You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, and know when to hold X while pressing Up repeatedly.
When I got into reviewing video games, I did not at any point expect to be reviewing games where playing cards were involved. I mean, I like a game of Hearts as much as the next guy putting off writing essays or doing anything else important on the computer - but I wouldn't have thought a card game could constitute a full game release on a major console.
Apparently, though, I don't know what I'm talking about. World Poker Tour 2K6 is not only out for both Xbox and PlayStation 2, but it also blows my assumptions about the quality and production values of virtual card games quite out of the water.
My parents - bless them - taught me how to play poker at age 5. However, this mostly means that I got the gambling bug out of my system during my primary school and intermediate years, and I haven't played more than a couple of hands in the last few years; neither have I encountered any of the other console poker titles (which a quick look around online suggests are poor offerings at best). Given this, I am not ashamed at all to say that for this review I brought in outside help - a friend of mine who is more than ankle-deep in the world of poker-playing, both with a real deck of cards, and online.
World Poker Tour opens with a TV-show-style intro (presumably taken from its parent TV show) which somehow manages to make it look like some kind of wrestling game. Then, you are at the menu screen looking at a character you can safely assume is you. Don't worry - you'll get to customize this fellow far more than is strictly necessary in a game where you spend (almost) all of your time sitting at card tables. But then, who doesn't love messing with appearances in games?
In the game, every player at the table is fully animated, and I was astounded by the game's look, at first. But after the initial shock of actually seeing renderings of people in a card game, you realise that on the scale of what the PS2 or Xbox is capable of, these graphics are not worth writing home about. It's nice to be able to tell all the players apart, but except for a sprinkling of poker stars who have lent their names (the likes of Phil Laak and Evelyn Ng), everyone has ridiculous names like Lou Slips and Ollie Cherhat (okay, the latter I actually think is kind of clever, but that's just me), so they would have faired just as well with some nice 2D cartoon images. And, because we're zoomed out to the point of seeing the players around the table, the cards end up looking on the small-and-distant side.
The comments of the players range from the simply dull - which blends nicely with the monotonous voices of the commentators - to the mildly irritating. There are different voices, but you'll quite likely just want to mute the whole affair and turn up the stereo.
Whatever comments might be made about the presentation of the game, it's mostly just the gameplay that matters. And here at least they've gotten things right. My favourite poker variant, 'Twos, Threes, One-Eyed-Jacks, Man-with-the-Axe, and a Pair of Natural Sevens takes all', isn't there, but then I suspect it may have been invented by my mother. There is nevertheless an impressive range of variants, from the necessary 5 and 7-card Studs and Texas Hold'em to less conventional games like Pineapple.
The AI may not be brilliant, but it is at least competent. Experienced poker players may find themselves quickly surpassing their computerized adversaries, but newbies will definitely be challenged. And, for when the AI gets too easy, World Poker Tour supports online play (including EyeToy options for PS2 players).
There are a couple of gameplay issues. The dealing is very slow, for a start (and I would have picked speed-dealing as one of the strengths of virtual poker...) More annoyingly, though, my poker-playing aide pointed out that the 'blind' (that is, the forced bet imposed on the players immediately following the dealer) goes up way too fast. In an ordinary poker tournament, it seems, the blind would be raised about every 45 minutes; online, the time is more like 15 minutes or so; but in World Poker Tour the blind goes up every 5 minutes, pushing down the scales in favour of luck rather than skill.
One of my favourite features - though I'm not sure what effect it actually has - is the control of emotions. You can have your character react to a draw with satisfaction or disappointment, excitement or depression. Who cares if the AI don't notice (or if they realise that you're bluffing wildly) - it's fun to smile inanely at a lone ace of spades!
All in all though, I'm not sold on the game. It's not that it's bad (though it does have a number of flaws), but rather that I don't see the point in its existence. If you want to play poker, it's much more rewarding to get a game together with your friends - or at least with your rich and naive friends. Failing that (I don't know - maybe you don't have any friends), I'd recommend an online casino or something. Even priced at under $50, and even with its bells and whistles (and interviews with the admittedly very attractive Evelyn Ng), it seems like you're betting wildly on a hand that can't possibly win you anything.