Whenever you think about casinos, you think about the glamour, the risk, the excitement and all that lovely money changing hands. Regrettably, Hoyle Casino Games has none of these.
The title "Hoyle Casino Games" doesn't tell the whole story about the product. It's actually a compendium of three of Hoyle's gaming titles; Casino games, Card games and Board games, meaning that for your Â£9.99, you've got more games to play than you can shake a proverbial stick at. We'll start with the Casino games, because these are the best of the bunch by far.
I've always found that Casino games are rather odd - they all try to recreate the atmosphere of betting in a high-roller's casino in Las Vegas, but they all fall down in one critical area. Gambling is all about risk: the thrill of betting money against the house, and letting fate decide whether you're a winner or a loser. All the excitement is derived from winning and losing: beating the odds, or being beaten up by them. You just don't get this when you're playing with virtual money. There's absolutely no incentive to play the game and win. Stick $10,000 on a single hand of Blackjack, and it doesn't matter if you win or lose, because it's not real money coming out of your pocket. If you lose all your money, you can simply create a new character and start again, and not have to worry about selling the house and car. Without the risk (or the reward of taking home a huge wodge of cash) the vast majority of the fun is lost from the experience.
These games, therefore, seem designed to cater for the risk-averse audience. People who know how to play the numbers, and feel smug when they double their virtual stake, but don't actually have the balls to put their money where their mouth is. Without wanting to turn this review into a list, there are certainly plenty of games on offer; bog standard Blackjack and Roulette; a variety of Poker games taking in the whole range from Stud to Draw Poker, via more exotic variants like Pai Gow Poker and Omaha Hi-Low Hold 'em; a large variety of slot machines (which are all secretly the same) and Vegas staples like Baccarat and Craps (that's the dice game, not a nasty side effect of a dodgy Vindaloo).
The games themselves are well realised, and the results are fairly realistic, though the simulation engine itself is somewhat limited. There is no facility to aid the player to card count in Blackjack, for example; and the Roulette engine requires all bets to be placed before the ball is spun, which is particularly crude and unrealistic. Fortunately, the interface is very simple and easy to use, meaning that bets can be placed with the minimum of fuss. Other than the opening animation of the casino floor, where you choose the initial game you want to play, the interface is minimal almost to the point of non-existence. This means that there is very little to interfere with the experience of playing the game, which is a good thing, but also means that the game could run on an abacus - so it's not exactly exploiting the fearsome processing power of modern PCs.
This is ably demonstrated by the absolutely abominable dealing animations. I can't overstate just how dire they are. The Blackjack animations are especially poor. The dealer draws cards from the shoe, waves his arm in the approximate direction of the player, and the card suddenly leaps a couple of dozen pixels from his hand to the table. The only good thing about them is that you can turn them off - which not only prevents you from rolling about in fits of laughter, but also speeds the game up significantly. The same can be said of the AI character voiceovers. Once you're told by Tommy (the game's resident Dean Martin wannabe) that he wants to "concentrate on that cocktail waitress over there" for the thirtieth time in an hour after losing a bet, you'll want to pull the soundcard out of your PC. Having worked for a year and a half as a croupier, I've met some gambling "characters" in my time, and none of them were nearly so tedious or clichèd as the bunch represented here. It's enough to give obsessive-compulsive gamblers a bad name... Again, thankfully, you can turn the voiceovers off, saving your ears from their tired witticisms.
The voiceovers and animations in the other two packages in compilation are similarly awful, but likewise optional. Indeed, the installers for the games tell you that the voiceovers and animations will be disabled if you run the game without the CD in the drive, but that the games are otherwise playable. Unfortunately, should you try and run the game without the CD, it will present you with the helpful pop-up "No disc inserted" and refuse to start, which is, if I may say, utter genius. (Yes, I am being sarcastic.)
The Board Games and Card Games packages present you with a similar bewildering array of games to play, but suffers from a similar impediment to the enjoyment factor as the Casino games. At heart, Board games and Card games are social games, and there's no social interaction to be had here - just a badly animated parrot with a voice that makes you want to stuff cheese down your ears.
The games of Gin Rummy, Battleships, Checkers, Bridge, etc, are all perfectly realised, playable and accurate, but you have to sit down and ask yourself the question: why would you want to play them on a computer when you could play it against people you actually know? There may be value in packages such as this for using them to learn how to play more obscure games like Tarot or Pachisi - and credit where credit's due, the tutorials will teach you the rules of these games. Unfortunately, the tutorials aren't particularly user-friendly. Surely we grew out of flat-text Help files with the advent of multimedia? A couple of animated demonstrations wouldn't have added too much to the development budget, yet would make the less common games far more accessible to play - rather than a five minute distraction before you get back to playing Chess against some distinctly mediocre AI.
The overwhelming impression that you could probably find better games online is rather reinforced by the fact that the online component of the compilation is not played through the main game engine, but through a web-browser client. Nothing in this pack is unplayable, but the fact remains that these kinds of computer-based simulations are a poor substitute for the real thing. If you quite like card games, board games, and would like to see what all the fuss is about over gambling in a casino, then you will no doubt find some value in this compilation. If, however, you're a dedicated Poker or Blackjack player, you're much better off purchasing a pack of cards.