Sometimes, having familiarity with a product or the concept of a product is very helpful when I’m doing a review. Sometimes, having familiarity with the concept can be a detriment when doing a review, because you know when things aren’t up to snuff for the material at hand (see my review on X-Men: The Official Movie Game as an example). Either way, games usually get assigned based on the fact that the reviewer has familiarity with the genre, the product, or the concept. That’s why Stacked with Daniel Negreanu wound up on my plate.
I’m the poker fanatic here at GamingNexus. Between online play at various poker sites and my competition in a monthly tournament (2 wins and 6 cashes in the past 18 months), I’ve become somewhat of a serious player. I’m probably only the 5th or 6th best player of the folks I play with regularly, and have only been playing for less than 3 years. So, I’m not a great player, but I’ve improved a great deal in that time. I bring that history up because it’s the basis for some of my opinions later.
I’m going to get a few things out of the way for the poker novices among you: Stacked with Daniel Negreanu is a poker game from Myelin for PS2, Xbox, and PC that focuses entirely on tournament or cash game Limit and No-Limit Texas Hold ‘Em. Texas Hold ‘Em is a game made popular through endless television coverage of the World Series of Poker and its competitors.
In Texas Hold ‘Em, Each player gets two cards of his or her own and five additional cards are placed in the middle of the table. There are four rounds of betting (after the players cards are dealt, after the first three shared cards are revealed (“the flop”), after the 4th shared card (“4th street”, or “turn”), and after the 5th shared card (“5th street”, or “the river”). Once all the betting is complete, the players remaining in the hand reveal their cards, and the best hand made up of any five of the seven cards available to each player (the 2 cards dealt to the player plus the 5 shared cards) is the winner.
Daniel Negreanu, aka “Kid Poker”, was in 1998 the youngest person ever to win an event in the World Series of Poker (hence the nickname). He was the CardPlayer magazine 2004 Player of the Year, and has amassed nearly $7.5 million dollars in career winnings. He has an ideal personality for television (and in this case, video games) and has become one of the most recognized players in professional poker.
Any person who has played a console or PC card game will tell you that the strength of the game is based almost completely on the games AI. And the AI the in Stacked is the Poki AI developed over the past 10 years by the University of Alberta's Poker Research Group. The Poki AI is a “learning” AI: it adapts its tactics in real-time to exploit the user's playing style by detecting tendencies and uses these tendencies to make decisions of its own.
The Poki AI has been implemented in Stacked by creating eight different “personalities” from the very conservative player to the extremely aggressive player. Each personality makes use of the avatar creation system in the game, so when you first sit down at a new table, you have no idea if “Joe” is the Joe you took a huge pot from on a bluff, or if it’s the Joe who took you down by check-raising you on the flop when you had top 2 pairs only to reveal a straight.
The avatar system in the game is the best I’ve seen in any poker game to date. Most players aren’t exactly eye candy, but the important thing is that there are enough unique base models to be able to differentiate between the players at your table. You can customize clothes, accessories, and etc. to get the look you want for your virtual rounder.
The game offers three single player modes: cash play, tournament play, or career mode. In cash play, you simply choose a game and stakes (minimum bet per hand) sit down, and start playing until either you decide to stop, or you’re out of money. Tournament play is where you buy in for a set amount and play until you’re out of chips or you’re the winner. Finally there’s the career mode, where you can start making your way to the top of the poker world, (where you may wind up going up against one of several poker superstars who have leant their likeness to the game) or go bust and wind up needing to borrow money from Daniel Negreanu himself to start over again.
I started by sitting through a tournament. I played a limited number of hands to try and see how easy it would be to figure out the what level of AI I was up against in the Avatars at my table. It took me only about 40 hands to figure out exactly which of the personalities I was up against in the players in front of me. The conservative players played ultra conservative, and the aggressive players are ultra aggressive. The Poki AI bots in Stacked seemed to be pre-tuned, so while they appeared to be learning my tendencies, it didn’t really seem like it was making all that much of a difference in their decisions. It’s hard to tell when the appearance of the player would change each game, but over time I think I maybe noticed 10% of hands where the game seemed to be interacting with me as opposed to the personality reading its hand and playing to its programming.
Online play is another whole ball of wax. The relatively small number of players online made it difficult to find a game during the period in which I reviewed the game. Players can start tournaments of their own or search for tournaments that have been started by others. Finally, most of the online players seemed to be underage kids, which makes sense for a poker game that is not involving money. Their game play was rudimentary, and while most of them talked like they were major poker stars, most didn’t play like it.
The controls are simple and to the point. You can control your avatars apparent reaction to a hand, a bet, or any action at all. Choosing a chip amount is as simple as moving a thumbstick up and down. And the best feature of all is the Pro-Tips provided by Daniel Negreanu during the hand. Based on the strength of your hand, the number of players in the hand, and where you are in betting position, the game will tip you as to suggested actions, with Daniel providing the tip in recorded audio.
One thing I was disappointed about was the limited number of environments in which to play. There are only a couple of casino options and of those, only one is available to begin the game. While licensing the look and feel of real casino poker rooms was probably out of budget and scope for this game, giving the player a few more choices would have been nice.
For my opinion on the game play, I can sum it up best as follows: Any experienced poker player will tell you that playing for fun and playing for money are two totally different experiences. There’s some fun that can be had when you’re just playing the computer or against others online, but the tension and excitement is diminished without any real risk.
Online play in Stacked is a good bit slower than most online poker sites when it comes to game play. (In the single-player game, you can speed up AI play in a hand once you’ve left the hand.) In addition, because most skilled players are out playing for cash, the skill levels makes it difficult to judge how well you’re playing the game against others of commensurate skill.
Even with its issues, the game does have a saving grace: A poker tutorial by Daniel Negreanu. Daniel goes through the basics all the way up through advanced strategies, bluffing, etc. Each segment of the video is well written and succinct. Negreanu’s personality shines through in each segment and he does an excellent job of covering the topic at hand.
In short, I would recommend this game to anyone but the very experienced poker player. Between the custom avatars, multiple game play options, and the online play novices will feel like they’ve just entered the World Series of Poker. Those with only some experience will benefit from play against the AI, as well as online play and by watching the tutorial. But for experienced players, the game will feel like it has all the show of a Las Vegas casino, but with not enough of a risk/reward ratio to make you want to join the players club and head to a table.
Beginners and intermediate Texas Hold ‘Em players will love the custom avatars, multiple unique AI, and the chance to play against digital renditions of poker superstars. Experienced players will want to skip Stacked with Daniel Negreanu and head over to their favorite online poker site.