Texas Hold'em Poker has increased in popularity over the past few years with an explosive force in a barrage of poker shows, tournaments, and poker playing personalities. It was only a matter of time until this popularity hit the software market with games licensed with the names of the most popular players. With this in mind I present to you Stacked with Daniel Negreanu, a Texas Hold'em poker game developed by 5000ft and published by Myelin Media available for the PC, PS2, Xbox, and now the PSP. Stacked features Canadian Daniel Negreanu (a.k.a. Kid Poker) who is one of the most popular poker players on the television tournament circuit today. Daniel has won more tournaments than I care to mention and won more money than I'll earn in a lifetime. The game itself sports features including AI simulated by Poki (poker playing software developed at the University of Alberta) and online multiplayer and tournament play. Daniel Negreanu is available to help you improve your game through in-game help and through a series of video tutorials.
The video tutorials included in Stacked have Daniel attempting to explain the finer points of Texas Hold'em poker. The video was shot with a dark background and Daniel in a dark black shirt; making it hard to make-out where his body ends and the background begins. The result is a set of instructional videos from what appears to be Daniel's magic floating head and crazily illustrated flying hands. The videos are incredibly cheesy and have the feeling of a first-year film maker exploring their artistic inner-child. If you decide to put on your beret while sipping a latte and test your cheese endurance levels I wish you all the best, I refuse to be mesmerized by Daniel's magical floating head any longer.
I personally enjoy playing poker against other people over a computer but can't find a good game in my area. I was looking forward to trying out the multiplayer action of Stacked which includes regular table games and online tournaments. I was disappointed on every occasion as I loaded up to find no available online tables to join or would sign into a tournament only to have it cancelled due to lack of players. After numerous attempts to play online, I had to give up my multiplayer search and settle for the single-player game for this review. What good is a multiplayer function if you can't play it?
Stacked is based on a tournament style reward system whereby whatever tournaments you win unlock other more elite competitions for you to enter. The tournaments vary from single to multi-table games and with certain successes you can unlock new features in the game (mostly professional poker characters that you'll end up playing against). By winning various Public and V.I.P. games you will eventually unlock Championship tournaments. The overall format of the game closely resembles what you would see from a televised poker tournament. At the top left corner of the screen you have all the players listed along with what they are currently doing: waiting, making a play, whether they raised, etc… On the top right corner of the screen is the counter for the total amount in the pot along with a scrolling marquee that cycles through information regarding your tournament including who the chip leader at the table is, the current blinds and time until the next blind increase, and how many players are remaining in the tournament. The bottom left of the screen is used for how you want to interact during the game. If it is your bet you can either use the directional pad or the top L and R trigger buttons to lessen or raise your bet. Before betting/calling/folding you can press the directional pad to reveal a task bar which allows you to smile, frown, look at your hole cards, or ask Daniel Negreanu for advice. The camera movements by default look as if there was a camera in the middle of the table that pans to each respective player during their turn. In your task bar there is an option for a POV cam which simulates looking through the eyes of your sprite. If during any particular hand you fold you can press the X button to have the remaining players finish the round at a higher rate of speed. This is a great feature especially when your chip-stack is low and you're waiting out a pocket pair to double up.
The AI in Stacked is simulated using software called Poki which was developed at the University of Alberta. It's interesting how the algorithms were developed and how it allows players at a table to use historical hands to judge how they will play against other players in future hands. From a programming and algorithm perspective Poki is really cool, but from a gameplay perspective I didn't notice anything special. The difference between Poki and a standard poker playing algorithm using a random number generator with respect to Stacked is like choosing Coke or Pepsi. During actual gameplay the sprites have a tendency to stare at each other before making a play in what is supposed to be them "reading" the other players looking for a "tell". What comes across is a creepy silence while each polygon character stares at each other in ways that would get any adult within a mile radius of a playground arrested. The loading times from the main menu into a tournament in Stacked are absolutely unacceptable for such a graphically simple game. With these initial loading times and the amount of time it takes some players to make a play I believe that Poki is the game-lag culprit. This leads to twitchy gameplay and takes away from the overall experience.
The graphics in Stacked are mediocre given that the game revolves around a bunch of people sitting at a table. There are a variety of different characters to play against including the classic stereotypes (with one girl in particular who wins my unofficial most gratuitous polygon cleavage for the PSP award). Despite what I've heard others say I was happy with the amount of options available in customizing my poker character. The sprites of the actual poker stars (Daniel Negreanu, Erick Lindgren, etc) are impressively captured. The largest amount of animation in the game is either when someone pushes his/her chips into the middle of a table for an all-in shot, when a player decides to make another boring statement, or when a losing player stands up and magically disappears to signify their exit from the table. When a player says something in the game it's really noticeable that their mouths don't even come close to matching (in syllable or in length) to the audio that is played. The synchronization between speech and graphics is the worst I've seen, it's as if the game is set in a really low budget dubbed Kung-Fu movie with all the actors shot with Novocain… and in actual fact I'm being a little too kind. The game suffers from dark and dreary playing environments. What is really surprising to me is that with the limited animation and very basic and dark color palette the game has a noticeable ghosting effect. I can understand how ghosting may happen during really intense fast-paced action games, but poker? Crappy voice synchronization and ghosting leads me to believe there was too much time and money put into artsy fartsy Daniel videos and not enough into making a quality game.
The sound in Stacked is yet another disappointment. The only music in the game is during the tournament selection screen. During gameplay the only sounds available are generic background poker noise and the uninspired voice acting of the sprites at the table. One of the features toted in the game is that you can ask for Daniel Negreanu's help when it's your turn to make a play. I was actually quite interested in the feedback I would receive, but became continually irritated by Daniel's screechy voice. I stopped using the feedback feature because I found myself doing exactly the opposite of what Daniel had advised out of pure malevolence. I would've liked to have had the option of gameplay music or an announced play-by-play feature like the one from NHL '06. Having announcers call the game even if it only happened when you made it to the final table of a tournament would raise the quality of this game to a whole new level.
Throughout this review I've been really critical of how the features in the game have been disappointing and how the graphics and sound have been less than enjoyable. With this in mind I'm just as surprised as you may be to hear that the replay value I found in Stacked is actually quite high. I tend to have the game on (with the sound off for sanity reasons) quite regularly to play a few hands while watching TV or before bed. I'm not sure whether I attribute the replay value to the game itself or to my enjoyment of poker, but either way I can see myself playing it from now on in small doses. Poker is an exciting game to begin with and underneath all the supposed features, lame sound, long loading times, and dark unimpressive graphics is a poker simulation that makes me want to win the tournaments until I'm at the final table with the poker stars. I wouldn't suggest buying this game for the gimmicks but would wait awhile for the price to drop and buy it as a pure and simple poker game.