A Closer Look at Playfish’s Poker Rivals

Poker Rivals LogoIt was a long time coming, but social developer Playfish is finally going all in with its first Facebook poker title, Poker Rivals. When we looked at a first rendition of the app a month ago, it was still, mostly, “unlaunched” according to the company. Now that it has been out for a while, here’s our full review.

If you’ve played Texas Hold’em (Zynga) Poker, or any online poker for that matter, you’ve played the bulk of this game already. But beyond the cards, players are able to don a virtual version of themselves that levels up as they win. Built in Flash, Poker Rivals has each avatar sitting around a poker table, and while this alone may not seem like a big deal, it does allow for some interesting additions. Not only does the Flash allow for everything to run more smoothly with no real loading, but each avatar comes with a myriad of animations that range from how you sit to angry hand motions.

Poker RivalsThe concept of these animations is actually a pretty cool idea. Not only does it grant the user a means of expression, but almost, sort of, mimics reactions one might see at a real poker table. Almost. At best, making animations might allow players to perform a bluff of sorts, but since watching people’s unconscious reactions in poker is part of the game, manually clicking one sort of defeats the purpose (not to mention the average user probably won‘t even notice). Now, if Playfish made them more passive and reactionary to how users are doing, and added a whole “poker face” element (i.e. the higher level you are, the less likely you are to show such tells), then that might accomplish the theoretical goal better. Couple that with manual control and it would become hard to tell if they are bluffing or really holding a bad hand.

TagsBeyond tells, Playfish has also included an interesting feature called “tagging.” When sitting at a table you can tag a user with a particular name such as “Low Roller” or “Slowpoke.” The more they play, the higher these tags can grow and can really give players an idea of who they are playing with. Do they never fold? If they’re a “Maniac” likely, yes. Do they only bet when it’s a sure thing? Maybe if they’re a “Rock.” What this does, is create a digital version of the strategy it takes to play real poker. Just as with the potential animation tells, when you play with someone long enough, or watch them play, you begin to get a feel for their personality and will know when it’s smart to bet or fold.

Assuming you’re making use of these poker strategies and are currently winning, you can then actually purchase various items with that cash for your room and avatar. As it stands, the former is limited only to the room background itself and a few (three) “luxury” items like a laptop, while most of the emphasis is on the avatar. After all, most players are simple going to be at the tables, and the avatar is what they will see most.

Avatar GoodsThis is perhaps the best means of virtual expression for any type of card game app, and Playfish allows for seven different features (hair, jacket, hats, etc.) to be customized… for a price. The options available range from samurai top-knots to bizarre chicken suits, so whatever you’re looking for, there is probably something that suits your tastes. Unfortunately, not all of this is available right away, and is limited primarily by cost, and player level.

The only real game play complaint to be had with Poker Rivals is that it really doesn’t do much to help out a new user. While it does explain things like the avatar, a daily lottery, and the player’s room, it actually doesn’t even touch on the actual card game. One of the selling points is that new and veteran players will be able to catch on, but none of the poker table interface or rules of game are explained (all that is available is the different types of hands). It really doesn’t need much, and anyone that has played poker will be able to figure things out, but for a brand new player, it can be a bit overwhelming. They don’t want to lose all their money, after all.

Nonetheless, Poker Rivals is still a fairly strong game, but really only in the respect that it looks good and works the way it’s supposed to. Beyond that, though, the game feels a bit standard as far as poker games go. After releasing seminal social games like Restaurant City, this one feels less impressive. The game is good — it does have over 1.2 million monthly active users, so many people clearly think so — but you get the feeling it could be something more.