Microsoft’s last release in their House Party promotion, Full House Poker, does for virtual poker games what Beyond Good & Evil HD did for old classics. Namely, taking a popular type of game and making it shine brighter than it has ever done before. I know I am waxing lyrical, but after playing several hours of the game in one sitting, I realised that my smile hadn’t left my face once!
As you can guess, FHP is a Texas hold ’em game (the most popular form of poker). But, instead of just looking at a set of cards on a table, you gaze upon a virtual casino populated by random avatars. You and all the players at the table are also, and as you play, you get drawn into their tiny little world. By putting your avatar in the game, they have not only created an extra tool for immersion, but it also makes you feel more invested in the game.
So, here is the science bit for those who have never played Texas hold ’em before (shame on you). Each player is dealt two ‘Hole’ cards. These cards are for your eyes only and must not be shown to any other player. Once the cards are dealt, a round of betting takes place, based upon the strength of the player’s hole cards. At this point, you can bet, raise or fold. Once that round of betting is over, three community cards are placed face up in the middle of the table. Those cards are for everyone to use to try and make a hand. From there, it’s another round of betting before a fourth community card is dealt, and then again before the final card. The winner is the person with the best five card hand out of the hole cards and the community cards. It seems all very complicated, but FHP does a great job of teaching you the basics and, once you have them down, it’s all about fine tuning your skills and learning things like betting patterns and pot odds (I’m not going in to all that, this is a gaming site not a poker school!).
Where FHP really shines is in the details. The way that your avatar shuffles about on his/her seat, the faces it pulls when you’re deciding what to do with your cards and the way the avatar celebrates or sulks when you win or lose. All of these little things had me in stitches! You can even emote aggressively or timidly at the push of either the left or right triggers. By putting so much work into these little details, the game makes you really connect with your avatar so much more than any other avatar-enabled game.
FHP also offers a bunch of videos that explain each aspect of the game, which pop up once when they become relevant. Both short and informative, they help you get to grips with all the features of the game.
As you would expect, the game offers both offline and online modes of play and, boy, are there lots of variation in both. Playing offline, you can play at sit and go tables, tournaments and pro takedown. Both sit and go and tournament tables offer complete customization, from how many players per table, stake levels and even the colour of the chairs. As you level up, even more options and items become available, along with extra unlockable items, such as poker nicknames and in-game avatar clothing. The Pro takedown mode is where you go head to head with one of the game’s ‘Pros’. Winning the game will give you bonus XP and the pro’s costume.
You may have noticed I keep mentioning ‘Levelling up’. Whenever you play at a table (in any mode), you earn XP. This is gained from playing a hand, winning a hand, winning tournaments and even making a good fold. Virtually everything you do will earn you XP. The more XP you earn, the more things you unlock. There are even a whole bunch of chip tricks for you to unlock as you progress. The tricks are cool and, once unlocked, can be activated by pressing the direction pad in different ways. The XP system is unified across single and multiplayer, so no matter how you like to play you are always growing in experience.
Multiplayer works in the same way as single player with the same types of games and options. You can jump into a random tourney or sit and go, or create your own table and wait for players to join you. You can also create private games for you and your poker-loving mates. Online play is smooth and faultless and having voice chat on just boosts the banter to no end, especially if it’s with all your friends.
There is also the little matter of the next XBOX 360 gamer night. You may remember 1 vs 100, Microsoft’s attempt at coaxing gamers online during peak times by promising prizes galore. This didn’t work out so well due to the fact that you were more likely to strike oil in your backyard than get picked as the contestant in 1 vs 100! That game was scrapped, but in it’s place is Full House Poker. The promise this time is that your skill, playing ability and just a little bit of luck will win you prizes. Details about this are a bit thin at the moment, but it all sounds very promising, and another great reason to buy FHP.
The only flaw I have found with FHP is a minor one, but it can be annoying. If you decide to have a look at your ranking on the leaderboards, be sure not to try and bring up another player’s Gamercard. I tried this five or six times and, in all but one occasion, the game froze my 360, which meant rebooting the console. It seems like a small thing, but as I said, can be frustrating. I’m sure this is something that can be fixed, so fingers crossed.
As far as I am concerned, Full House Poker is the jewel in Microsoft’s House Party crown. Full of style, wit and excitement it isn’t just the best console poker game, but the best virtual poker game ever.
Review copy provided by publisher.