World Championship Poker 2: Featuring Howard Lederer

I always seem to get stuck with the poker games on the staff. It's not like I asked for the duty, but it seems that I was handed World Series of Poker and World Poker Tour as if it was some kind of duty, all because I casually mentioned that I play a little bit of Texas Hold 'Em on the side at the local bar and at my friend Devin's house. They probably should have paid attention to the fact that, hey, I'm not that great. Every time I go to Vegas I come back with exactly what I figured I would lose. Perhaps it's something in my poker face, I dunno.

Anyway, Buffa was at first assigned to review World Championship Poker 2 Featuring Howard Lederer last week, but he had another assignment come up, and I opted to take it off his hands. I was getting used to the formula of poker games by now, so I figured, why not. So I gave the game a look-see from late last week and found it to be a couple of steps up from the original game, released last year. That's not to say it's a fully substantial sequel, as it also comes up short in a couple of areas. But, hey, at least it can hold a poker face, unlike myself.

Like before, you find yourself thrust head-first into the World Championship Poker tour, messing with amateurs and professionals alike, and eventually getting your way into big games against the likes of Lederer and other pros who are on the tour. And, as you might expect, it takes a little while to get adjusted into. That's because the game actually features balanced AI in its players, a fine achievement for a game such as this. No more blind calls or players who lack the guts to bluff. Here, it's all a good way to get into the card game.

That's not to say they look the part, however. One of World Championship Poker 2's weakest points lies in its graphics. There's different international locales within the game, but the ambience is about as noticeable as a Motel 6 room, meaning that you won't really feel like you're overseas. Furthermore, players don't look that great, thanks to a washed-out appearance that barely disguises the fact their personalities clash. The create-a-player option runs on the basics, with only so many parts to give to your player and not really being able to build the dream player you want. It's worth rumbling through for moments of hilarity, but, really, nothing more.

The audio doesn't provide much service either. Most of the voicework done in the game is made up of small commentary that tries to show emotion in players, but comes off more amusing than realistic. Some of the pros sound nice, but, really, in a game like this, I don't expect casual banter to pop up. You don't go and tell a story about how your wife left you and such when you're riding on a $2500 pot, you know. The music just sits there with barely any personality all its own.

At least the gameplay holds up, and you have a friendly interface that guides you through each go-around, as players either fold, call, or raise on their power hands. The best new addition that comes into play here is a mini-game that allows you to time your show-off skills at their best. Hit a certain mark and you could put on a powerful "poker face", showing even the mightiest of bluffs to come across with ease. Miss it, however, and you're left with an obvious "tell" that gives your story away to opponents. It's a great little addition, especially in the Career Mode, where you can build a reputation off of a few well-hit "poker face" moments. Nothing beats a spectacular bluff.

That's about the only thing that really works with Career Mode, however. The rest of the game is made up of events that may challenge, especially when you go up against pros, but fails to really motivate your opportunity to continue. You'll probably get more into it if your approach to Texas Hold 'Em is far more advanced than that of the typical bar-dweller. Online play is serviceable as well, over Xbox Live, as you can match up against other players and bet the virtual farm. It's just too bad that the lobby's so gunked up with problems trying to talk to friends and such. Oh, well, at least the match-ups suffice.

World Championship Poker 2 Featuring Howard Lederer is not my favorite poker game out there, but it's not a stinkpile either. It could've used a little cleaning up with online, presentation, and Career Mode, but still scores points with its dynamic gameplay and its neat new "tell" system. I hope they keep these intact with the third edition, which is bound to arrive next year and hopefully tell us where the cards lie better. I'll be waiting, as I'm sure the game will be handed to me to cover. Hopefully by then I'll have the skills to build up a cash hand that goes into six digits.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.