The 2006 World Series of Poker has come and gone, with no-name TV producer Jamie Gold taking the $12 million dollar top prize. But soon enough the WSOP Tournament of Champions will find its way to ESPN, and alongside it you'll find World Series of Poker: Tournament of Champions for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 2, and PSP. Like the regular World Series, this is a series of tournaments where players earn points and try to make their way into a final tournament to take home a huge cash prize. Much like Activision's previous attempt to turn the World Series into a video game, Tournament of Champions does a serviceable, if unremarkable, job of emulating the event. This year's game does put a greater emphasis on its included pro players, and the online multiplayer is certainly a draw, but the offline play is still a bit mundane, thanks to off-kilter artificial intelligence and lackluster presentation.
Can't get enough poker? Neither can Activision, if World Series of Poker: Tournament of Champions is any indication.
Like with last year's game, the focus of Tournament of Champions is its career mode. You begin by creating a character, as you do in most poker games. On the PS2 and PSP, this process is pretty by-the-numbers. There are a decent number of facial and clothing customizations to choose from. The Xbox 360 version of the game also includes these options, but in addition, you can use the Xbox Live Vision camera to put your own face in the game. The game asks you to snap two pictures, a front and side view, and then renders out a head based on those shots. It's pretty cool, and the image it creates is surprisingly high in resolution. It even maps basic hair, provided you don't have an especially nutty hair style. If you do, there are some add-on hair options available. The one creepy thing about this feature is that your scanned face never animates. The default character heads in the game do animate, so having a totally stoic, blank-stared character can be kind of unnerving; but considering that you can use your scanned character online, maybe that will work to your benefit. Fortunately, you do have the option to turn scanned characters off in the online mode in case you don't want to see what unspeakable parts of their bodies others have scanned as their faces.
The basic progression of events in the career mode is simple. You start out at a home game against a few generic guys, but lo and behold, your dealer for the night is Chris "Jesus" Ferguson. It seems Mr. Jesus has lost some kind of bet and is now at your home game, scouting for talent to take to the WSOP Tournament of Champions. Whether you win or lose this game, Jesus takes you under his wing and sets you on the path to poker riches. There are four casinos with four events each for the preliminary rounds, and then there's the final round at the Rio in Las Vegas. You try to earn points in the various preliminary tournaments to move from one to the next. Wins give you more points and cash, but you can earn points just by placing in the final table rankings at each tournament.
Along the way, you'll encounter a variety of pro players, including Scotty Nguyen, Men Nguyen, Antonio Esfandiari, Phil Laak, Jennifer Tilly (yes, the Jennifer Tilly), TJ Cloutier, Kristy Gazes, Clonie Gowen, Andrew Black, and, of course, last year's champion, Joe Hachem. Each of these pros provides some at-the-table dialogue, though it doesn't consist of more than a few token barbs during and after a hand, as well as a few generic "check" and "I raise" statements.
The pros also don't play much like their real-life counterparts. Joe Hachem may say, "Pass the sugar, baby!" from time to time, but you don't get the same flair from his actual play. All the AI opponents play functionally the same. You'll notice that some AI players play fewer hands than others, but that's about the only difference. On the surface, the player AI is reasonably intelligent, if rather robotic. However, there are some issues with overaggressive betting, especially before the flop. It's rare to see a table's worth of players fold around completely to a raise before the flop. You'll see a bunch of reraises, even if the other players don't have anything better than a king-eight off-suit. Table position doesn't seem to play into this. Once the flop comes, it's easier to bully players out by raising heavily, but if an AI player makes a hand of any kind, he or she won't quit unless you try to put the player all-in.
Tournament of Champions isn't a good poker teaching tool in the way that, for instance, Stacked was. The game's load screens do occasionally toss you some decent nuggets of info that might be useful to new players, but in-game, the tips that scroll across the screen are beyond obtuse. "Poker is a game of position," says Chris Ferguson. Gee, thanks, Jesus! However, one thing the game does offer that might be useful for non-video-game poker play is a tool that unlocks once you've played a decent number of hands. By pressing a button, you can bring up a menu that shows you a wealth of statistical data, such as what your pot odds are, based on the number of people already in the hand; the odds of making a specific type of hand, based on what you have versus what's on the board; which cards are your outs; and the percentage of hands you have played in and raised prior to the flop. For those who find the more mathematical aspects of poker dizzying, this handy little tool gives you a better idea of where you stand. It won't win hands for you, but it might keep you from losing a few.