Friday, August 22, 2008

Master Poker Review

Master Poker, developed and published by Computer Opponents Software.
The Good: Outstanding realistic AI, hefty amount of game options that let you simulate any poker environment, keyboard hotkeys make betting faster, extensive in-game help and advice
The Not So Good: Limited to No Limit Texas Hold’em, pricey, no multiplayer, rudimentary graphics and sound effects
What say you? A great poker training tool with exceptional computer opponents: 6/8

Poker! The word strikes fear in the heart of “real” sports fans everywhere. The strategy game (I suppose you can call it that) has permeated noted sports networks for several years, now, as people tune in to check out “flops,” “blinds,” and Norman Chad’s overt sexiness. The world’s best players must practice, and a popular choice is playing on one of the many online poker sites (excessively advertised during any poker television coverage). A much cheaper and faster option would be to play against computer opponents, and that’s what Master Poker is all about. It supposedly offers quality AI and enough options to simulate any poker environment. Does it, or are the developers filthy liars that lie?

The low point of Master Poker is the graphics and sound. Simply put, the game looks and sounds no better than a generic online poker site. The game is fixed at a low resolution (800 by 600), so users with a large monitor will have to resort to squinting or changing their desktop resolution (no thanks!). The game is entirely in 2-D, with generic tables, cards, and only one animation (dealing cards). There are a number of table and deck graphics available to increase the variety somewhat, but it's still a run-of-the-mill presentation. It’s not an immersive environment by any means and certainly cannot compete with 3-D titles like STACKED or World Series of Poker. The sound isn’t any better: only a few repetitive sound bytes and no music; birds do chirp when you take a while to act, which is amusing the first couple of times you hear it. The upside to the lack of graphical splendor is that Master Poker can work on any computer that is still semi-functional. You certainly won’t be looking towards Master Poker for cutting-edge graphics or sound.

Master Poker is a single-player poker experience that only simulates no-limit Texas Hold’Em. Fortunately, the one thing it does it does very well. Despite the fact that Master Poker lacks different game types and multiplayer, it does offer a lot of settings and other features to (almost) make up for it. By creating a profile, the game will keep track of your history, including placement in every tournament and a running total of your winnings (if you enter tournaments with a fee). Difficulty can be set by altering the proportion of “dead money” novice players: it has a definite effect on how easy it is to bluff and intimidate other players. You can play single table matches, survivor games against infinite opponents, a classic cash game, and multi-table tournaments that can simulate up to 5,000 players. Instead of making up cash totals for people replacing busted players at your table, Master Poker plays every hand at every table, so the results are as real as real can be. Master Poker also has a bunch of pre-set tournament rules (blinds, entry fee, starting chips) from almost every online and real-world poker event; plus, you can make your own. Master Poker certainly does give you a lot of tools to use to simulate the exact environment you are practicing for.

Master Poker has a lot of options, so I will only touch on the best ones. The game features extensive in-game help, from information on every game option to advice before the flop. This is a nice feature for beginners who (like myself) tend to play way too many hands during a game. While the starting hand guide disables after the blinds get big or the number of players at your table decreases significantly, the hints are very informative and you’ll almost always learn something new during each game. Master Poker also has a couple of options to greatly increase the pace of the game: you can automatically skip hands when you fold, speed AI decisions, and disable animations. This makes playing a large tournament take less than a couple of days. Other novice-friendly features include showing initial or winning hands, color-coded community cards to indicate possible winning hand combinations, pot odds, and peeking at the next card to be drawn. About the only thing Master Poker does not offer are those TV-inspired percentage odds of winning, but the rest of the feature list certainly compensates for this.

Master Poker makes playing the game fairly easy with a selection of shortcut keys. You can also use the numbers to bet a percentage (as in 5 = 50%) of the existing pot. I still prefer the chip stack picture (and mouse-wheel betting) of STACKED, but Master Poker gives you enough options to place your bets easily. Now, the AI: it’s good. This is the most hyped feature of Master Poker and it’s certainly the most difficult computer opponent I’ve encountered in a poker game. The AI does not look at your cards (according to the developer, and I am inclined to believe him) but instead uses real strategies on when to attack, fold, or go all-in. In short, they are smart and cannot be exploited any easier than real-life players on professional circuits. So if you are looking for quality AI with no random chance thrown in to compensate for poorly designed decision-making, then Master Poker is the poker software for you.

Is it worth $60? For avid players, it is. Master Poker features that best AI I have encountered: take that, Canucks! While the game is limited to no-limit Texas Hold’Em and lacks internet play, you are able to practice any real poker tournament (online and off) against knowledgeable AI opponents. The user is also given a suite of learning tools that can give as much (or as little) advice and information as desired. While the graphics and sound are elementary at best, I would much rather have the fast games in Master Poker than a slow and boring poker experience. Although it lacks well-rounded features to appeal to a more general audience, if you are looking to improve your skills as a poker player, than an investment into Master Poker is a recommended venture. Is Master Poker a quality simulation? You bet. Ha ha ha ha ha!