Come for the jokes. Stay for the unlocks.
I am pretty much Poker Night at the Inventory 2’s target audience. I love all the mediums its motley crew hails from, enjoy the banter between players more than the subtleties of the actual act of playing cards, and also happen to be a fan of the games you earn unlockables for. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that the second time around, some of surprise factor I experienced playing the original has been lost in the sequel. The jokes are damn funny, and playing poker is still fun, but now that the gags have started to repeat and and I’ve got my unlocks, I can’t see much reason to jump in for another hand.
Poker Night 2 has a cute little introduction, but it doesn’t really tell you why the hell these characters have all gathered together. Honestly, it doesn’t need to. Just getting the mismatched likes of the Venture Bros.’ Brock Sampson, Borderlands’ Claptrap, Army of Darkness’ Ash, and Sam and Max’s Sam grouped at a table is great. Granted, it’s not as awesome or surprising as playing the original Poker Night at the Inventory, where Team Fortress 2′s Heavy faces off with Penny Arcade’s Tycho, Homestar Runner’s Strongbad, and Max, but it’s still cool to see Telltale compile another team of unlikely personalities.
Those personalities are the backbone of the Poker Night 2 experience, which means that if you’re not familiar with the franchises they come from you probably won’t love the jokes the way I did. Watching Brock make off-color conversation about the Venture family and listening to Claptrap crack inside jokes about the development studio behind Borderlands 2 tickles my funny bone in a deep sort of way that makes me feel rewarded for my fandom.
This table’s show-stealer, though, is the dealer: GladOS. Just like in Portal, the psychotic AI’s poignant cracks at the intelligence of the competitors never disappoints. My first few hours playing Poker Night 2 were full of giggle after chuckle after guffaw.
Repeated laughter? That’s good. Repeated jokes? Well, not so much. The fantastic writing helps, and hours in I still experience the occasional new joke, but after just a few tournaments I was already hearing punch lines that were past their expiration dates. You could adjust the amount of conversation in the last game, but that option’s been removed this time around, and it’s a sad reminder that even the best comedian’s routine goes from awesome to boring if it’s on a loop.
I should probably mention the actual act of playing poker – you know, the game part of this thing. It’s really just the backbone for joke delivery, or as Poker Night 2 calls it, an excuse to hang out with friends. Yeah, the competition is challenging, but you can only play no-limit Omaha and Texas Hold ‘Em. You can’t bring in a friend to mix things up, either – a shame, since all the platforms Poker Night 2 is on (XBLA and PC at the moment, PSN and iOS versions to come) are so social. Showdowns still provide a bit of a thrill, especially with the win percentage calculators and close ups on the faces of the opponents, but by and large this is just serviceable poker. If you’re looking to up your game for the next big real-life tournament, you’re in the wrong place.
Once the jokes start to get wearisome, there’s still at least one reason to play – if you’re a fan of Borderlands 2, that is. Each platform’s version of Poker Night 2 offers unlockables, like avatar items on Xbox or themes on PS3, but the Borderlands 2 alternate skins are the most enticing. To win them, you first have to finish a random set of objectives, such as stealing the blinds by making a huge opening bet. Once you complete these, one of the characters will put up a special item like Ash’s Necronomicon for the next tournament. Win that and you win a skin. It’s cool to earn rewards that apply outside of Poker Night 2, but I’m also a fan because the bonus objectives encouraged me to change up my relatively conservative playstyle.
Poker Night 2 provides a fairly standard poker game in the company of some fantastically written characters, but once the jokes start to repeat and you’ve unlocked everything you need there’s not much reason to keep playing. A few cute unlockable cards and tables are nice touches, but ultimately the lack of more modes, multiplayer, or anything else to substantially mix things up doesn’t give this game a lot of legs. Still, for the low ante it costs to pick it up, it’s worth it for the jokes.