Back in 2010, Poker Night at the Inventory surprised us by combining some of gaming’s iconic characters into an amusingly light-hearted little poker game. The funny dialogue was worth the price of admission, even if the standard Texas hold ‘em didn’t enthral. This year, Poker Night 2 hopes to divert your attention again by introducing you to another quartet of characters vying to bleed you dry of virtual greenbacks. Poker Night 2 succeeds in terms of its personality, charm, and wit, being equally as entertaining as the first game. However, the poker aspect feels just as weak and underdeveloped as before and even the introduction of a different game mode doesn’t help much. Poker Night 2 will keep you engaged for as long as the witty dialogue holds out, but when the conversations start repeating, you’ll invariably turn elsewhere.
Poker Night 2 once again takes place at The Inventory club, Telltale Games’ backroom alley gambling bar where characters from video games and popular media hang out when they’re not in their respective franchises. In a great introduction video, you become acquainted with who you’re up against: Brock Samson, a bodyguard from the Venture Bros. cartoon series; Claptrap, the robot everyone loves to hate from Borderlands; Ash Williams, the one-man-deadite-killing machine from The Evil Dead; and Sam, a crime-fighting, suit-wearing canine from the hilarious Sam & Max series. The mixture of characters from inside and outside of video games is interesting if a bit strange, since I personally had never heard of Brock Samson or Ash Williams before playing Poker Night 2. This necessitated a quick trip to Wikipedia to look up their backstories and to understand some of the references. All are voiced by their original actors save for Ash Williams, as evidently Telltale couldn’t afford Bruce Campbell. Your compère is once again Reginald van Winslow (from Tales of Monkey Island), who introduces the game and occasionally offers advice. Dealing the cards this time, however, is none other than the world’s second most evil supercomputer, GLaDOS from the Portal games. GLaDOS keeps an eye on the blinds, announces the results, and banters with the characters, most notably with Claptrap who seems to be rather infatuated with her.
The poker is a choice between two games: Texas hold ‘em or Omaha. Since Omaha only has minor variations to Texas hold ‘em, switching modes between tournaments is a good way to mix things up. Each player does have their own recognizable style of play that you’ll spot if you play long enough. Ash tends to bluff heavily, whilst Sam is more conservative and only goes in if he has a good hand to begin with. A new feature is the idea of buying drinks for your competitors (delivered to the table by a gratifyingly mute Mad Moxxi from Borderlands), which will weaken their ability and prompt them to show tells more often. I was disappointed that the idea of getting the characters drunk wasn’t taken further (it would be hilarious to see Sam drunkenly slurring his words, for example), but it’s a neat addition in any case. It is also good that you are minorly rewarded even if you don’t win a tournament, so that you are granted some tokens based on the number of players knocked out. These can then be used to purchase new decks, baizes, and themes for the Inventory. Likewise, winning tournaments and completing randomly assigned challenges unlocks the ability to win one of the tie-in rewards, which can then be redeemed in Team Fortress 2 and Borderlands 2.
Jokes and dialogue for the most part are great, with many cross-promotional interludes that elicit a good chuckle. I enjoyed hearing Claptrap trying to coax everyone into travelling to Pandora to take on missions and fight the native wildlife, GLaDOS goading me for folding, or Sam asking for a Claptrap action figure. That’s not to say there aren’t misses: there is, for example, a reference from Claptrap to the song “Call Me Maybe,” which was utterly cringe-inducing. As with the first game, dialogue starts to repeat quickly. I can’t count the number of times I heard Sam exclaim “Great day in the morning!” when you go all in, or seeing Max fall of his chair in the background for the 19th time. This will hamper your long-term enjoyment of Poker Night 2, as it did in the original, as once you’ve got all the unlockables there’s little point in hanging around.
The major issue with the game, though, besides the eventual repetitious chatter, is the crazy poker AI. As soon as you begin the game, the opening blinds are $400/$800, which immediately feels way too high and means the game progresses at breakneck speed. Characters will routinely raise by crazy amounts, go all-in for no particular reason, or fold suddenly if you re-raise on them. It’s fine that each character has their own betting personality, but there’s zero reason for them to make ludicrous bets that don’t stand up.
Because of GLaDOS being the dealer, my mind invariably has been wondering: Is the AI cheating? In the first game I always assumed that the AI was playing by the rules, but in this game I can’t escape the feeling that GLaDOS is passing notes to Claptrap and the others, or dealing them better cards than me. It’s difficult to pin down, but often it certainly feels like they’re cheating. When you’re dealt a 2/7 and every other player gets Ace/King, it feels a little dodgy. Likewise when Ash bets big with a poor hand before the flop comes down and only gets a straight or a flush on the river. Perhaps this is all in my head and GLaDOS is just toying with me (seems likely), but it is a disconcerting issue nonetheless.
Still, Poker Night 2 is good fun for the half dozen or so hours it lasts. The characters are funny and their conversations are very fluid and true-to-life. If the poker game develops so that it interrupts a story, they will often come back to where they left off by saying “As I was saying…” or “Anyway…”, which provide good natural segues. At its budget price, the issues regarding the poor AI and repeating dialogue are understandable and forgivable. Poker Night 2 is a good sequel on the whole, but at the end of the day you’ll be left wishing for something with a little more imagination, variation and inventiveness.