Full House Poker
Texas Hold ‘Em is a pastime that has taken the world by storm and grown increasingly popular over the past decade or so. For the avid poker player, there has been little to choose from in the way of competent poker titles for gaming consoles. It’s been attempted in the past with efforts like Texas Hold ‘em on the Xbox Live Arcade, but none have been able to emulate the strategy or capture the emotional ups and downs that occur when a stack is won or lost in a real poker game. Full House Poker is Microsoft’s latest attempt to buck that trend. It has been hyped in many ways as being the successor to the popular and short-lived Xbox Live experiment, 1 vs. 100, with a few different twists added.
There are a plethora of options and game modes that Full House Poker makes available for you and your Xbox Live avatar to jump into. Several Hold ‘Em variants and betting limits are present, so one can play anything from Limit High/Low Split to the more standard No Limit High game style that is usually shown on television. Standard and tournament style games against up to 10 opponents are available in single player mode or online (empty seats can be filled with AI-controlled adversaries if desired).
Similar to 1 vs. 100, Full House Poker’s general presentation is fun, polished, and bursting with energy. Avatars celebrate boisterously after winning a hand, doing dances and the like. Players can even progressively unlock amusing poker chip tricks that can be performed at the table while in a game. A well-designed leveling system rewards players with experience and unlockables based on overall performance and good situational play like a smart folds or going all-in to win a pot. There’s also a Pro Takedown mode that puts you up against a series of AI-controlled rivals representing diverse styles and levels of aggression in poker. How true these styles are to real life is highly debatable as, for example, the supposedly passive Sonny Skye had no problems taking the lead on betting in every hand we played.
The main draw here, however, is the massive multiplayer Texas Heat mode. This mode puts contestants at the poker table with a 30 minute time limit with the goal being to gain as much XP as possible. Similar to 1 vs. 100, live games take place throughout the week, giving one the opportunity to compete against thousands of other players for prizes. The similarities end there however as, unlike its predecessor, which offered real prizes like Microsoft points and XBLA games, in Full House Poker we’re relegated to competing for more XP, in-game costumes, and decorations to personalize our in-game poker table. In the majority of Texas Heat sessions that I played, there were only 2-3 other human players at the table with the rest of the seats being filled with AI opponents (even though there were tens of thousands of people playing per episode). Take this lack of real competition along with the underwhelming prizes at stake and Full House Poker fails to live up to 1 vs. 100 in terms of overall excitement and scale.
While this is a title that certainly should appeal to the casual poker fan, anyone who has ever played a real game of poker will be sorely disappointed with some aspects of Full House Poker. The cluelessness of most of the AI-controlled opponents is probably the number one offense here. They will very, VERY often call every bet that is made down to the river or call an all-in with a bottom pair or no pair at all in their hand (something that not even the most inexperienced fish at a real poker table would do). Knowing this makes strategy against computer-controlled opponents a fairly simple endeavor the majority of the time, as betting out with anything top-pair or above will often lead to a profit. Online, many players seem to have adopted a similarly loose style, playing every pot and calling bets down to the end without a strong hand. All of this ultimately weakens the appeal of the game to the more serious poker player, but Microsoft is probably more concerned about the casual audience anyhow.
In addition to the horrible AI, there were some annoying glitches that I encountered in several online sessions. Most often, when it was a player’s turn their timer would freeze and they’d be unable to perform any action, thus impeding the game’s progress. The only way for the game to move on was for the glitched player to leave the session. In one instance this happened to me just as I was about to go all in with the best hand to win a tournament! While it was not the norm, when encountered this was a frustrating event that broke up a game that might have otherwise been a pleasant endeavor.
Full House Poker is a truly confounding experience. For all of the initial thrills its presentation brings and all that it does right with the XP system and game modes, the ways in which it misses the mark are hard to ignore. Only time will be able to tell whether there will be a thriving online community present to support the game. By not providing real prizes though, the game will probably lack the incentives to hook casual players for any long period of time. For the same reason, there is not much rationale for any serious poker player to put a lot of time into this when they could get a comparable experience playing at any online site for play money. Microsoft has made a strong bid to bring poker to the masses with Full House Poker, but in the end this hand just doesn’t have the strength to win all of the chips.