By John Walker on November 24th, 2010 at 3:39 pm.
Telltale have released their all-star super-cheap poker game, Poker Night At The Inventory. Starring characters from a range of games, and including all their original voice actors, it’s a really fun idea. But is it also a fun game? I’ve been through an awful lot of its tournaments, and am ready to throw in my chips and tell you Wot I Think.
To communicate quite how weak Poker Night At The Inventory is, I’m afraid I’m going to have to occasionally use wanky poker language, which will annoy anyone who doesn’t care much about hold ‘em. But helpfully, Poker Night At The Inventory is also weak for anyone who doesn’t care much about hold ‘em. So for those who don’t know their hole cards from their double-gutshot straight draws, be assured that the fun of playing cards against Sam & Max’s Max, Homestar Runner’s Strong Bad, Team Fortress 2’s Red Heavy, and Penny Arcade’s Tycho, in a secret underground card game, lasts about as long as it takes for the dialogue to start repeating. About twenty minutes.
A lot of the lines are funny. Strong Bad and The Heavy frequently made me laugh the first time I heard their gags. Max is sadly poorly written for most of it, squawking rather than saying anything inventive, or making extremely laboured references to the Sam & Max episodes. And Tycho is just swearing in place of having anything witty to say. His character is an attempt at being sardonic, but mostly he seems to be appropriately criticising how un-fun the game is to play. Then swearing. (When he says “fuck this shit” it’s hard not to nod in agreement.)
But there are some good moments. The conversations between the characters can be surprising and funny, sometimes poking fun at the games they’re from, or the developers behind them. (Although I’ve not heard any reference to the failure of the Penny Arcade games, which is a tad elephantine.) But, of course, all this only counts for the first time you hear them. And they repeat very quickly. Often because there’s absolutely nothing in the game to tell it not to play the same conversation twice in a row. I am perhaps a little fed up of hearing Strong Bad and the Heavy discussing killing the King Of Town. You can turn down the amount of banter, but since it’s really the only thing the game’s got going for it, it seems self-defeating. It seems beyond insane that they didn’t have every actor record something like a hundred different ways for saying “fold”, “check”, “call” or “raise”. Each has so few that you hear them endlessly, quickly growing to loathe them.
Ultimately, as intriguing as it certainly is to have such iconic gaming characters all around one baize cloth, this is a poker game. When you’ve heard Max screech about chequer boards made of human bones for the fifth time, and listened to the Heavy and Strong Bad discuss boxing yet again, what you’re left with is the card game. And it’s beyond dreadful.
I just won a hand against the Heavy when he raised my all-in (um) with second-from-bottom pair, on a board covered in high cards. And this is on Difficult. They’ll bet absolutely any two cards, and will commit all their chips with any pair, no matter how weak.
Which makes it an awful lot like playing absolute beginners at poker. If you’re a reasonably experienced player, you’ll know the horror of a first-timer joining your game. Because, as strange as it seems, it makes the game so much harder to play, and equally to enjoy. So much of poker is based on playing the heads of the other players, rather than the cards in your hand, that there being someone who’s willing to hold onto a bottom pair of 2s on a board covered in paint cards (royals), seems so improbable you can’t take it into account. It becomes a lottery, and you may as well play any two cards yourself. (See pic below)
You can’t use any tactics. You can’t raise the other players off a weak hand, or intimidate them. They check-raise constantly, and almost always with nothing. The majority of times I’ve been beaten it’s because they’ve hit a 2-outer on the river, rather than because they’ve out-played me. It’s just pot luck, random, bingo, a waste of time. Bluffing is, therefore, rarely possible.
Switch it up to Difficult and things, oddly, get a little easier. Their behaviour is less completely insane in this mode, there’s ever-so slightly more pattern to it. But they’ll still bet nonsense, and hold onto a pair of 3s with a flop full of Aces and Kings. Here you can occasionally shake them off their hands, but despite playing in this mode for most of the time I’ve still been enormously infuriated by how dumb it is.
The betting is also borked. Say the blinds are at 100 and 200, regular pre-flop bets will be around the 3000 mark. Just completely bonkers over-bets as standard. Then perhaps on the turn, with a 4000 pot, to call it’s 600 and you raise it to 2400; another character will say raise but only put in 600 more. I’m quite certain this is completely against the rules of hold ‘em (I’m sure a re-raise has to be equal to or more than the previous raise, not the round’s big blind), alongside making absolutely no sense whatsoever. Frequently characters will chuck in an enormous raise, then fold at almost nothing after the next card. And there’s outlandishly stupid betting like putting in all but 200 of their chips, and then folding when re-raised for the final few. Or, as mentioned before, raising after the only other opponent is all in, proving the programming just has no clue what’s going on.
Further lack of an understanding of poker is shown in showdowns. If everyone involved is all in or called, so the cards are face up, it will continue to attempt to build suspense on the river, even after the turn card has ensured one player will definitely win. It makes the game seem so feeble, so ignorant of the game it’s trying to portray. I can’t imagine any other poker game that would be released without hand percentages displayed during showdowns, let alone one that doesn’t even understand 100% even if it’s hidden.
There’s bugs too. A lot. I’ve had the pleasure of the game only showing me one of my cards on two occasions (see above). It makes it a little more challenging to play when one of your cards is hidden from you. Max will frequently announce he’s “checking too” after no one else has checked. When conversations characters are having are interrupted by events, they’re supposed to say, “As I was saying…” and carry on. But more frequently the conversation vanishes, or they say that line then don’t carry on, or start madly repeating the same lines. Characters mock you for checking, immediately before or after checking themselves. Despite switching off the bleeping for swearing, randomly it will still get bleeped out. Right clicking to skip dialogue very often just makes them say the same line again. And frighteningly often it will just fail to display who’s on what blinds.
It gets even stupider. One of the decks you can unlock, the Homestar deck, is so idiotically designed that you literally can’t see what the card value is on the screen. It’s bewildering. Take a look:
Talking of unlocks, along with different tables and decks, you can also unlock one special item per player, won if they bet it at the start of a tournament, and you’re the one to knock them out. The rarity of their appearances is deliberate, as these are unlocks for TF2. Strong Bad’s Dangeresque, Too? glasses, Max’s gun and badge, Tycho’s Spy watch, and the Heavy’s enormous weapon, The Iron Curtain. (Although naturally, in-game, it’s referred to as “Sasha”, which would make it a pretty redundant unlock.)
Sigh – I just played another hand at this point. I fold after Max raises the blinds by his usual 12 times. It’s just Max and the Heavy left in. The Heavy was only a few chips over that so went all in, and Max responded by, er, going all in too. What? When Max won with AQd, Tycho told him off for playing “rubbish cards”. No.
I wasn’t expecting a high quality poker game. Mostly because there just hasn’t been one, ever. No one has released a poker game that can convincing bluff or be bluffed, and it’s understandably tricky to program that sort of AI. But this is absolutely woeful. It doesn’t seem to know the rules of hold ‘em, it certainly doesn’t know how to play hold ‘em, and it’s unfortunately not funny enough, or funny for nearly long enough, for it to be worth playing the crapshoot just to hear the gags. That lasts maybe two mini-tournaments, and then you’re done.
It’s incredibly cheap, around £3, and that does make a really enormous difference. And it’s animated really nicely, each character maintaining their unique style. But sadly, as funny as a lot of the lines definitely are, it doesn’t last, and it doesn’t have a workable poker game underneath it to make it worthwhile.