Cards with cards
Poker Night at the Inventory was probably one of the most absurd concepts for a game ever to make it to release. The budget downloadable title from Telltale took five characters from such seemingly incompatible franchises as Homestar Runner, Penny Arcade, and Team Fortress, pitted you against them in a game of high stakes, no-limit Texas Hold ’em, and filled the dead time during hands with sarcastic one-liners and quippy dialogue.
Poker Night 2 is essentially the exact same formula with a few new variables. While the card playing is solid enough, the comedy is once again the real star of the show, and thanks to some snappy writing, it almost always delivers. The new batch of competitors consists of Brock Samson (Venture Bros.), Ash Williams (The Evil Dead), Claptrap (Borderlands), and Sam (Sam & Max), with the icy GLaDOS (Portal) serving as dealer. It’s an odd bunch, but the voice actors all give spirited performances and play surprisingly well off one another, poking lighthearted jabs at each other’s franchises and asking the hard hitting questions, like whether Sam dates human women or other dogs.
Of course, if you play the game for long enough, you’ll start to hear the same stories and humorous exchanges over and over again. The repetition is particularly noticeable with the one-liners characters spout in response to goings-on in the poker game. You’re going to hear the word “hamdinger” more times in one three-hour span than you thought you would in your entire life. There’s no easy solution to the problem—they obviously can’t just record an infinite amount of dialogue—but you’ll probably be thinking about turning off the dialogue by the time you hit your fifth hour. And beyond that largely unavoidable pitfall, Poker Night 2 performs about as well as you could hope for from an entertainment standpoint.
The thing is, I bought the first game at launch, and I clearly remember the response it got. There was pretty much only one thing that most people wanted changed in any potential sequel: the lack of multiplayer. It was—and still is—entertaining being at a table with such a wacky assortment of characters, but there’s only so much enjoyment you can get out of hearing the same banter over and over again. Being able to rope in your friends and make it a more communal experience would’ve greatly with longevity. Alas, the feature is still absent in Poker Night 2.
In its place, we get a handful of less exciting refinements and additions. The AI’s betting behavior has been noticeably improved, moving closer to “rational human being” and further away from “trained bonobo with a tenuous grasp on the rules of poker.” The bounty system—which lets you earn Avatar awards, PSN Themes, Team Fortress 2 items, and/or Borderlands 2 gear, depending on your system—has been simplified to make it clearer how and when you can earn your next goodie.
The cosmetic in-game unlocks—themed decks, chips, and tables—are no longer linked to the number of hands or tournaments you win. Instead, they’re purchased with tokens you earn for outlasting your opponents in a game. There’s now also a nifty little bonus for equipping a full set of themed items—the entire room is decorated in that theme, and the associated character gets a new outfit to match. You can also spend those tokens to buy drinks for your opponents. The more liquored up they get, the more frequent their tells become. It’s an interesting way to draw attention to the fact that each player does occasionally use a tell when they’re bluffing, but it’s less of a game changer and more an outlet for your token stash after you’ve nabbed all the unlockables.
Telltale has also attempted to inject some more diversity into the proceedings with a second poker variant, Omaha Hold ’em. If you’ve never heard of Omaha Hold ’em—I hadn’t before I booted up Poker Night 2—it follows the same ruleset as its Texas cousin, except you’re dealt four hole cards, only two of which can be used to build your final hand. It’s nice to have the option of mixing things up, but I wish they’d gone with a game that provided a greater change of pace—something like Stud, Blackjack, or even Hearts would have been nice.
The final big departure from the original game is that Poker Night 2 is available on consoles as well as PC and Mac. Unfortunately, the transition hasn’t been a very smooth one—at least not on the 360. For a game that seems so superficially simple, there are a surprising amount of technical hangups. The framerate chugs pretty regularly, the menus are slow to load, and every so often, the on-screen action will grind to a halt for five-plus seconds while the game catches up to itself. You’d expect and possibly excuse that from a game with a massive open world or cutting-edge graphics, but this is four dudes sitting around a table. Come on.
Still, if you’re not bothered by the performance problems, you’ll definitely get some enjoyment out of Poker Night 2. For the first couple hours, the absurd premise and humor are enough to carry you through. With each round after that, though, the jokes get a little staler, the poker gets a little lonelier, and the game starts to lose a bit of its charm. Given the $5 buy-in, Poker Night 2 isn’t much of a gamble, but just don’t go in expecting more than a short-lived diversion.
|Developer: Telltale Games • Publisher: Telltale Games • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 4.23.2013|
While the writing is solid and the card playing has been notably improved over the first game, Poker Night 2 suffers from the same basic problem that plagued the original: a lack of staying power, thanks to the absence of competitive multiplayer and eventually repetitive dialogue.
|The Good||Usually amusing, frequently hysterical, banter.|
|The Bad||Way more technical issues than a poker game has any right to have.|
|The Ugly||An Ash that’s not voiced by Bruce Campbell. Blasphemy!|
|Poker Night 2 is available on Xbox 360 (XBLA), PlayStation 3 (PSN), and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox 360.|