The rise in popularity of Poker has been quite phenomenal during the past decade. What was once a relatively small card game, confined to the glitzy bricks and mortar Casinos, has now grown to such an extent that it can be played almost anytime and anywhere from virtual arenas on the internet, games consoles, mobile devices, or even through your television set.
With professional leagues and championships being televised, thanks in no small part through the use of mini-cameras that make players’ hands visible to viewers, it’s even become something of a spectator sport with top professionals capable of earning big money and enjoying celebrity status.
Popular or not, with a perfectly-good Poker game already available on Xbox Live Arcade (in the form of Texas Hold ‘Em), Microsoft and Krome Studios needed to try something a bit different to make Full House Poker stand out. And they have, by making it an Avatar-enabled game.
Anyone who has ever played Poker, watched one of the televised events, or even just seen the game incorporated in a movie scene will know that one of the keys to success is “reading” the players themselves, along with the cards. There’s an element of this in Full House Poker due to players being represented by their Xbox Live Avatars, capable of performing some emotes and player actions.
Although fairly limited and simple, these actions are certainly quite effective at giving the game some personality and can actually prove to be useful tools with which to outwit and bluff your opponent. For example anyone, whether they be CPU or Human, is going to be wary of a player who aggressively raises the stakes by forcibly slamming down their chips.
Another interesting feature of Full House Poker is the levelling-up system. A liberal amount of experience points (XP) is awarded to the player for good play and generally just for taking part, so even a complete novice will earn some. As more and more XP is acquired the player levels-up, which in turn makes an assortment of unlockable content available.
These unlocks are mostly cosmetic and allow the venue and décor to be changed, or make it possible to personalise the player’s appearance and behaviour with new clothing and chip-shuffling tricks. Of greater importance is the removal of the shackles from some of the “Pro” players and the unlocking of new rules and higher bet / buy-in limits with which to customise Single Player games.
There are nine of these so-called Pro’s who are generally tougher to read than the normal CPU players and have their own playing style and personalities. Each of them can be faced in turn via the Pro Showdown mode, with the final event being a Tournament incorporating all of them.
Whilst the plethora of unlocks, levelling-up and of course Achievements can make playing the Single Player side of the game surprisingly engaging, like UNO and other card games, Full House Poker really comes into its own when played with Xbox Live opponents. Ranked and Normal play is available, with the latter being customisable and including the option for CPU players to fill any empty seats at the table. The main event though, and the reason why Full House Poker has been cited by many as the spiritual successor to the short-lived quiz game of 1 vs. 100, is the Texas Heat mode.
Like the scheduled events in 1 vs. 100, Texas Heat is presented as a “live” massively multiplayer online tournament with a time limit and big (virtual) rewards on offer. The player starts off with a seat at the base-level table and, if successful, can be promoted to higher-ranked tables featuring bigger rewards and betting limits.
However, play badly and relegation to the lower ranks will be on the cards, along with the possibility of being penalised by being unable to earn any XP for a specified number of hands. At the end of each show a number of bonus rewards are made available to the players who earn the most XP, or those who had the best winning hands.
With the time limit and large rewards on offer, Texas Heat is definitely the most exciting mode in the game. The social aspect is also quite palpable and gives a nice feeling of participation. First-timers will no doubt end up checking the schedule to see when the next show begins since it’s a lot of fun.
Gambling regulations probably mean that “real” rewards like Microsoft Points or XBLA games cannot be given away as prizes like they were in 1 vs. 100, and for some this will be a deal-breaker, since not everyone sees the logic in simulated gambling. However for social and competitive play, this is still a strong title that we predict will always have plenty of people playing for a long time.