Written by Sombrero Grande
There have certainly been no shortage of poker video games produced over the years, so what makes Telltale Games’ new release, Poker Night 2, stand apart from the rest? It aims to recreate what happens at a poker game other than poker: specifically the taunting, drinking, chatter and good-natured ribbing that often occurs between the all the shuffling and the betting. And Poker Night 2 stays very true to that premise, as long as your card-playing buddies are an eclectic amalgam of pop-culture characters plucked from TV, movies, video games, and comics.
Poker Night 2 is Telltale’s second trip to “The Inventory,” a seedy dive where the pop culture elite meet to compete in high-stakes Texas Hold’em tournaments. This time around, your “The Player” will sit down at a felt table with imposing bodyguard Brock Samson from Adult Swim’s The Venture Brothers, chatty robot Claptrap from the Borderlands video game series, boomstick-toting Ashley “Ash” Williams from Army of Darkness, and Sam from the Sam & Max video games as well as comics. Adding to the crass menagerie is GLaDOS from the Portal video game series, who serves as dealer and dishes out plenty of insults along with the cards.
The idea behind “The Inventory” is that it’s a kind of hangout for characters when they’re “off duty” from their normal jobs (think Game Central Station from Wreck-It Ralph). Characters come here to unwind, play cards and are often curious about the other characters’ lives. The conversations they share are really the highlight of what is otherwise just a nice-looking poker game. I found the comments disemanating from GLaDOS and Sam to be the funniest, but then I’m more familiar with their “worlds” than the others. It’s not that you need to be familiar with, say, The Venture Brothers, to understand what Brock is talking about at times, but there are some fun inside jokes that you’ll appreciate more if you’re in-tune with the works each character stems from.
The game is rated M because a few curse words get tossed into the mix every now and then. But, oddly enough, the swears are bleeped for some characters but not others. Claptrap at one point goes off on bleep-filled rampage while Brock simply lets an f-bomb drop casually every now and again.
There’s a great deal of discussion in the game, but it’s not infinite, so you inevitably will start getting some repeats of comments and sometimes entire conversations if you play for a while. It’s not too distracting, however, except when it halts the gameplay, which is does on occasion.
The incentive to unlock new card decks, chips, and table felts is a good incentive to keep playing tournament after tournament, but the other unlocks the game offers are even sweeter. By completing three random tasks (for instance, winning a hand after going “all in”), a special bounty tournament is unlocked where one of the characters is forced to bet a prized possesion (such as Ash’s Necromonicon or Claptrap’s Spike Video Game Award for Character of the Year). Winning a bounty tournament unlocks several things: special costume items in Borderlands 2, Team Fortress 2, Xbox 360 Avatar items, and PS3 themes, depending on your console of choice (Poker Night 2 is available on Steam for PC and Mac, and on PS3 and XBLA).
In addition to spending tokens in-game on card decks, chips and felts, you can also use them to purchase libations for your opponents in hopes of getting them to drunkenly reveal one of their “tells.”
In the end, there’s only so much you can do to spruce up a poker video game, and I dare say Telltale has just about hit the peak with Poker Night 2. That said, when all the cards are dealt, it’s still a poker game, and if poker (particularly Texas Hold’em or Omaha Hold’em, since those are the only two options in the game) is not your thing, the novelty of watching the characters interact with each other will only go so far, especially after Claptrap falls victim to the classic “Everything I say is a lie” paradox three times within the same hour like he did when I was playing.