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Poker Night 2

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Some games target our sense of humour. Other games look to our nostalgia, our knowledge of the golden days of pop culture.  Poker Night 2 is the natural blend of these two ideas, while also being a damn fine simulation of poker.

Developed by Telltale Games, Poker Night 2 expands on the premise of the original game (Poker Night at the Inventory) by throwing in some new with the old.  For one, the Poker Party line-up has been altered – this time around, the Player faces off against Sam & Max‘s bipedal canine detective Sam, The Venture Bros‘ burly bodyguard Brock, Borderlands‘ eccentric robot Claptrap and Evil Dead‘s slightly-psychotic protagonist Ash.

Oh, and GLaDOS from Portal deals.  Have fun!

Poker Night‘s big draw is the characters and their interactions, but it’s the rewards that’ll keep you locked in.  I laughed at Claptrap’s berating of Steve, his minion that only says “Heyooh!”, or at Brock’s heavily-exaggerated “crazy man” expressions.  Yet when the second tournament came around, and Claptrap put forth his Character of the Year trophy to the tournament’s winner, that was when I just about squealed with joy.   Each of your opponents (and even GLaDOS) have a unique reward that can be collected and cherished, provided that you can win the tournament in question.

That said, the rewards are the hook, but the experience getting to them is in itself worthwhile.  In this day and age, simulating a game of poker isn’t hard, nor is the game itself hard to comprehend.  Two cards (or four, in the Omaha Hold’em mode) are dealt to each player, who must then decide whether to keep playing or fold.  If they stay in the game, they have to put a certain amount of their money – or raise the betting amount – into the table’s central “pool” of poker chips.

After the first round of this “fight or flight” dance, three cards are dealt onto the table; these are called “the flop”.  After the second round, GLaDOS deals another card (“the turn”), and then another card (“the river”) at the end of the third round .  When all five cards sit on the table, the game is essentially over – with the only task left being to see who has the best cards.

The goal in any form of hold ’em, for those inexperienced in poker, is to have a set of cards that beats your opponents.  Maybe between the cards on the table and your hand, you have five aces, or a sequence of numbers, or five cards of the same suit.  If the other players can’t match or beat your cards, you win this “Showdown”, the table’s “money pool” and (possibly) the offered reward from any one opponent; if they have better cards, you lose the Showdown and – more than likely – the tournament.

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What this all amounts to is that Telltale has carved a certain niche within the games industry for themselves, beyond their typical adventure game fare.  Poker Nightmay be in principle what it says on the box, but the sheer amount of personality on display here makes the effort of trying to win a tournament – and believe me, you’ll probably lose a bit – all the more worthwhile.  There’s some exchanges that loop on occasion, but generally the jokes, the nervous habits, and the nods to each character’s continuity are a refreshing change of pace.

It seems as though the voice actors – ranging from Patrick Warburton to Ellen McCain and so forth – read the script over, had a good laugh and just went with the flow here, judging, say, by how naturally a conversation between Ash and Claptrap can go from praising the former’s accomplishments to contemplating the end of the world in mere minutes.  Not one second of that conversation felt unwarranted, for the record.

If the game has flaws, it’s mainly from marketing or presentation standpoints.  I very highly doubt many people will play this game just because of the title – it is, after all, a poker simulation on the most basic level.  The mechanics are true-to-life (i.e. complex), the tournaments go on like a never-ending game of Pong, and the frustration that comes when you go broke never ceases to be astounding.  However, I do respect the “high-risk, high-reward” motif in play here, as a true game of poker should have, and that frustration also serves as a motivating factor to dust yourself off and try again – maybe for the reward, maybe to have a positive number on the post-game counter, maybe just for pride’s sake.

Poker Night 2’s greatest issue is its glitches, beginning with its lag.  I haven’t seen any Telltale-made game look so much like a stop-motion animated film, nor have I seen such delayed reactions when trying to click on something.  It has also crashed a few times, typically in the middle of a tournament, so keep that in mind if you’re a midnight marathon sort of player.  The trademark Telltale Engine still gives life to its animated characters and the larger-than-life setting that is the Inventory – particularly with unlockable alternate character-specific visuals – but the fidelity will become an issue sooner or later.

All in all, though, Poker Night 2 builds on its predecessor while also reminding us of Telltale’s natural talent for blending pop-culture skewed writing with engaging characters.  The entire experience is modestly flawed in its presentation, but the core mechanics and the appeal of its characters make the effort worthwhile.  Just don’t trust Brock with your money – he’s craaazy!

four-stars

Recommendation: Buy It

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