Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Imagine Poker 3 Review

Imagine Poker 3, developed and published by Candywriter.
The Good: Historical figures are cute, nice visual style, fast pace, persistent grading system
The Not So Good: No online play, questionable AI opponents, betting interface could be improved, restricted to five players per table, only Texas hold-em rules, constrained tournament format, limited sound in Windows version
What say you? A simple Texas hold-em poker game that’s too easy due to primitive AI and lacks several features: 5/8

I like poker games. The combination of strategy, perseverance, and tasty, tasty chips piques my interest. I’m not good enough to play for real money, but I have enjoyed my time with titles such as STACKED and World Series of Poker (which I have to review, but it keeps crashing so I can’t play for more than five minutes). That brings us to Imagine Poker 3, apparently the third installment of a poker series I didn’t know existed. This game features historical figures to play against (that’s the whole Imagine part, I suppose), so you have the chance to lose your house to Genghis Khan. Greedy bastard.

The graphics of Imagine Poker 3 look good for a poker game, thanks to highly detailed and well animated character models. Each of the twenty characters in Imagine Poker 3 display some humorous reactions to positive and negative events in the game (including very excited wins). The characters are also easily recognizable, and even though they are rendered in 2-D, they look much better than if Imagine Poker 3 was presented in all three dimensions. Imagine Poker 3 also includes several locations to play in, although the backgrounds will probably be ignored by most players. The rest of the graphical design is pretty standard for the genre, though I like the chip stacks: they don’t repeat and are a great visual aid. As for sound, Imagine Poker 3 features really basic sound effects: just chips and cards. It would have been interesting hearing the characters respond to in-game action, rather than just seeing it. Imagine Poker 3 lacks background music (which is fine) and voice commentary is only available in the Macintosh version. Still, the graphics more than make up for the auditory shortcomings in Imagine Poker 3, creating a good theme and wonderful environment in which to play.

Imagine Poker 3 is generally your average Texas hold-em poker game. Its unique feature is that it has historical figures as your opponents: Napoleon, the Tooth Fairy, Dracula, Stalin, and Neptune, to name a few. This is a little gimmicky, but the great character design makes it more palatable. This alone won’t make for a distinctive title, and the remainder of the game doesn’t feature enough to make Imagine Poker 3 stand out from the crowd. The first thing you’ll do is create a character for yourself; while you can set your country of origin, you cannot pick a character form, so you will be a blank space during gameplay. Games come in tournament and custom form. Tournaments are done as a series of custom games at a set sequence of levels against different opponents; there isn’t a reason to play tournaments instead of single-round custom games, as you will eventually lose and offset any experience gained. Unlike real poker games that have winners from various tables come together, tournaments in Imagine Poker 3 are simply a series of matches that don’t feel like you are part of a larger event. Custom games allow you to set the specific opponents, room, chip color, and total chips at the table. All games are limited to no more than five players: while this reduces the number of bad hands, it’s less fun to play with an unrealistically low number of people. Imagine Poker 3 only features Texas hold-em, as other version of poker are not included. You can customize the betting rules (limit or no limit) and blinds (from 10/20 to 40/80, and automatic increasing), but having just one type of poker is yet another limitation. The game keeps track of everyone’s progress (human and AI players) and assigns a letter grade; this is a pretty cool feature that adds a bit of RPG flavor to the game. It almost makes up for the lack of multiplayer. Almost.

Imagine Poker 3 requires the use of the keyboard and mouse. While you can use keyboard shortcuts for commands (“C” for check), you must bet with the mouse. Betting is annoying at first: you must press and hold the “bet” button and then scroll through a long list of bets. If you simply press the “B” key, the minimum bet will automatically be chosen. Using the mouse wheel would be better, which is a feature from STACKED. Imagine Poker 3 features the Poker Ghost utility make by the developer, which computes the strength of your hand just like on TV. Unfortunately, the Poker Ghost is not automatic (you must click on the ghost icon) and it takes a good five seconds to compute the odds. While this doesn’t seem like a long time, five seconds per card adds up over an entire game. There should be an option to turn the Poker Ghost on permanently, which would also eliminate the wait since it can run in the background. The AI of Imagine Poker 3 is disappointing for a couple of reasons, namely an over aggressive nature and general dumbness. AI opponents will bet big when they don’t have a chance to win. They will fold even after they have invested a large portion of the chips into the pot. The small blind will fold, letting the big blind win. AI players that don’t flop anything will always check, making it way too easy to win. There are plenty of other examples of odd behavior that the AI exhibits, and since Imagine Poker 3 lacks multiplayer, the game dies by its poor AI.

Imagine Poker 3 is a couple of features away from being a notable poker title: online play and improved AI. While the official site purports the “artificial intelligence module that is sure to challenge even poker professionals,” I found the AI to be too aggressive and lay unintelligent bets far too often. Since the game lacks a difficulty setting, you’re stuck with the same level of intelligence the entire time. Of course, I could be wrong, but I simply found the AI not to be up to snuff. The inclusion of historical figures is a bit gimmicky but it works because of the spot-on animations and detail. I like how the game tracks performance through the grading system, giving you something to shoot for long-term as well as rivalries against AI foes. The inclusion of the Poker Ghost utility is nice, but performance should be more instantaneous. Placing bets should also be more straightforward than the drop-down menu that requires you to hold down the mouse button. The remainder of Imagine Poker 3 is fairly standard for the poker genre. Playing Imagine Poker 3 is fun, but the original features and streamlined gameplay are offset by the absent components. You would think these things would have been added in the third version of a game. The inclusion of historical figures is interesting and the gameplay is decent, but Imagine Poker 3 is missing several key features that would make it a distinguished game.