(From the start, it's probably best to establish that this is a single-player review of World Poker Tour, despite its online capabilities. There are two good reasons for this. First, I played it on PS2 and I'm not a witch. Second, if you want to play online poker, there are ridiculous numbers of far easier ways to do it, with infinitely more appropriate interfaces, making the online options of WPT entirely defunct from the off.)
We do seem to be rather lacking a decent poker game. The continuing international phenomenon of Texas Hold 'Em (such that you can't turn on Rich Man's Telly without at least one channel showing a game, any time of day) means that everyone's trying to find ways to make a buck (so long as it doesn't involve actually playing Texas Hold 'Em) before the fad fades away.
Don't get me wrong - I've fully embraced the fad. I go to a 40-player tournament twice a week, and often find myself wiling away a quiet hour with some online play at a safely priced 5/10c table. I'm not brilliant, but I can hold my own.
World Poker Tour is certainly an effective step forward in replicating the pursuit on a console, but unfortunately the previous step was flipping miles off. While WPT frequently descends into farce, it can occasionally surprise here and there.
Right at the beginning it offers a remarkably malleable character creator. You can tweak every microscopic detail of the face, letting you generate any shape, colour or age in refined detail... Except for, uh, girls. In a really odd oversight, unless of course I've managed to miss an option that I spent a good while searching for, they forgot an entire gender. Which is doubly strange since the game itself features a 50/50 split of the two human sorts.
The instant games let you play against as few or as many as you wish, for whichever stakes you choose, in a large array of poker types. There's Hold 'Em, Five Card Draw, Seven-Card Stud, the mind-hurting Omaha, Shanghai, Billabong and Hi/Lo; and then a bunch of Hold 'Em variants including Super Hold 'Em, Pineapple, Crazy Pineapple, and Tahoe. Not a poor selection then. And if that weren't enough, there's even the option to invent your own card game, letting you play around with many aspects of the rules until you've developed something entirely of your own creation. Soon you'll have your own show on Bravo.
The career mode, which is surely the real point of the game, lets you play your way through a series of tournaments in various locations on the official tour, in a range of difficulty levels. Starting with the Amateur tournies, you need to achieve a certain position to advance, with qualifying rounds available if you've not enough cash to afford the buy in for the final. Ultimately you're aiming to reach the proper WPT games, and then TAKE OVER THE WORLD! Probably.
So, all that detail out the way, slightly more important bit: can it play poker?
The difficulty is: poker is a social game. WPT goes to enormous lengths to attempt to recreate this for the single-player, but frustratingly it's all these lengths that make it so damned annoying to play. Rather than the simplistic layout of a typical online poker table, here is a 3D representation of a game, with characters sat around the table, including your own manchild, playing in (sur)real time. It looks a right dog's dinner, but that's possibly not of huge importance for such a game.
Boasting "Bluff Master Technology", WPT offers a selection of facial expressions intended to provide a bluffed emotion to your opponents, and them to you. But, er, what?! Poker does not usually involve sitting there looking aghast, hoping everyone will immediately begin betting because of your pantomime expression. But that's all irrelevant, since the system appears to make absolutely no difference whatsoever. You're far better off exploiting the dodgy AI than you are trying to get a read from the daft facial expressions. Or you could, dare I say it, play well in order to win.
The game details appear up in hefty screen furniture, which is so mind-numbingly stupidly placed that my legs fell off in annoyance. The giant blue blobs with player names and stack size stretch halfway across the screen, and astonishingly obscure your view of the flop. This would be a fraction acceptable if the blobs said anything helpful, but in a move of remarkable idiocy they completely fail to state how much each player has currently bet. You're aware of the total pot, and when it's your turn you'll be told how much to call, but that's it. You cannot follow the ebb and flow at all, so choosing how much to raise is entirely based on the players' remaining stacks, rather than their current pot commitment. It fundamentally destroys the key tactics of betting.
If it were to feature ideal poker-playing opponents, it would probably be studied by MIT for its advanced human realism. That's not what I'm asking for here. It's quite a stretch for a computer to go against reason and pretend that bad cards are good in a bluff, and in fairness, occasionally it gets this right. However, it often gets all muddled and executes a sort of backward bluff where it only calls your raises, revealing how silly it was being when you show your winning hand.
The AI is otherwise over-cowardly. In all the hours I played, in all the games, at all the difficulty levels, I never once saw more than three out of six players even pay the blinds. And god forbid a pre-flop raise. They only fall short of bursting into tears and running out the building. Should you attempt a bluff, then you'll likely win. Play sedately, and you'll see little more than checks, other than one player who'll ludicrously raise half her stack on the flop, signalling a decent hand and telling you to fold.
However, while the above failings are significantly detrimental to enjoying a decent hand of Hold 'Em, it is at least capable of replicating the mathematical side of the game. Unless embarking on one of their foolishly brave bluffs, your opponents know their own hands, and, while frustratingly cautious, don't play like idiots. The beanbag received some severe punishment as I was beaten on an all-in by a lucky river, and that means I was at least engaged.
The best bit, it turns out, are the amateur player names. While the professionals have sensible first names, and the WPT Tour people have their proper real life names, the amateurs are named things like, "Hose Canusee" or "Mary Adalitalam". Or "Frida Livery". However, quite madly it appears to be impossible to give your own character a name, seeing him labelled "Player" for the entire game.
However, ultimately the incredibly slow play, dragged down by its lumbering animations and tiresome player comments, ("Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm, I think I'm going to.............................. fold."), made far worse by the agonising load times, mean that you'll spend most of your timing shouting at the screen to hurry up and let you just fold the 2 6o you've been dealt for the ninth hand in a row. In real life that time's filled with the social side of poker, which obviously a game cannot recreate. Without this, it's treacle slow tedium. You can get a game of poker out of it, and you can persist with the desire to win to reach the next tournament, but the volume of frustrations along the way mean it cannot be hailed as the first great poker game. It's getting there, but not there yet.