Review by Ari Rockefeller
Casino games translated into video game form are a tricky venture. There are only so many ways to make the same array of casino games interesting, and unless you make them especially appealing with some kind of visual or story gimmick (professional poker tie-ins notwithstanding), then you might as well pick up a handheld poker game at whatever Walmart or Target is nearby and tool around on that. Telltale Games most likely had this in mind when they designed Poker Night 2.
Poker Night 2 is the sequel to Poker Night at the Inventory, which came out for the PC via Steam. The first game established the history of the titular Inventory: it was established in response to a rough draft of the 18th Amendment that was far more restrictive—it went after forms of gaming as well. It has since been repurposed into a high-end club, sort of a Club 33 for geek culture. The first game had you playing Texas Hold ‘Em against Max from the Sam and Max franchise, HomestarRunner.com’s Strong Bad, Heavy Weapons Guy from Team Fortress 2, and Tycho Brahe of Penny Arcade. This time around, you’re playing against somewhat stiffer competition—Brock Samson of The Venture Bros., a CL4P-TP general-purpose robot (or just Claptrap) from Borderlands 2, Ashley J. Williams from the Evil Dead franchise…and Max from Sam and Max. Winslow of Tales of Monkey Island fame was the host and dealer for the previous game, but this time around, he’s merely a background character; this time, the cards are being dealt by GLaDOS from Portal.
This time around, you get to play Texas or Omaha Hold ‘Em, both of which have a $20,000 buy-in (for those of you who don’t know, the difference between the two is that in Omaha, you are dealt four hole cards, but may use two at most to make your hand). Gameplay takes place in a lightly populated Inventory, and is held at what is objectively the coolest card table ever created—small panels on equally small robot arms pop up out of the table to spit out the hole cards to the players, while the community cards are dealt with a longer arm elsewhere on the table. They all pop in and out of their respective places seamlessly, too; you’d never know they were there if you didn’t see them yourself. You never see how the cards are collected or loaded into the table, though; they just disappear when the hand is complete.
Each AI opponent plays differently. Sam is the most defensive of the four, and has a higher propensity for folding but stays in when he’s especially confident about his hand. Ash will try to scare you away from pots by hedging huge bets on terrible hands; he’ll go all in earlier than others…and can wind up eliminated first because of it. Claptrap can be loud and obnoxious, and his inability to bluff worth a damn is balanced by giving off the least conspicuous tells (you know, because he’s a robot that doesn’t have a face). Brock Samson, while he knows when to fold as well as Sam, is the most aggressive of the four.
Easily the most enjoyable part of each hand is the banter between the other players and the dealer. There are numerous conversations coded into the game, and every single combination of opponents—plus the dealer—is accounted for. Some particularly funny ones include: Claptrap discussing logical paradoxes with Sam and GLaDOS, and then talks himself into one that Sam off-handedly suggests; Brock is surprised to see that Ash Williams is a guy, seguing into a discussion on the gender identity of names; as well as everyone individually having spats with GLaDOS over how bad their cards were. Periodically, you are given challenges to accomplish during play, such as winning with a certain hand, winning X amount of hands in a row, and so on. When you do, an opponent will be obligated to offer up something important—either to themselves or to the series they belong to. Brock will have to put up the mysterious Orb, Claptrap puts up the award he won at the Spike TV Video Game Awards (obviously the least valuable of the four, as it’s a Spike TV award and not worth the materials it’s made from), Ash puts up the Necronomicon, and Sam offers…his banjo. You earn an achievement for collecting all of them, including a Paranoia Core from GLaDOS once you’ve won the previous four.
The Inventory’s appearance is rather simple, all things considered, although this iteration is at a different angle/section of the establishment. A bar dots the background to the left, with Mad Moxxi of Borderlands tending bar, a stage in the rest of the background, as well as various booths and tables, while Sam’s buddy Max sits at one of the booths behind him and offers commentary on the proceedings. Winning tournaments not only builds up your lifetime winnings column, but you also earn “inventory tokens,” which are used primarily to reskin the cards, poker chips and table felt for each of the characters’ series (this includes a Portal theme for GLaDOS). The Venture Bros. theme looks like it’s something out of The Monarch’s flying cocoon; you’re transported to a rendition of Mad Moxxi’s bar for the Borderlands theme; the Inventory is done up in a medieval theme that deliberately lacks background music; Sam and Max’s office is remade for the inventory, complete with noir trimmings; and the final theme is something straight out of Aperture Science Research Facility.
All things considered, it’s not without its flaws. For one, the music is understated and subtle, and is pretty atmospheric, but it’s not a game you’ll go rushing out to download the soundtrack to. The voice bytes are fun to listen to, but they can get repetitive if a game plays out the same way and the same characters get eliminated early on or in the same order every time. GLaDOS isn’t exactly innocent, either; hearing her say “WELL…THAT WAS A CLEVER MOVE THAT WON’T COME BACK TO BITE YOU IN YOUR AMPLE POSTERIOR” after calling a large raise or on your reraise will get very annoying. Visually, there are a bunch of bugs as well. When characters bail out of a hand, they will relax in their seats in their own way. The problem with this is that bantering triggers mostly at random. And when someone banters when they’re not in—as they were most likely coded with just their “in” postures in mind—it can lead to the characters’ heads and limbs twitching and jerking in very flow-breaking fashions. Sam is particularly guilty of this, as when he sits out a hand, he leans back and puts his feet up on the table…and when he leans back, half of his head is out of the frame. GLaDOS also offends this, as she always addresses the player face-to-face when something important to the game (such as the blinds increasing) comes up. The only problem is when there’s one opponent left, the camera fixes straight on them…meaning all you’ll see of GLaDOS is part of her chassis occasionally floating into the corner of the screen. Brock is in a similar situation, as he starts puffing away on a cigarette, but it’s not as bad as Sam because said cigarette stays in the corner of his mouth. Buying drinks for them only compounds the problem, as they’ll try to talk and reach for their drinks at the same time. If you or I did that, we’d wind up with them down our shirts.
I can only imagine they would fix those problems in a possible patch…maybe offer up some more unlockables as well. Just like the first game, in Poker Night 2 you can unlock different skins for stuff in a different game—in this case, Borderlands 2. Great if you have the game, but they go to waste if you don’t; at least on the Xbox version, you get avatar accessories to unlock. You can rack up all the achievements in only a few dedicated playthroughs, but once you’ve won all the bounty challenges and unlocked all the felts, chips and decks, the unused and unusable Inventory tokens tend to pile up, not doing much of anything. After that…well, what else is there?
Poker Night 2 is a pretty good continuation of the series, but it leaves a lot to be desired. For what it’s worth, Telltale has expanded what’s included in the game, even if you may not use very much of it (stick to a certain chip/card/felt combination, only play Texas Hold ‘Em). Hopefully, if they do a third game in the series, improvements will be made, as well as different things done with your opponents. I’m just spitballing here, but maybe they’ll offer more than four…and if so, maybe you get to choose which ones you play against. Or, the most elementary of the bunch, pick out a few other forms of poker to play.
I will say this, though: I would pay good money for a real-life Portal themed deck of cards like the one in this game.