I, like many others, find myself fascinated with how so many ideas eventually find their way back to their roots. Before you ask, no I'm not referring to the endless pandering presented by many of today's 'reality TV stars; seriously, just because you know the words to a Bon Jovi classic doesn't showcase that you're 'foundation is with the classics'. Not that I watch that sort of thing, I heard about it on the news, or around the office....quit judging me!
Microsoft Game Studios is obviously, closely associated with the Xbox 360 and many of the bigger hits (and a number of misses) across the Microsoft console marketplace. First developed in 2002 to coincide with the original Xbox launch the studio has been busy publishing titles and buying up some top notch development studios. The launch of the 360 Microsoft Game Studios began developing games internally rather than simply adding their brand to titles they published. Most of the internally developed titles were destined for the Xbox Live Arcade marketplace. The biggest surprise for me is that there are very few games, utilizing the 360 Avatar characters, created by this development powerhouse.
It looks like MGS has found a great way to use our pseudo selves while pairing it with a great game. Full House Poker may not sound like a stellar title, lets face it, you're going to play cards. But lets keep in mind that long before video games there were cards. Our ancestors spent countless hours shuffling and dealing cards. Mankind has always created games, with the creation of playing cards it seems inevitable that gambling would soon follow. There is a randomness to poker that maintains the illusion of strategy, mix in the right amount of guile, wit and cheating and you have all the monikers of a modern video game (less the explosions and 68 TV).
Gameplay is straight forward, sit at a table of 6-10 players, ante, bet, raise, fold or bust and repeat. Sure you could win the occasional hand but where's the fun in that. Poker is not new to the digital age and most incarnations have been disappointing at best. Full House Poker however takes advantage of the Xbox avatars by putting the player in the game. You will be able to use your left and right triggers to aggressively or subtly make your moves, like slamming in your big bet or coyly folding. These actions can help (or hinder) your ability to bluff or to establish a method of play.
Of course the single player campaign will have you going up against computer opponents that seem to be there for little more than training for the multiplayer gameplay. The computerized gamblers are very animated in their gestures and they are very eager to have you take them on when they go 'all in'....you see, they are willing to bet copious amounts even with a Jack high hand. I would have liked to feel a little more competitiveness from them but, again, the game is meant for the multiplayer experience.
You can have a chance to take on these AI competitors one on one by playing through the Pro Takedown mode. Depending on your experience level and the amount of chips you have available you will be able to buy into a round facing off against the likes of Rachel Raise, Lilly Sun and Johnny Spade. Again each of these players are pretty easy to figure out and shouldn't pose too much difficulty, but you will find yourself challenging some of the harder multiplayer aspects, in order to raise your experience faster, just so you can finally take the whole group down.
The multiplayer, taking a hint from many of today's hits, is where the game really stands out. Once again facing off with 6-10 players you can choose to host a session and customize everything from the cards to the table and chairs and your outfit (when you beat the AI in a Pro Tournament Takedown you get the ability to wear their outfit in game). You could instead choose to join a session created by another gamer online, in ranked or unranked games. All of the sessions can award chips and experience, but the ranked sessions will award ranking points based on how many other players you outlast.
Although the multiplayer is a lot of fun, the Texas Heat sessions are a great example of what can happen with a well implemented gaming team. Texas Heat sessions are scheduled tournaments that last approximate 25 minutes. While the focus is on winning at the table there is a greater emphasis placed on garnering experience points. Points are awarded for making smart moves at the table and additional points are awarded, along with chips, at the end of each round, depending on how you performed. You will be placed at one of 3 'diamond' tables based on how well you've done in the past. Score well at the single diamond table and you'll be promoted to the double diamond where your pot starts off bigger and the wins can be large.
Continue to dominate at the double and you're on your way to the triple diamond table, starting off with a $250,000 bankroll and pots in the millions are common. Keep in mind that losing your bankroll will drop you down a level and cost you chips if your at the bottom. All of the multiplayer games will award custom cards, tables and 'names' from time to time by the Texas Heat sessions where some of the more top notch in game awards can be found. The final benefit to the Texas Heat games are having messages pop up displaying how your friends are doing or simply reminding you of how you're doing against the competition. This level of immersion is addictive....the time seems to fly by and you can't help but feel good when you finally pull out a flush.
Many gamers will give this title a pass simply because they aren't comfortable with their own knowledge of the game of poker. But Full House Poker is here to help...there are a lot of tutorials and help available in game and with a click of the left button you can instantly see what type of hand beats what.
I've never been a big gambler and I can say I've found it hard to write this review....not because I don't know what to write but simply because I am continually drawn back to play 'just one more hand'. If there is an improvement I could add is to create some form of real world reward for winning some of the Texas Heat sessions. If you need your games to have bullets and explosions this is not the game for you. But if you enjoy the idea of watching your Xbox doppelganger doing fancy tricks with poker chips, or if you like a game that expands your repertoire, while delivering a unique multiplayer environment, all for only 800 Microsoft points then don't miss out on picking up Full House Poker and go all in!