't exactly overflowing with sound, but it does what it needs to well enough. No matter which venue you play in, the music is ambient, which makes it perfect mood music. It's relaxing and easygoing but doesn't lull the player into a drowsy state. The effects are exactly what you'd expect from a card game. The dealing of the cards and the clatter of the chips sound good, but you wouldn't expect it to be any other way. The crowd effects help give the game more polish. It's not a boisterous crowd, per se, but you hear lots of sighs when you turn over low-scoring hands after the river card is shown or cheers when you produce the winning hand or claim the pot. The rest of the time, the audio is filled with ambient chatter that immerses you. It creates the atmosphere of a really busy place as opposed to a more sterile environment.
Despite the limitation set by only having one poker mode, Full House Poker is fun to play alone or with others online. As expected, it's more fun if you're playing with live people online, but the allure of accumulating experience points as well as the conditions for giving them out prove to be a factor too enticing to pass up. The fast play per hand ensures that you can get in a good amount of games in a short period of time. It's not perfect, as things like tutorial videos break up the pace and the animations could use some work, but if the Texas Heat shows take off as expected, Full House Poker will have some long legs. It may not have been free like its predecessor, but the presentation and gameplay alone make it worth the price of admission. Fans of Texas Hold 'em poker should definitely pick up this game.
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