Thursday, July 13, 2006

STACKED with Daniel Negreanu Review

STACKED with Daniel Negreanu, developed by 5000ft and published by Myelin Media.
The Good: Decent user interface, good number of player models, capable AI, accelerated play option for AI-only stretches, online tournaments are good fun
The Not So Good: Animation clipping issues, finding online games could be easier, online spectator mode squandered
What say you? Those who really like poker will find a competent and enjoyable game: 6/8

There’s been two oddball sports that have come into the mainstream lately: NASCAR and poker. Now, NASCAR has been around a while and just recently has gone into national prominence, but the rise in popularity of poker is a strange occurrence. It must be fairly popular because FSN and ESPN2 devote no less 87 hours of programming a day to poker. I think a lot of it has to do with the same reasons that golf is popular: regular people can do it. It’s fun to watch “professionals” do the same thing you can, and then get screwed over. Not surprisingly, computer games haven’t been too far behind the trend, as poker software has cropped up in large quantities at your local Best Buy. Most of these games are sad little titles that are just trying to cash in on the phenomena, but then there is Stacked, which is trying to make a more advanced poker experience. All of the official information regarding this game calls it STACKED. Well, there’s no need for CAPS LOCK here. I’m so sorry for shouting. Please forgive me! Anyway, Stacked uses the advanced AI developed at the University of Alberta (Go Golden Bears/Pandas!) over the past ten years, and couples it with realistic characters and environments and online tournament play. How will Stacked “stack up” against the competition? Will the horrible puns continue? You bet! (get it…bet…ha!)

The graphics in Stacked are almost really good across the board. The players and the casinos are very detailed and look excellent at the high resolutions of PCs (eat that, console losers). The players are a collection of 18 varied models that can be decked out in a variety of outfit color combinations, so spotting two players that look exactly the same is rare, although you can tell when the same base model was used. The player models look lifelike and include features such as arm and chest hair. Finally! The casinos are detailed close to the tables, but look worse the further back you look: low resolution background images that might have been passable on consoles look out of place and blurry here. There are some problems with clipping in the game, however. This crops up usually when cards are being handled, with hands going through tables and the like. None of this is really outrageous, but it is noticeable. Since dealing and handling cards is kind of a major part of poker, I wish more attention had been paid to this aspect of the graphics. Surprisingly, the actual playing cards are low resolution as well, showing the game’s console roots. They have angled corners (instead of rounded corners) and the pictures on the face cards look blurry and just plain bad. You would think some attention would be paid to the cards in a card game, but I guess not. The sounds are good enough. There is a noticeable loop of ambient sound that gets annoying after a while, and there are some strange background sounds like someone's eating the chips in some of the casinos. The player reactions are as varied as you might expect. Some of the phrases get repetitive after a while, but how many ways can someone say “fold”? I do like some of the complaints from the players when bad cards come up: they are fairly amusing. Overall, the graphics and sound in Stacked show some effort but not maximum effort, especially with complete conversion to higher resolutions seen in PC gaming.

Stacked features only Texas hold ‘em poker. Some may be disappointed by the lack of other poker modes, but nobody really plays the other variations and this is the most familiar one, so it’s fine with me. For those that aren’t familiar with the game, there is a set of tutorial videos in the game. These are non-interactive so all you can do is watch, so I doubt many people will sit through them all. Most people who buy this game already know how to play poker, so the length and mostly unentertaining tutorial videos are unnecessary. There is some good information contained in the videos, but you’ll probably be itching to actually play instead of watching some movies. A more interactive approach to the game with set hands and cards teaching the same concepts where you could really play would have worked a lot better.

