Without the benefit of any kind of official tournament licence, World Championship Poker 2 is forced to do something that other poker games have singularly failed to do until now. It has to innovate. It has to do more than simply present you with a game of cards against the computer. And, much to our surprise, that is indeed exactly what it does.
On the one hand, it's a perfectly decent poker simulator. You can play it on your lonesome, or against other Amarillo Slim wannabes over Live. There are plenty of different rule variations to fiddle with for those adventurous enough to go beyond your basic hold 'em, and, crucially, the computer AI is sharp enough to give you a convincing game. With so many previous poker titles falling down thanks to computer players making ridiculous bets on mediocre hands, it's something of a relief to play against AI characters that actually know the difference between holding and folding.
World Championship Poker 2 also features a decent range of tutorials, taking you step by step through each of the different poker variations on offer. They're not perfect, and they're a little text-heavy in places, but just having them included instantly makes this a better, more approachable game for poker virgins.
So far so good, then, but it's the single-player career mode where things really begin to take off. Starting out as a rank amateur in your parents' dilapidated basement, you must work your way around the world, entering increasingly higher profile tournaments. No change there, then. But rather than simply picking your way through a generic list of poker tournaments, never feeling as though you're really getting anywhere, here you get to plough any cash you win straight back into your basement, transforming it from a dirty squat into a veritable palace of cool. As a visual pointer, it's certainly the nicest career-progression system we've seen in a poker game on Xbox.
But it's the unique, interesting twists on the standard poker format that really win it for World Championship Poker 2. Make a bold bluff, or bet on a really strong hand, and you'll be switched to an analogue stick-tweaking mini-game, where the aim is to keep your 'poker face'. Start winning tournaments and you'll even gain experience that can be spent on abilities such as automatically calculating pot odds, or being able to read if your opponents are bluffing or not. These are great, novel little touches that show some real thought has gone into making a decent career mode.
Sadly, the same thing can't be said for the presentation. Graphically, this is the weakest of all the poker games we've played. It looks rubbish, to be frank, and the range of character types and backgrounds isn't much better either. You're better off turning the sound down too, as the grating lift music and speech samples are almost enough to incite violence. Okay, so none of this will matter to you if all you're interested in is the cards, but 30 quid is a lot to spend on something that looks and sounds this feeble.
Presentational quibbles aside, though, this is a really good game. A bit more polish (and by 'a bit' we mean 'a lot'), a few more career options and some recognisable licensing and this could become an essential purchase for poker fans. Enter EA stage left perhaps?
Some novel additions and a great career mode make this the best poker game on Xbox so far. Shame it looks so rough.
- Brilliant single-player career mode, offering you a great sense of progression and even RPG elements.
- Decent computer players ensure you get a good game, whether you're a novice or an expert.
- Plenty of decent poker variations and full tutorials for which means it's ideal for poker newcomers.
- It looks rubbish, with a distinct lack of quality and variety in both the characters and the background visuals.
- As good as the career mode is, we still think there could have been more tournaments on offer, especially licensed ones.