Review: Apple Computer Texas Hold ‘em
Card games are musts for every new gaming platform - they're rarely flashy but studies have shown that they're extremely popular, especially when sold at low prices or given away. Given that Apple Computer has already bundled a decent version of the classic card game Solitaire with iPods for the past few years, it's no surprise that the company has released its own take on the currently popular Texas Hold 'em ($5) as a downloadable game as well. [Updated July 23, 2008: We have added a new section to this September 25, 2006 review with information on the iPhone/iPod touch version of Texas Hold'em, as well as updated rating information. Please see the end of this review for the new details.]
In short, Texas Hold ‘em is a variant on poker that drops two cards in front of each of several players - six, including you, on the iPod version - and then places up to five community cards in the center of the group, starting with three cards and then adding one per round while players bet on who will make the best five-card hand from the seven total cards. Your goal is to get other players to toss in as much money as possible into the betting pot, then have them fold or come up with a worse hand than yours. Since Apple’s take is “no-limit” - bet as much as you want - bluffing aggressively can cause other players to fold, but it can also cause you to lose a tremendous amount of money, quickly.
By the iPod’s past low visual standards for games, Texas Hold ‘em is a step up. Unless you turn them off in favor of a cards and bets only view, you’ll see photographs of individual players set against flat backdrops, and Apple has thrown in little inside jokes such as an iPod Hi-Fi on a shelving unit, and a first stage (of seven) that takes place in the company’s home town of Cupertino. But once you’re past the still images, there’s little to be impressed with: the art is ho-hum, character animation is almost non-existent, nothing’s going on in the backdrops, and there’s only modest, somewhat cheesy use of the iPod’s 3-D hardware. Oddly enough, the pre-game menus are better designed and animated than what’s inside the game; turning off the photographs altogether to focus on the cards feels less like a punishment than it should. Similarly, the music - country mixed with lounge - is amongst the least enjoyable we’ve heard in the first batch of iPod games. Once again, more user-selectable in-game tracks would be great; having access to your own music library is no excuse for poor in-game audio.
Though we hate to admit it, even though Apple appears to have gone nearly as low-budget as possible in developing Texas Hold ‘em - the only reason for our B- overall rating - this is the sort of game where it can get away with cutting corners. Poker games are judged on the behavior of their artificial intelligence and on their wagering and tournament interfaces, which Apple got right in everything save leaving out a multiplayer mode. Texas Hold ‘em is initially inviting and non-aggressive, presenting you with only one or two serious rivals until you leave Cupertino, then ramps up in difficulty - a game design that will keep people busy, challenged, and happy to play. For these reasons, and just as with Solitaire, Texas Hold ‘em will have its fans despite the sort of so-so presentation that a game like Vortex could not have delivered for the price. However, a little extra sparkle could have enticed even casually interested card game fans to try this game.
iPhone/iPod touch Version
Apple has used the iPhone’s release as an opportunity to substantially overhaul its original iPod 5G poker game Texas Hold’em into a better version for the same price. While the new version isn’t any more fun to play than the original—you’ll either like or dislike this gambling-heavy, card-limited version of poker pretty quickly—the graphics, music, and multiplayer modes have received very substantial overhauls.
On the graphics front, there are new backgrounds and countries for 10 stages, better-digitized and -animated characters, and profile information. Apple has also improved the audio, replacing not only the honky-tonk introductory song, but also the in-game stage music and sound effects. More interestingly, there’s a new two- to nine-player multiplayer mode that depends upon the iPod touch or iPhone’s Wi-Fi network connection—we tested it using both devices—to create a simplified, virtually animation-free widescreen version of the game. On a positive note, it’s cool to have the ability to wirelessly play cards with someone else, but Apple’s multiplayer visual interface leaves something to be desired: thanks to tiny on-screen character icons, you can get a few dogs or aliens to play poker together, but you can barely make out their faces.
Give that it represents a big improvement over the prior version and doesn’t jump in price, Texas Hold’em merits a higher rating on the iPhone than it did for the iPod touch. We’re still not huge fans of this style of poker, but there’s no doubt that this is an ever-improving alternative to playing the real thing with cards and chips.