Say what you like about Telltale Games, but they have a knack for taking the empty toothpaste tube that is old characters and memes and scraping the last bit of creative goo from the bottom. Poker Night at the Inventory, this game’s predecessor, was released in 2010. It essentially served as a vessel to deliver free Team Fortress 2 hats through single-player poker tournaments, but it was packaged with some real personality brought to you through the various NPC’s you competed against.
Three years later and Telltale have released a second Poker Night, featuring a handful of quirky, familiar characters that you play poker games against for useless trinkets. Poker Night 2 does retain the charm and wit of the original, but it fails to advance on the first’s drawbacks in any significant way. Telltale had to cut the top of that toothpaste tube off and scrape at it with a fish knife to squeeze another one of these games into existence.
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of high-stakes poker, you’re probably too young to be introduced to it in the first place. Anyone that has played, seen or is familiar with the concept will find nothing out of the ordinary with the basic poker gameplay on offer. There’s a $20,000 buy-in, and two varieties of poker game that end only when the player runs out of money or wins by busting the other four characters out. There are two varieties to play – Texas Hold’em and Omaha – and by completing games you’ll earn tokens that go towards unlockable skins, chips and cards.
Where Poker Night differs from every other game of its ilk on the market is in the personalities that surround you in each card game. Telltale have brought together a cast of four recognisable characters, all of whom come filled to the brim with newly-recorded, original witticisms to spout in between hands. Brock Samson of The Venture Bros, Borderlands’ squeaky robot Claptrap, Evil Dead’s Ash Williams and Sam of Sam & Max fame. There’s also a handful of other references thrown in for good measure – Portal’s GLaDOS is your dealer, Mad Moxxi tends to the virtual bar, and Captain Van Winslow returns from the first game as the overseer of the whole thing.
You only need to see that this cast was assembled by Telltale to know that Poker Night 2 has personality, if nothing else. There’s some fantastic humour to be heard here, banter between the characters is varied and has a good mix of gaming references and fourth-wall breaking snipes at the player. The main problem is that they didn’t quite record enough banter. My first play session with Poker Night 2 lasted two hours, and I’d already started to hear repeated dialogue by the end of it. Considering it takes much longer than this to unlock all the skins and see everything the game offers, it could’ve done with a little more vocal content. Sam exclaiming “great day in the morning!” brought a smile to my face the first time, but after a dozen times in a few hours it starts to wear thin. There’s also a lack of gameplay innovation on the first game.
Putting multiplayer into a poker game would seem like the simplest thing imaginable, but it’s absent. All of this serves to drive me as a player away before I’ve unlocked everything, and possibly missed some extra original content the game withheld from me for too long. It also suffers from some quite horrid performance issues on Xbox 360. Several times I’ve had the game freeze up on me in between hands long enough for me to go into the kitchen and pour a glass of water before it started working again. Considering the barebones formula, such poor performance is inexcusable.
Poker Night 2 doesn’t have particularly deep pockets as far as original content goes, but considering its budget price you could spend your money on worse things. If you like poker and just want to fold some 2’s and 7’s there are definitely better games for you out there already. But if you’re a fan of Telltale’s witty, concise writing and want something relaxing to kill a night with, this small but stout collection of one-liners has just enough game round it to justify parting with a couple of dollars.