Stop me if you have heard this one: a dog, a robot, a bodyguard, and a psychopath walk into a bar. Each of them drops twenty large to buy into a poker tournament against a silent protagonist. I forget how the middle goes, but the punch line is that you end up slightly disappointed in the game when all is said and done.
GAME NAME: Poker Night 2
DEVELOPER(S): Telltale Games
PUBLISHER(S): Telltale Games
PLATFORM(S): PC, Xbox 360, PS3
GENRE(S): Card Game
RELEASE DATE(S): April 24, 2013
Poker Night 2 is the follow up to 2010’s Poker Night at the Inventory, a Texas Hold-’em poker game that pits you against four beloved characters from geek culture; this time the crew around the table is made up of Brock Samson of The Venture Bros., Claptrap from Borderlands, Ash Williams of Evil Dead and Army of Darkness fame, and doggie detective Sam from the Sam & Max games. Adding to the chaos, Portal’s psychotic AI GlaDOS joins in as the dealer for the tournament.
The game is pretty much straight up poker, though this installment gives you the option of playing either standard Texas Hold-’em, or playing Omaha, a hold-’em variant where each player receives four hole cards, but their final hand has to contain two of them, no more, no less. Each of the all-star players possesses their own play style, as well as their own series of “tells” for you to track and keep an eye out for. Another new feature is the ability to order drinks for the other players, making their tells bigger and more apparent.
But the poker aspect of the game is only barely important; you will not find anything new or exciting in the world of poker here (especially since it is a single-player only game). The whole concept of the Poker Night games is essentially fan service–nothing else. Hardcore Team Fortress 2 and Borderlands 2 players will likely want to jump onto the low price point for the unlockable goodies that come with it, but for everyone else, it is the fan service. Gather together a bunch of popular characters from different series, drop them together, and wait for the sparks to fly. From a marketing point-of-view, it is ingeniously simple, but from a production stand point, it is a veritable minefield, requiring flawless execution and attention to detail. Poker Night 2’s execution is quite less than flawless.
A policy of “If you can’t do it right, don’t try to do it at all” would have done Poker Night 2 a world of good. For instance, almost all the characters have their recognized actor doing their voices, including Patrick Warburton doing Brock Samson, and let’s face it, it’s not like he is desperate for work. Ash, on the other hand, the most cross-media recognizable character in the mix, is voiced not by Bruce Campbell, but a sound-alike. I cannot fault Telltale for not actually getting Bruce Campbell–sure he has voiced Ash on several games in the past, but maybe his schedule would not allow for it, or maybe his price tag was too high to keep a five dollar price tag on the title. I am not privy to that knowledge, but what I am privy to is that when you are putting together a title whose sole purpose is fan service and you cannot get one of those characters nailed down, you go looking for a different character.
As a player, you would not have missed Ash anyway. When you look at the character dynamics, Brock and Ash pretty much fill up the same slot–they are both supposed to be brazen, larger-than-life badasses–casting them together is a huge misstep. To make up for it, Ash seems subdued, spending most of his time talking about his fiancée and trying to get the other characters to shop at S-Mart. Even Ash‘s go-to catchphrases have been neutered of their recognizable obscenities, a move clearly not taken to appease censors, seeing as how Brock curses with regularity and gusto. Sam, a character that I have always found to be a hilarious straight-man, appears to garner so little faith from the Poker Night team that they force his comedic partner Max to sit behind him and set up his jokes for him. In fact, it seems like the writing staff was primarily concerned with the Bendict-and-Beatrice relationship between Claptrap and GlaDOS, expecting that to carry the whole game, and while amusing, it is too much for their cybernetic shoulders to bare.
In fact, the writing as a whole could have gone much deeper. The first Poker Night game was entertaining enough that, even if you had heard all of the dialogue before, it was still amusing to listen to the characters interact, and after you were eliminated it was still often worth it to sit and watch the rest of the tournament play out. Poker Night 2’s dialogue lacks the depth of its predecessor, and the repetition that ensues kills a lot of the its edge. My very first game, Sam and Ash got left at the table alone, and kept recycling the same two interactions over and over until I finally had enough of it and skipped out to a new tournament. Even the smaller quips and one-liners lose their charm quickly; I for one never want to hear Sam say “fuzznuggets” ever again.
Technically, the game is totally sound. The characters all look and move properly for their individual milieus, though I found it took some time to get use to Ash as a computer generated character when he is traditionally live action (but to be fair getting used to a voice-acted Tycho in the last edition took the same amount of time). Other than the non-Bruce Campbell voice coming from Ash, the audio is all well done, and The Inventory constantly pipes in lounge versions of classic songs from the characters’ respective worlds, such as Borderlands 2’s “Short Change Hero” and Portal 2’s “Want You Gone”.
So in the end you are looking at a fan-service driven game that has a mediocre character dynamic, too little dialogue to spare, and less-than-perfect delivery in a title built specifically the type of crowd that demands perfection. The price point keeps any disappointment from being insulting, and like I said above, TF2 hat collectors and Pandora-philiac head collectors will want to jump on this for the respective unlockables, but by-and-large this game is going to see a lot of impulse purchasers playing it once or twice and never touching it again.