If there's no money on the line, can you still play poker for real? A lot of people can't, but Stacked forces you to bring your best strategy or suffer humiliation. And if you're not careful, you might actually become a better poker player in real-life after a few severe beatings.
Professional player Daniel "Kid Poker" Negreanu graces the box, but the real star here is the Poki AI, an artificial intelligence research project that has only recently been applied to video games (though you will find it in some tutorial programs costing many times more than Stacked's $30 asking price). The "realistic, human-like" AI can be defined as "play crappy cards and the computer will kick your ass." Seeing as how this is also true in real-life casinos, the claim is valid - and like real people, the game watches your style of play and adapts accordingly. If nothing else, Stacked will make you pay for your betting mistakes in a risk-free environment (until you play online in the Stacked Masters tournaments - but better your reputation takes a hit than your wallet).
That's really the key to Stacked's appeal: it's a far better real-world poker trainer than other games could ever hope to be. Negreanu stars in a series of tutorial videos, but pay attention during play and you'll sharpen skills like calculating odds, detecting patterns and learning to remember your face-down cards - not to mention not playing any two crappy cards just because you "have a good feeling about this hand." For new poker players or anyone looking to improve, it's an excellent tool.
That tool happens to look halfway decent too. Stacked's players show a lot of detail and personality; unfortunately they're mostly goofy caricatures with limited animations that don't really work as online avatars. Watch for the guy with the huge gold medallion who calls people "dawg" and "pimp" - he doesn't represent us, and he's probably not like you, either.
The PS2 and Xbox versions look and play quite nicely, but Stacked feels like it was designed as a PC game. It's the most satisfying to play on that platform - it's quicker, it's slicker and it's easier to get a good online game going. However, by keeping the interface simple, the game translates easily to the consoles. The PC's hotkeys become directional pad commands on Xbox and PS2. It's easy to bug Negreanu for advice, check your hole cards or send a sneaky smile to other players at the table to make them think you're up to something. Maybe you are, maybe you aren't.
The voice acting sounds surprisingly natural and all three versions keep play brisk. Stacked could benefit from more polish and deeper player customization (no, we don't want to look fat and balding, even if we are), but its actual gameplay is solid, and the creepy I'm-watching-you-so-I-can-destroy-you vibe can only help your real-world strategy. Maybe a sequel will clean up the details, but if you'd like to play poker until then, the adaptive AI alone makes Stacked worth your cash.