Review: Full House Poker (XBLA)

In the interest of full disclosure, when I first started playing Full House Poker on XBLA, I had no idea how to actually play the often replicated card game. It was something I had always wanted to do but simply never got round to it. So when the code arrived I was a tad apprehensive as to how exactly I would review the game. Luckily my best friend loves Poker so together we took on the best of what this downloadable game had to throw at us and along the way, I got to learn the art of gambling with a pack of virtual playing cards. And now, I’m hooked. Read on to see my full review.

Right off the bat, Full House Poker is set for those, unlike me, do have an understanding to the game and why not? Chances are if you’re buying it, you’re doing so because you enjoy Poker. But go a few clicks into the menu and there is a pretty decent set of rules to teach novices how to play. Better still, the game has an easily available guide to the various card combinations needed to win which can be viewed at pretty much anytime during the game. I was saved! My ignorance to Poker was beginning to disappear as I took the ten minutes or so watching and reading the mini tutorials before feeling confident enough to jump in.

However, I couldn’t try my hand at a game of cards because my friend already snatched the controller to try his luck in a single player game. On entering, he could change the settings for the solo mode from superficial things like his name to something more significant like the variant of Texas Hold ‘Em for that match. Sticking with the pre-set options, we, or I should say he began. Full House Poker uses your Avatar as the in-game character, generating AI controlled opponents for the single player matches. It was surprising to me how the cutesy faux-people were such a good stand-in for real people. My friend soon began to make enemies on the table while playing, trying to beat certain players into submission and studying their playing habits. But unlike real people, their expressions are limited. The subtle nuances in a human’s reactions to a dealt card are missing so trying to read their intentions was a bit tricky. To rectify this there are three emotions which either the player or computer can show when making their move. For the player, holding LT then pressing an action button (be it call, check, raise etc) will make the Avatar act nervously whereas RT turns them into a highly confident animal, slamming chips on the table when placing a bet and thumping their fists in glee to check. Simply pressing the action buttons had the Avatar perform in the middle ground of nerves and jubilation. So only really three differing emotions to read from a player but it was enough for my opponents to bluff quite convincingly and provided a decent challenge. I was impressed.

Sadly, at the time of reviewing Full House Poker, I was unable to try the game’s online service though had a good look at what will be on offer when it’s released on March 16th. The standard multiplayer mode is similar to single player only the opponents are Avatars of the real people you’re playing against. That will be pretty cool when it’s up and running. As would the special Texas Heat mode which consists of 30 minute regularly scheduled matches for some serious Poker playing against gamers all over the world. I think my friend would appreciate this more than me since my skills at the game are still in the fledgling stages. You can even mix things up further by playing online against up to 30 Avatars on large three-table tournaments. These can be all humans, AI or a mixture of the two. Again, I think I’ll stick with the single player modes. Full House Poker includes a campaign of sorts called Pro Takedown with a ladder of nine unlockable opponents with differing playing styles and difficulty. Working your way to the top not only brings pride but a load of gamer points too. It’s neat for those who wish to build up their bank balance and earn extra experience points.

Experience points you say? Yep, Full House Poker rewards players points for various in-game actions. Fold without losing any money, win consecutive matches, play really good hands, stuff like that piles on the points unlocking new Avatar clothing or chip tricks – which are d-pap combinations to make your character play with his or her chips in a number of slightly amusing ways. Deck styles and furniture also become unlocked the higher your experience so if you want that leopard print seat cover, you better get playing.

One gripe to a game like this is the camera. It can circle the table and be placed for a birds eye view but you can’t zoom in close enough for it to be truly comfortable. I guess by doing so you eliminate the Avatars from the equation so Microsoft chose to keep the camera from getting too close. To be fair, it’s more to do with the game’s aethstetic than it interfering with play. The screen is well laid out and easy to understand without bombarding you with numbers, cards and statistics. The aforementioned guides are just an LB button press away and really helped me out when I forgot what hand I was going after. It also showed the various chip tricks I had unlocked and holding RB lets you see how much the players still have left and who has most to lose.

What I began as a complete beginner I’ve come out a competent Poker player and had a great deal of fun in the process. You can quickly lose yourself in the game – which both me and my friend did – or just getting that quick gambling fix depending on the mode you chose. Full House Poker comes with an interesting experience points system and single player campaign but most importantly it offers a really solid way to play Poker and can be as addictive as the real sport. Only without the fear of bankruptcy. When the online modes are fully operational, gathering your friends to play Poker will become decidedly easier than organising a face to face get-together yet still maintain a form or your real self via your Xbox Avatar. And in my case, when I start to lose badly I can press Start then Quit rather than having to make excuses to leave the table. But enough chat, I’ve got money to win!

Great
Highly commendable with some truly exceptional moments making for a brilliant game.

Full House Poker is available from March 16th on Xbox Live Arcade for 800 MS Points. It’ll also be coming to Windows Phone 7 for $2.99(£TBC) and can be connected to the XBLA version to earn extra cash and XP on the go.

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