Monday, November 22, 2010

Review: "Poker Night at the Inventory"

Calling Telltale's Bluff
review for Poker Night at the Inventory, 1 player poker simulation, available now
You have to give Telltale props for their marketing. Poker Night at the Inventory was originally marketed as "nerdy wet dream" sort of stuff, a crossover event that encompassed every facet of gaming culture, from the online shooters to the webcomics that mock them. It was only a few months ago that their direction changed and they started advertising Poker Night for its "unlockable items" for use in Team Fortress 2. Now don't get me wrong, that's all well and good - but frankly, I saw this as some sort of last-ditch dive to make the game remotely sellable. As if, they realised Poker Night was barely a game at all, and they had to rush to come up with a new hook.

Well, those crafty bastards refused to tell us that these Team Fortress 2 unlocks were, in fact, but sprinkling on the delicious cake. The cynical side of me forgot to notice that it doesn't matter how many TF2 items you promise, no matter how much fan service you cram in to your game, it doesn't make facing off against Max, Strongbad, Heavy Weapons Guy and Tycho any less fucking awesome. This game is probably the best game this month.

To illustrate how gripping this game can be, I'll reveal the shocking fact - I don't know how to play poker. At all. At first, the game was painfully authentic. I was expecting a watered-down adventure game-style conversation simulation - instead, my head was bogged down with true-to-life terminology and poker hands, which I of course know absolutely bloody nothing about. But - and this is a huge "but," too - the game held my interest enough without the poker that it wasn't even an issue. The game provides you with a list of poker hands and when you're doing poorly, an AI Director-like omnipotent dealer makes sure your luck is higher than it would be. It's all very newbie friendly, and while obviously as technically true-to-life as a Texas Hold 'Em simulator can be, is casual and easy-going enough that even the most inexperienced of pokerphobes can enjoy the odd round or two. Hell, you might even learn a bit.

So, you're probably asking, "Andy! How can you judge a poker game based on your limited experience of poker?" The answer is, I can't. Also shut up. So this review isn't all about "hey, this is a great poker game." This review is about, this game is the smartest, funniest card game I have ever played.

Telltale does good writing. Hell, if Valve weren't around, I'd say Telltale do the best stories in the business. Even better than Bioware, and believe me - when you're playing Mass Effect, the plot is pretty much the only thread the game has left. So this game is funny. Not in a Penny Arcade you-have-to-be-a-nerd-because-these-jokes-are-in-jokes sort of way. Not even a Team Fortress 2 quirky sort of coat-of-paint way. In a Ghostbusters way. As in, these characters are so real, so organic; their conversations so flowing and true-to-life, that this game doesn't even need to try to be funny. It's richly detailed character humour, with charisma and personality dripping out the games ears. You can't judge this game as a Texas Hold 'Em sim because that would be like judging Texas Hold 'Em for being a Texas Hold 'Em sim. It's not the sort of simulation where you can really mess up. Nothing has been done to mix-up the traditional Hold 'em formula beyond the humour, and it's obvious that the developers went all-in to make sure that it the humour made sure it held up against its contemporaries.

There was a Zero Punctuation review of Deathspank, in which he mused that your opinion on Deathspank will depend entirely on "if you think a game can be held up on humour alone." I can't say anything about Deathspank, having not played it. But Poker Night, while the humour is its only real crutch, uses it so well - better than any game since Portal, or The Simpsons Game - that you can't fucking touch it because of it. It's hard to form a rational semi-professional opinion on this game because it reduces me to fits of unstoppable laughter. There's a very special circle of game developers where they try as hard as they possibly can - and succeed, might I add - to make sure that their games produce an illicit emotional impact and response. Valve are one of these. Bioware are. And Telltale are. Their games aren't the greatest ever made when judged on technical brilliance, and each individual component, when pulled apart, can be compared to their competition and mocked extensively. But as a whole, their games make you cry, make you excited, make you angry, make you happy. In Telltale's case, they have it cornered - these games make you laugh. Not faux laugher like so many games shoehorn in to make their game "varied" - real laughter, true comedy. Telltale earn this, not by sheer luck, it's because they have core principles that they follow through with each and every title they make.

Poker Night is no exception. As a poker simulation, it's all you could ask for. As a videogame, it's gut-wrenching, pants-wetting, exciting, and deadly hilarious stuff that deserves a spot in everybody's PC collection. At a measly $5 for this sort of top-notch quality, you'd be absolutely mental not to give it at the least a look-in. Definitely a Casual Game of the Year contender, and amongst titles like Kinect Adventures, shows more than enough signs of smart and clever thinking to know that this isn't just some flash-in-the-pan. It's the real deal.

Don't stop to think. Don't make a calm or rational decision. Just buy it. You won't regret it.
Andrew Deavin is not bluffing when he says - you should play Team Fortress 2, read Penny Arcade, watch every single video on, and buy every Sam & Max title. You little, tiny baby men.

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