Following the same premise as the first game, Poker Night 2 takes place in the Inventory, a dark warehouse with a secret room at the back where the strangest characters from pop culture hang out, presumably after hours to chew the fat, have a drink and of course, gamble. Wandering through the corridors of the Inventory, the player finally finds himself as the fifth participant in a poker tournament against four rather unusual card sharks, and one narcissistic dealer.
The other players consist of Brock Samson, the ruthless blonde bodyguard from the Adult Swim series The Venture Bros; the fast-talking one-wheeled robot Claptrap from Borderlands, the big-chinned, “groovy” reluctant hero Ash Williams of Evil Dead fame and the flat-footed canine detective Sam from the Sam & Max adventure games. Rounding off the cast of characters is GlaDOS, the deadpan, villainous AI from the Portal games who serves as the dealer for each tournament. Already this is shaping up to be something more than your average game of poker.
There are two types of card game available. Texas Hold ‘em or the alternative Omaha variety. Each player buys in at $20,000 per tournament, with the blinds gradually going up as the game continues. The object of the game is to win the other players’ cash and systematically knock each one out in order to win the tournament. For those that aren’t quite up to speed on their poker rules, the game gives an extensive and rather witty tutorial during the first hand, and the option to look at a cheat sheet with an explanation of each winning poker hand is available at a glance, just in case you’re sitting on a winner without even realising it. On first impressions, the game comes across as a fairly simple poker simulator, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find a few very unique features that make Poker Night 2 more than just your run-of-the-mill poker game.
A huge part of any poker game is the ability to win a hand by bluffing and Poker Night 2 does try to bring this to its virtual poker table. Each character has their own tell-tale ‘tells’ that they are in fact trying to sneak the win with a bad hand. For example, Brock will whisper to himself or slam his fists down if he isn’t too confident with his cards, whilst Ash will scratch his trademark chin if he’s considering to bluff his way through the hand. Each character has their own unique set of tells and it takes a while to learn the behaviour of each character so thankfully the bar is at hand to get them nice and drunk and make their tells occur more frequently. It’s a feature that is rather unique to a single player poker game, considering most others games rely on you watching the betting habits of others in order to figure them out, but it is one that does require a little inside knowledge into each character before playing.
Throughout the game, the player will be given a number of challenges to complete, such as forcing an opposing player to go all in or winning a hand by bluffing. By mastering these challenges, the player will be rewarded with tokens that can be used to purchase different chip-sets, card decks or table felts, all themed around the opposing players and their respective franchises.
By winning tournaments, the in-game characters will offer up bounties, or rather trophies associated with their respective franchises. Ash will offer up his Necronomicon crown from Army of Darkness whilst Sam will throw in his infamous banjo. These not only add another collectible element to the game but surprisingly help the player to unlock some exclusive content for their Borderlands 2 character and some additional items for their Xbox Live avatar. Playing on a PC via a Steam account will also unlock some additional skins for Team Fortress 2 characters. It’s great to see a little interconnectivity between these titles, and it’s a feature that very few games take full advantage of.
The attention to detail in this game is what sets it apart from other Xbox 360 poker games. Each character has been lifted straight out of their own universe in both looks and personality. Telltale Games haven’t intruded on the already established art-styles for each character with Brock Samson retaining his cartoon cel-shaded look from The Venture Bros. and Claptrap looking graphically identical to his Borderlands appearance. The secret room in the Inventory takes you beyond the boundaries of the poker table, which most other poker games focus on. The backdrop features Borderlands’ Mad Moxxxi as a bartender, and guest appearances from Sam’s sidekick Max, or Doug from Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead series.
The characters have been given their own personalities and even if you lose a hand, it’s sometimes worth it just to see what pearls of sarcastic wisdom GlaDOS will throw at you. The other players will converse with each other and try and poke a reaction out of them if they think someone is bluffing, but without prior knowledge to their backgrounds, sometimes the humour falls flat on its face. It’s a comedy act that does slip up pretty quickly. Sometimes dialogue is repeated rather too frequently, and Claptrap’s high-pitched warbles become irritating fairly quickly and there will be quite a few fanboys disappointed that Ash isn’t voiced by Bruce Campbell himself.
Poker Night 2 is still a few cards short of a full deck however. In fact, it seems to be missing a complete suit in that it noticeably lacks a multiplayer mode. Whilst it’s understandable that a local multiplayer game on one Xbox would never really work, an online mode could essentially have elevated Poker Night 2’s status into one of Xbox Live’s most popular games, given how incredibly popular the card game is. We’ve seen other games incorporate Xbox Live avatars into their rosters so it would have been a lot of fun seeing your virtual-self compete against some immensely funny pop culture characters.
Poker Night 2 is a witty, alternative to the regular poker games available both on consoles and online. The atmosphere and characters help make the title stand out as a poker game made by gamers for gamers. The self-reflective personalities of each character make for some interesting conversations and by bringing the bluffing feature in, Poker Night 2 probably has one of the most entertaining single player poker experiences available. However, the game loses its charm fairly quickly so unless you’re playing for the elusive Borderlands 2 items or Xbox achievements, you’ll only play a few hands before cashing in your chips and playing something else.
Perhaps we’ll have to wait until the next generation of hardware to see if developers such as Telltale Games will take a risk, go all in and up the ante on everyone’s favourite card game, where the stakes are very real and players can cash in their winnings in exchange for Microsoft points or even real money. For now, however, Poker Night 2 puts a very different spin on the flooded poker sim scene by placing all it’s chips on character interaction and being able to listen to some hilarious smack talk with an interesting, albeit fictional group of competitors.