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Poker News: February 5, 2008

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HEADLINE: Poker Smash Review (Xbox 360)

As Kenny Rogers once taught us, you’ve got to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em. Well, after playing around with Void Star Creations’ brand new poker-themed puzzler, it’s a safe bet that Poker Smash has a strong hand and is well worth a spot in your Xbox Live Arcade deck. If you’re a fan of classic puzzle games, such as Tetris and Bejeweled, and you’ve got a thing for Poker Night with the guys (or the girls), Poker Smash is right up your alley.

On the surface, Poker Smash seems like any other puzzle game on the market. Players race against the clock in order to clear multiple rows and columns of rising blocks before they fill to the top of the screen. It’s a tried-and-true formula that’s been done to over and over again. In order to stand out these days, a puzzle game has to have some sort of “hook.” In the case of Poker Smash, that hook has players flipping and flopping cards around the board, as opposed to the usual lines or gems from other games. In order to clear the playfield, the player has to maneuver the cards, valued Ten through Ace and all four suits, to try and make poker hands ranked three of a kind or better. Make a hand, either vertically or horizontally, and the cards vanish from the field, leaving any cards above to drop down and fill in the gaps.

In another twist to the usual puzzle formula, the game regularly adds bonus challenges in the form of specific hands that the player can try to match within a set time limit. There’s no penalty for failing these challenges, but every time you score a match, you land a nice little stash of chips and points. To help beat the house odds, the devs made sure to give players a couple of aces to stash up their sleeves. The first of these tricks gives the player a limited supply of bombs that can be used to blow up surrounding cards. The bombs recharge as the player forms hands and clears them from the screen. The other ability enables the player to speed up or slow down the rate at which new rows are added. Like the bombs, this ability recharges over time. Having these abilities proved to be a lifesaver in a lot of my games. The best thing, though, was that these powers manage to give players a helping hand without ever tipping the scales and making things too easy. They always seem to help just enough.

While Poker Smash is a lot of fun to play, it would lose a little something if it didn’t have the visual flair that it does. There’s always something happening on the screen, whether it’s new cards popping up, old cards falling down, bonus hands to match or just the little extra sparkle and pop from effects added to all of these things. It’s bright, colorful and always in motion. Unfortunately, this is a double-edged sword, as it’s sometimes far too easy to lose track of what you’re doing in and amongst everything else happening. As great as Poker Smash looks, I can’t help but think the game would have been better served by dialing the effects down a notch or two.

Ask a card shark and he’ll tell you a round of poker is only as good as the people you play. Void Star Creations recognized this and put together a surprisingly robust multiplayer component. There’s the standard two-player split-screen mode that most gamers would come to expect, but the real fun comes in the big tournament games, which pull together up to five players in a mad dash for all the chips in play. Every player starts with a set number of chips. Based on the hands, combos and other such scoring put together by a player, he’ll take chips away from the other players. The chips continue to flow around until a player runs out of chips and is eliminated from the tournament. When the last player earns all the others’ chips, he’s the winner. I played a few tourneys, winning and losing to varying degrees each time. Still, no matter how far behind I dropped in the game, it always felt like, just as in a real game of poker, I was only one or two good hands away from getting right back into the thick of things.

Every once in a while, a game comes along that really stands out in its genre, and Poker Smash is one of those games. By taking a generic formula and giving it a Vegas-like spin, Void Star Creations has put together a truly unique and entertaining experience that earns it a spot right next to the big boys in the puzzle genre. If you’re a fan of puzzle games and you’re not willing to ditch your real-life Poker Night, this is one XBLA title that’s worth going all in for.

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Article downloaded from the World Wide Web on February 4th, 2007

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