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July 12, 2007 - It's always refreshing with developers are honest about their software. "You've played one poker game, you've played em all, right?" I was asked as I set my bag down and whipped out my trusty notepad--for what reason, I don't know. After all, the guy had a point: other than big name players featured on a game box, and poorly simulated in-game, there really aren't too many features to differentiate one poker-based game from another.

So what exists to separates the downloadable High Stakes from the masses? "Our price point," the developer continued, which sits at a comfortable $9.99, "and our camera." He tilts the offending object in my direction, high-lighting my ugly mug for the world--our at least other Sony developers--to see as we jump onto an online game. The demonstration camera is a prototype of the new Sony Eye, though I was assured that other USB cameras and headsets are compatible as well. The demonstration took place in a dark room, but the Eye displayed decent lighting, showcasing my better features such as a healthy beard stubble and glistening forehead. The Eye also comes equipped with a built-in microphone that captures sound in 3D, so players don't have to worry about catching lots of background interference.

Up to six players can play online, a number somewhat dictated by the amount of onscreen space the development team wanted to sacrifice for inset video images. Game types include Texas Hold-Em, Super Hold-Em, Bilkabong, Shanghai, and Tahoe. While only Texas Hold-Em is playable in the single-player Career Mode, all modes are available online, and there are other offline modes where games can be played against AI opponents.

Thankfully, offline modes are quite robust for players who don't want to deal with online hassles such as rude players. AI opponents weed one another out of games by way of multiple difficulty levels. Easier players will trounce each other but will inevitably fall to more advanced players, so by the time the human players makes his way to the final rounds, only the best AI opponents will be left standing. It's a clever way to start off easy but work up to very challenging games.

Because no one likes to sit around after getting beaten with nothing to do except watch the AI duke it out, two Turbo options have been added to get players back in the action as quickly as possible. Turbo Mode speeds up the action to fast-forwarding caliber, while Turbo Fold is even quicker, ending many games in under fifteen to twenty seconds.

Character customization exists, though as one might expect, customization options found in a poker game certainly won't be too deep or varied, but that's fine. Skin tone, eye color, facial hair, clothing, even shoes--who looks at someone's feet during a poker game?--are available, though in online games, I imagine most players will pay attention to the literal poker faces of all avatars' real-time counterparts more than their virtual clothing choices.

High Stakes doesn't claim to reinvent the game of poker, but at only ten bucks, it might be the perfect solution for card-loving gamers to pass up other similar packages priced considerably higher.

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