Stacked features several modes of play. You can enter a quick game where you can set the rules (limit or no limit), initial blinds, how often blinds increase, and the AI difficulty level. You can also undertake a career, where you will play in cash games and tournaments against the AI. Performing well in these games will unlock more difficult tournaments featuring real poker “professionals.” The career mode is a good way of making the games you play mean something, and Stacked will track your progress as you make your way up the ranks. Stacked also features full-bodied online play over both the Internet and LAN. Online games will typically either be user created cash games, where you can sit down and get up when you please (just like in a real casino) or the official nightly tournaments. Finding games could be a little easier: it would work better with a Gamespy Arcade style listing of all the games in progress, instead of having to navigate through three or four menus to actually play a game. As it stands, the online game browser does not show the number of players in a game (just the name), so you won't know how many are playing until you join. Cash games can involve people with a lot of money playing against new players if the table limits are set high. Going head-to-head with players who have 50 times more money than you is a daunting task. This is especially exaggerated at no limit tables (which most of the online tables are) where you can lose all of your money to a high roller in a single hand. If you don't have the high cash flow, you can create a new table with lower limits and different rules. All of the created games are done through peer-to-peer connections, so you can leave a game you created and everyone else can keep playing. This has a downside: if one person at a table has a poor connection, they can disconnect other players through packet loss. This has happened to me only once (at the beginning of a tournament), but others have said it can occur more frequently. Players who lose all of their money are actually kicked from the table, which is a nice touch. If you lose all of your money in an online game, you'll get $2,000 to start over with. This is good because that means everyone can keep playing forever. Of course, this also results in a lot of mindless betting from less skilled players. You're not that concerned about wagering all of your money because you can just start over again with no penalty. This behavior is eliminated in tournaments, however, and the online tournaments are the best way of playing others. These tournaments are one of the highlights of Stacked, where any number of players can join in nightly official tournaments. There is a list of upcoming and past tournaments available on the MTV Stacked site. There is usually a good number of people playing in these tournaments (typically 40-70 for the PC), and it’s a great way of getting organized play into poker, instead of the random encounters seen in other poker games. I’ve never had an issue joining an online tournament; the process is as simple as signing up and the game prompts you when it’s about to being. I have had some issues joining user created cash games on occasion. I’m not sure if it’s because of a poor connection (no ping values are given in the game), but I’ve been able to join a particular server once and been told a connection couldn’t be made at a later time. Strange. There is also a spectator mode for online play, which could have had some definite potential. I was expecting a TV-style approach, but Stacked doesn’t show player cards or probabilities of winning like on television. As a result, spectator mode is a complete joke and waste of time. I could have been a lot better, especially watching the completion of a tournament after you’ve been eliminated.

Thankfully, there have been some accommodations for the PC in the user interface. You can use the mouse wheel or keyboard for placing bets, or grab and slide the bet amount indicator. The game does a good job of displaying how much of your current stack a given bet consumes, and also displays the stacks of the other players in several scrolling information bar. Getting a specific numerical bet is difficult, because the game scrolls numbers semi-randomly. You can use the keyboard to bet, but it only increases the bet by one, which is annoying for no limits games. You can use an in-game menu or keyboard shortcuts for looking at your cards, getting hints, changing views, showing emotion, or chatting with others. The hints are sometimes useful but most of the time they are not. Of course, if they were totally useful, that would take some of the fun out of the game, wouldn’t it? There isn’t really a point to smiling or frowning during a game (I haven’t seen the AI react to it), so I’m not quite sure why’s it’s included. Overall, the game shows that at least some interface improvements were made for the PC version, which is more than most games released for multiple platforms. You can still see the console roots in some of the game’s menus, however. They could have easily displayed all of the menu options on the screen at once, but instead you have to scroll up and down.

In general, the AI of Stacked is a very good opponent. Apparently, it will adjust to your play style over time and discover how often you bluff or when you will raise. This means you can kind of “trick” the AI for a little while, but isn’t that how real poker works? I have found that the AI could be more aggressive when they have a strong hand and they could easily win. Maybe that’s just the play style of the AI, but there were more than one occasion where they could have cleaned me out and didn’t. The AI goes all in a lot in no limit games with small blinds on cash tables (where it’s not a tournament). This causes all the other AI players to fold and results in a pretty boring game. The AI works a lot better at limit tables or in a tournament setting, where it plays a cautious, smart game (a lot smarter than some of the people I’ve played against online). The deliberate pace of Stacked might turn off some ADHD people, but I like the tension-building nature of the gameplay. It’s a refreshing difference from most poker games where a hand is over in seconds and there aren’t any exciting (well, exciting for poker) moments of anticipation. Plus, you can have the game accelerate the play when you are out of a hand, which speeds up the game considerably. The basics of hold ‘em poker shine through in Stacked, including the great strategy of the game. All told, Stacked is a good, entertaining simulation of poker.

So, what advantages does Stacked have over free online poker games? For one, it has organized, nightly tournaments for virtual cash prizes, where people will tend to act more reasonable instead of throwing away all of their money on a bad hand. This will really appeal to people who enjoy playing poker online and want to eliminate most of the riff-raff that can be seen on free sites. Secondly, Stacked will also appeal to single players because of the generally competent AI. Except for at no limit cash tables, the AI is a generally strong player, and will probably act more reasonably than most players online. Coding an AI for a poker game is difficult, especially when human players do dumb things, so creating a dynamic and adjusting AI is a pretty neat feature. Ten years of university-level work has gone into the licensed AI, and it shows for the most part. In addition to better graphics, Stacked adds some user interface enhancements for the PC version that makes playing on the computer a lot easier than the consoles. The game pace is kind of slow, and waiting for human opponents to make decisions online can become frustrating at times (taking 20 seconds to fold, anyone?), but I don’t mind it so much. The relatively low $30 price tag comes with some solid AI and enjoyable Internet and LAN play. So if you’re looking for a structured online experience coupled with decent AI, you could definitely go all in with Stacked.