You gotta know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away and know when to run…and it’s one of those times. by Patrick Evans
June 30, 2006 – Rounders, one of my personal favorite movies, described the tumultuous ups and downs of Hold’em to a tee. Described by Matt Damon as the “Cadillac of Poker,” Hold’em is the only game that can see your full house of 9’s full of Aces go belly up to Aces full of 9’s in a heartbeat. It is because of this that, for some, Hold’em is nearly addictive.
When Daniel Negreanu announced his involvement with Stacked, people took notice. Expectations were moderate at least, as promises of a dynamic AI system that could outplay veterans was to be developed, challenging even the most seasoned players in their own living rooms. The jury is now in on this “dynamic” AI, and the rest of the package, and it seems that Daniel should have known to fold before this bomb hit the market.
Negreanu and company do their best to introduce new players to the game of poker. The tutorial, hosted by Daniel, covers just about every aspect of the game. Topics as simple as hand strength and betting begin the lesson, while advanced topics include calling a bluff, bluffing at a pot against a weaker player, and how to spot bad acting. Negraneau even manages to take jabs at fellow card player Phil Hellmuth during the tutorials to manage a snicker from people familiar with the game from watching ESPN. All in all, the tutorial does a fine job of setting people of all experience levels to succeed against this “superior, lifelike” AI.
It’s a real shame that the rest of the title is a wreck. Players wishing to start a single-player career mode will begin by choosing from a dismal selection of creation options, giving little opportunity for real customization. After creating this avatar, you would begin your career at the open tables, attempting to place high enough in the open tournaments to advance to a qualifier tourney. Qualifying tourneys open the door to the V.I.P tables, which then have a series of tournaments that you can win to unlock pro players (most of which I have never heard of) and advance to even more exclusive tournaments. The career mode, in essence, is really just a search for a cooler pro player to replace your pithy custom character. Customization options are so few that I on two different occasions saw the exact same option combinations at the same table, one time sitting directly next to me.
But, as long as the action on the felt is satisfactory, the needless unlocking and advancing would be ok, right? Well, this is where everything that was promised from developers on this game disappoints. The “advanced” AI that they promised is really anything but. While it does certainly represent humans by slow playing strong hands, betting over the top after a check, taking stabs at pots early with strong hands, and whatnot, it has quirks that severely damage the experience. Take a couple of these examples as evidence:
- In one hand, three players went all in. Their hands were 4-J, J-10, and 4-4.
- In cash games, players would often bet over 15X the blinds before the flop
- More than a couple times, the AI would fall into “raising loops” during cash games.
- Though it may have happened and I couldn’t tell with folds, I never witnessed a computer play raise on a high pair besides an all-in wager.
As I continued to play in tourney after tourney, I noticed that the computer almost never “part-bluffs” a hand, looking to coax a player over the top to trap. In almost every single instance, the computer would slow-play a hand until someone raised, and then would only call. This means that when the computer raised the table minimum after a flop, I could almost always come over the top with a strong bet and see them fold. They never held a strong hand with a limp-in bet, which is disappointing because it gives a huge advantage to a human player.
This advantage would seem negligible when faced with the fact that this games visuals kill any ability to read an opponent on body language. Animations are the same for every model type, preventing a player to try and predict their hand strength based on movement or gesture. This completely eliminates the most important aspect of Texas Hold’em- the ability to play the player, not the cards or the chips. But in a total lapse in logic, the developers decided give you the ability to smile or frown at any point in the game, which in my experience made absolutely no difference in the outcome of a hand. Besides, why would you give an opponent any tell; smiling could denote a good hand, but faking a frown could come off as bad acting. It is defiantly one option they could have forgotten about.
Multiplayer poker is available through online and system link. Playing the game online is fine enough when compared to the rest of this dreary title, giving a slight glimmer of hope for the overall package. But when you think about the abundance of cheap, or free, alternatives for online poker, either on console or PC, then Stacked looks like a dead fish. System link play just seems pointless, since if you have friends and enough money to buy multiple copies of Stacked you should just go get a poker set instead. Trust me, you will respect yourself much more in the morning.
Entire games dedicated to poker are usually a tough sell, seeing as how dozens of websites offer free games to play, but Stacked does nothing but sink the hopes of gamers looking for a way to improve their game at home. The tutorial sets the stage for a pleasurable experience, but shoddy game modes, AI, and visuals kill the moment. I can simply see no reason to drop any time or money into this title when you can get have a much better time and be social by playing poker with friends, coworkers, or with new people online for free.
By Patrick Evans
CCC Staff Writer