Back in January, Microsoft announced that due to corporate sponsorship, Texas Hold 'Em would be free. The community cemented its collective rear in their seats, hotly anticipating the arrival of what was sure to be a hugely popular game. August arrived, and still nothing had been heard on the game's release. When it finally appeared on a release list, gone was the corporate sponsorship and down went the number of players interested. Gauging the response from players around the world, Microsoft pre-empted the uproar by announcing that Texas Hold 'Em would indeed be free, but only for the first two days, thereafter selling for 800 Microsoft points.
Microsoft wasn't to know the impact of making a game free and judging by the amount of downloads on Wednesday, Texas Hold 'Em could possibly have been the most played game on Xbox live and continues to be popular days after its release. See, the thing is, it's actually an excellent game - if you like Poker.
Poker is an incredibly tactical game, and is not only about what cards you have, but what cards other players have. Some poker players work on percentages while others work by the cards in possession and estimate the chances of success. Texas Hold 'Em is a variation of poker where everyone starts with two cards, and bets are placed on the chances of success with those two cards. Whichever player has been deemed the dealer then deals three cards into the middle of the table, which each player then adds to his set mentally to create the best hand. Players can fold at any time, but the idea is to make the best hand comprising of five cards - the two they began with and the three best cards from the middle.
Winning hands come in all shapes and sizes, with the lowest being a high card, meaning everything in your hand is useless, but you have the highest card, therefore beating everyone else. Then we've got a pair, two pair, three of a kind, straight, flush, full house, four of a kind, straight flush, and finally, the rarest hand in poker, a royal flush (ace, king, queen, jack, ten of the same suit). Seems like a lot to remember right? Thankfully, the game has been made much easier to understand thanks to the inclusion of what amounts to a beginner's guide to poker. So, if you're unsure how to play your hand, details of each betting type and card rank are available at the touch of a button.
Graphically, things look a little drab on a standard definition set, but connect to a PC monitor or an HD set and everything looks much sharper. Smooth menu's and crisp visuals present a consistent and palatable front end with some sharp in-game visuals. Cards sweep across the table with fluidity, whilst deals are lightning fast. While the game isn't a showcase title, it does the job, save for animation for chips entering the pot - it's just not good enough. Then we have the 'twang'.
When you've got an amazing hand in poker, or more importantly you think you've got an amazing hand, you can throw everything you've got at the table, with this being called 'going all in'. Every single chip you own goes into the pot, and then it happens. Twang! It's possibly the most annoying sound effect since the shotgun effect from Rambo on the Commodore 64. For some reason, the game doesn't have a true Texas soundtrack. There's no Leanne Rhymes, Dolly Parton or Glen Campbell in sight. Country & Western is huge in Texas, as is Beyonce, but Texas Hold 'Em treats players to a blues soundtrack, which allows for the dreaded twang that's played every time you go all in. So, when myself and a few friends were going all in on every hand at $50k a pop, it got bloody annoying. Still, the audio doesn't make the game a turn off, as with a simple press of the 'mute' button, the annoyance of some guitar impresario was remedied quickly enough.
Offline gameplay offers numerous game modes, from normal play to tournaments to scenarios, with each scenario giving you a set objective to complete. With varying amounts of money and player types to deal with, all seven scenarios will keep you busy for a while, working away to beat all of them for those all important achievement points.
Multiplayer offers standard game and tournament options, with unranked player matches being the most frequented of game types. Within two days of downloading Texas Hold 'Em, I'd played 232 hands of poker, winning 60% of all hands. That's not bad considering I threw away over a million dollars trying to brake the game! On the whole, the online side of things is where players will spend most of their time, loosing or winning money on a regular basis for fun, or more importantly - ranking.
There have been one or two bug reports circulating on the internet, but in my extensive playtime I've not experienced a single problem, so unless two cards of the same suit and number come up anytime soon, we'll have to take these with a pinch of salt. Over all, Texas Hold 'Em is a weighty Xbox Live Arcade game, even if you have to pay 800 Microsoft points for it. For those of you who downloaded the game in the first two days, you already know you've got yourself a bargain.