In the last decade, the ability to read body language has become the new psychometric testing. You can barely switch on the TV these days without seeing a programme exposing the nonverbal signals we send each other – everything from eyebrow flashing (a sign of sexual attraction) and hair touching (a sign of sexual attraction) to thrusting the hips to and fro while offering a thumbs up signal (care to guess?).
It's the kind of pseudoscience any keen poker player would do well to study, given the main difference separating a top pro from a club player is the ability to read bluffs and tells with Derren Brown-like accuracy. Which is where World Championship Poker 2 comes in, as it purports to simulate poker playing behaviour in a realistic manner.
It's a nice idea but one that, perhaps predictably, is executed poorly. We say predictably because getting a humble PSP to simulate the subtleties of human expression to the extent where we can intuit the nuances of tells, bluffs and double bluffs is the equivalent of asking an orang-utan to perform keyhole surgery.
The idea is that you carefully observe your opponents as they play their hands, noting patterns of behaviour which may indicate a bluff, or alternatively a strong hand. But in practice, this boils down to overt signals such as – we kid you not – the gleeful rubbing of hands, slumping in the chair or the kind of exuberant victory celebrations we haven't seen since the Ricki Lake Show.
Ultimately, the intention is admirable but we feel it's going to be some time before a developer does this kind of behavioural simulation with any subtlety. There's no question this element adds an extra dimension to the single-player game but it's all a bit, well, Neanderthal in its expression.
Another peculiar quirk is the ability to send signals to your opponents by playing a bluffing mini-game. This involves using the analogue stick to keep a marker within a rotating circle for five seconds. The signals available include 'bluff', 'tell' and 'stone face'. Depending on the cards you hold, it's up to you to decide whether it's advantageous to indicate you have 'the nuts' or play it cool. But, again, this mini-game is simplistic and fails to have any real impact on your fellow competitors.
We may have spent a lot of space discussing the 'behavioural' aspects of World Championship Poker 2, but with good cause since everything else about the game is barely distinguishable from the many other poker titles currently available. Still, to give you an idea, as far as the multiplayer modes and the single-player career it's stronger than, say, World Poker Tour, but in terms of presentation and AI there's very little to choose between the two.
However, variety is a strong suit, with 14 variants on the most popular sport in the world (including the mighty Texas Hold 'em, the classic Five Card Draw and more obscure entries like Lowball Deuce, Deuce-to-Triple, Pineapple and Crazy Pineapple). In short, this is a poker player's picnic offering an impressive spread of treats but failing to deliver anything of gourmet standard.
One major problem, and one that's dogged every PSP poker title to date, is the lengthy loading and the long pauses whenever the CPU is calculating a hand. To be precise, it takes around one minute just to get into a game, while playing just one hand is painfully slow due to all the UMD seeking. This gives everything a disjointed feel and crucially dulls any desire to dip into a 'quick game'.
The Career mode is expansive, enabling you to play games and tournaments around the world, build up your bankroll and even buy (or hawk if you're down on your luck) items for your pad. It has a clever rags-to-riches feel, though a downside is that game types are limited in early weeks – so if you only like playing Texas Hold 'em, you might get frustrated by the other variants forced on you.
But there's a more serious flaw at the heart of World Championship Poker 2 that prevents us from giving it any kind of recommendation: freezing. Get to some of the larger tournaments and the game has a tendency to lock up. This would be annoying during a small one-off game but when you've reached the final table of a 200-player tournament only to see everyone freeze like statues, it's clearly infuriating. From time to time you'll get lucky but this technical flaw occurs too often for it to be easily dismissed.
Ultimately, World Championship Poker 2 has depth and character but its presentational rough edges leave a lot to be desired. Sadly, we're still waiting for a portable poker game able to deliver the raw tension of the real sport without all the disjointed loading and calculations getting in the way.