Full House Poker
Online poker is a huge market, but it hasn't been taken advantage of on the Xbox 360 to great success. The most successful XBLA poker title was probably released about 4 years ago; a game by the name of Texas Hold 'Em. There have also been failed attempts at disc versions of poker tournaments, but they sold fairly poorly due to low quality. There hasn't been a version that takes advantage of Xbox Live avatars and the folks at Microsoft Game Studios are aiming to do just that. Full House Poker combines the use of your online persona with Texas Hold Em matches and tournaments in the online space. It also utilizes Windows 7 phone compatibility ($2.99 on the Windows 7 app store) and allows you to transfer your online bankroll / experience so you can continue the game while mobile. This doesn't translate into cross platform connectivity for matches though, only a stat transfer.
Full House Poker does introduce an interesting wrinkle to Texas Hold Em, an experience system that rewards your player based on the quality of your decisions. If you lose the hand with Pocket Aces, for instance, you will be rewarded with playing the strong hand despite losing some chips in the process. That also means stupidity won't be rewarded, even if the player hauls in a giant pile of chips. Earning experience offers similar rewards to the Call of Duty concept, thus your player earns different outfits, cards, chair, etc... Hypothetically, you can become an extremely experienced player, yet incredibly unlucky and chip-poor.
The game does a great job of walking you through the basics of Texas Hold 'Em. You start off with 2500 chips at the start of the game and can jump out into the single player to build up the bankroll. However, the AI players aren't particularly smart and often make idiotic plays that feel opposite of their aforementioned play style. These flaws are magnified during the Pro Takedown mode which pits you against a "professional" player. It's far to easy to steamroll over the professional when you get a fantastic opening hand. However, the single player mode is an excellent way to build up your chip count before entering the online arena.
The multiplayer matches are where you are going to get the most value out of Full House Poker. Real players are much harder to steamroll over and will likely be more conservative with their chips. I found the time limit imposed on players during an online match to be reasonable as well. It gave me enough time to consider the field before making my play. It's also fun setting up your own customized casino and inviting players in, assuming you have enough experience to customize it. You can choose to play in unranked or ranked matches.
Beyond standard multiplayer, you also have the option of participating in scheduled Texas Heat matches. Texas Heat is a fast paced version of Hold 'Em that sets the clock at 25 minutes and reduces the amount of time that you have to make decisions. Players are split into tiers and move to higher quality tables based on the amount of experience they are earning rather than chip count. It encourages smart play over stupid decisions and all the players get a higher quality match. At the end of the tourney, you are awarded a percentage of the chips earned as well as cool avatar extras. It's a fun mode of play that will satiate 1 versus 100 fans for the time being. If you love achievements, there are 20 to earn in Full House Poker (expanded to 23 with the free DLC). Tasks include leveling your character, earning a large bankroll or beating the pros.
I loved the visual flair to the Avatars and the variety of their facial expressions / flourishes. They are well animated and the amount of background animation going on during a tournament. I also appreciated the straightforward and clear menu navigation.
It's difficult to get excited about music or sound effects in a poker game. For anyone that's watched poker on TV or played hands in an actual casino, the game is faithful to that sound environment. However, it's also on par with the same entertainment value, ala extremely low-key and subdued.
Is Full House Poker worth 800 Marketplace points ($10)? If you are looking to earn prizes similar to the now defunct 1 versus 100, probably not at this point. If you are looking to simply play poker with some of your Xbox Live brethren, then perhaps. It's easily one of the more polished poker games that I've played on any platform, but there's plenty of free poker games on the PC that can offer the same thrill. It is, however, much more visual and entertaining to play than Texas Hold Em on the Xbox Live Arcade (also 800 MP points). I can also appreciate the inclusion of the experience system in the game. Keep an eye on this poker title and watch Microsoft for any future announcement regarding actual prizes for winning tournaments.