Ever wanted to play poker with Claptrap, Sam & Max, Brock from The Venture Bros. and Ash from The Evil Dead, with GLaDOS as your dealer? It's at the least an interesting prospect. But how does it pan out as a game? Telltale found out with Poker Night 2. Here's wot I think:
I think the most important information to convey about Telltale's sequel to their dreadful Poker Night At The Inventory is that I don't hate it. Is it a good poker game? No, not at all. Does it fix the key issues of the original? Only a few. Does it suffer any less from endless repetition? Good grief no. But it's calmer, less offensively bad, and I think this time fits the mould of a £4 comedy game.
But know this: it's not Bruce Campbell.
The concept is exactly the same: a back-room game of poker (Hold Em or Omaha this time), with four cartoon characters. Except, oddly, this time they're not from gaming, which did seem rather the point. But it's hard to be too disappointed - at first - with the collection. Yes, there's Claptrap from Borderlands, but it's a self-effacing role and well performed. There's Sam, with Max in tow, and Telltale know how to write those two. Then it gets a bit odd, with Brock Samson (Patrick Warburton, doing the voice he does in things) from The Venture Brothers - the Cartoon Network cartoon and not a videogame to the best of my knowledge. And most peculiar of all, Ash from The Evil Dead trilogy. While there have been (terrible) Evil Dead games, it's such an out-there inclusion, and one that makes total sense when you think: Yes! I'm playing poker with Bruce Campbell! You're playing poker with, er, Danny Webber (and not the foot-to-baller). And then it's all being hosted by GLaDOS.
There's not a lot to describe about what you do. It's poker, except with really bad AI players who will go all-in on the flop with two undercards, or fold at a small increase on their on monster raise. It's not quite as ridiculous as last time, but you do still wonder if the people making it really get the game they're emulating. Obviously you're not going to assume a £4 comedy game is going to give you a cutting edge poker simulation, but the reality is that once you've heard all their lines the first time (about two hours of play, by my count) there's little reason to keep going without it.
The biggest oddity here is the setup of the games. The buy-in is $20,000, but the opening blinds are $400 and $800, so it's always a crapshoot from the very start. Just that single decision ensures there's never any sense of actually playing a proper game of poker, with all-ins almost inevitable in the first two hands, and lunatic raises throughout. Why you can't just have a tiny bit of control, the option to change the blind levels for yourself, feels strange. But then of course the game would reveal just how little dialogue there is in there all the more quickly.
That's the obvious and unavoidable frustration when playing. The banter between the characters is mostly decent enough, but obviously jokes only work the first time you hear them, and slightly less well the fifty-seventh. There are two types: the barks they give when calling, raising, folding, etc, and the conversations they have with each other while playing. The two interrupt each other constantly, but it nicely picks up conversations where they left off, usually with an, "Anyway..." as they resume. And that works nicely - again, the first time you hear them.
The barks grow pretty infuriating, pretty quickly. I lost count how many times I heard Claptrap say "Don't stare at the money, or it will think you're a creep," or Ash comment that the money could fix the Oldsmobile in the six or seven rounds I played. I smiled the first time. I grimaced for most. And Max falling off his chair in the background when I went all in made me laugh... once. Every other time I go all in, not so much. And worse, they slow down the game, and there's no way to skip dialogue. So while what you want is to not hear the same deliberation line before taking their move for the twentieth time, what you do is sit helplessly, stabbing at random keyboard keys in case maybe tilde or something might skip it.
The repetition of the longer conversations is just a bit wearying, especially when they painstakingly resume themselves a bunch of times even though you remember it from twenty minutes ago. I can only imagine this would grow to very bothersome degrees if you played enough for these to reach their fourth or fifth rendition.
Another rather problematic issue is just how badly GLaDOS is written. It's hard to say how much of it is Telltale's failure to quite get the character, how much is that it's impossibly unfair to try to equal Wolpaw and Pinkerton's writing, but her falling-flat lines do add a rather disappointing atmosphere to proceedings. GLaDOS's evil is pernicious, not overt, and her teasing is under-the-skin cruel, not mildly insulting. Having her butt in to criticise you for calling and not raising your opponent's all-in is not only bemusing in context, but also just a bit weird when she's saying if she were you she'd commit suicide by jumping off a building.
There's certainly too much of a temptation to write for the character's known catchphrases, throwing in references rather than focusing on original material that works in their individual contexts. Sam and Max are much better in this regard, presumably because Telltale feels confident enough with them after fifteen episodes to know what to do with them. But Ash's endless references to the car reek of desperation. Let alone that all the lines are delivered through the uncanny aural valley of a decent but not-quite impression.
Sorry to go on about this, but really, why include a character from an iconic movie - so far removed from the context of the game - if you can't book the guy who played him? Having Campbell camp up the lines would have been such a treat, rather than Webber's oddly genteel approach - never more obviously not the real thing than when he so disappointingly mumbles "groovy".
The chances are you'll persist in playing Poker Night 2 for the TF2 and Borderlands 2 items, won by completing set challenges within games, and then winning a game when one is up for grabs. Although getting all of them would require hearing Sam say "Don't be afraid of the chips, don't be afraid of the chips" over eighty-nine billion times.
But for the first couple of hours, you can milk it for what it offers - an okay poker game albeit one that doesn't reward decent play, and a bunch of mostly funny lines until the looping becomes too much. And at £4, well, that seems fair.