There was a point ten years ago when it felt like the popularity of poker had reached fever pitch. You couldn't turn on late night television without it appearing on more than one channel, and there always seemed to be some bloke down the pub who swore he'd made a serious chunk of change online. This rise in gambling websites left poker video games struggling to compete, as they fell short of eliciting the emotional up and downs you get from putting your own money on the line. Prominence Poker – newly arrived to the PlayStation 4 – aims to offer exactly these sorts of thrills, via a free-to-play structure its developers hope will make you cherish every last chip in your stack.
Prominence Poker is touted as a poker RPG, and while you do create your own avatar and level up as you gain "reputation", this only serves to unlock the occasional stack of cash for your bankroll, or the ability spend your accumulated in-game funds on some quite pricey cosmetic items. As a result, it becomes very clear this is primarily a multiplayer-focused title, where you'll spend most of your time dealing yourself in against other players.
Visually, Prominence Poker goes further than you'd expect from the genre, rendering both its characters and environments in 3D, and giving you limited control of the camera. With the actions of each character at the table fully animated – albeit pretty stiffly at times – and a soundtrack reminiscent of a Guy Richie gangster film, it all helps to give a bit of atmosphere to the proceedings. However, this does wear off a little quickly, leaving you wishing it had a much cleaner presentation that'd help speed up the play.
Before you take your seat at a multiplayer table, you'll find its worth playing through some matches against the AI, as this provides you with some supplemental funds for your starting bankroll. This single player element of the game frames your character as a tourist from out of town, who after winning some money against the city's Mayor, makes the dubious decision to play against various bosses of criminal gangs, as well as their henchmen.
In reality there's no real story to be found here, and the set-up serves merely as window dressing for a tour of some shady locales where you can ante up. Thinking about it though, the word “tour" may be too grand a term for what's currently on offer in Prominence Poker. With only five scenarios available at launch, once you've gotten the money from winning them once, you'll have seen all that there is to see, and they're not really worth returning to again.
On top of being quite limited in number, the AI in these scenarios turns out to be pretty bad as well. Computer controlled players in this sort of title have always been pretty easy to best once you work out how they're built to react, but in Prominence Poker it's particularly disappointing. Whether it's supposed to fit with their criminal personas is unclear, but most of the characters are wildly aggressive, prone to playing some really suspect cards all the way to a showdown. This means that conservative play is the way to go if you want to come out on top. Admittedly, there was one character that seemed to be the exception to this rule, but they were so timid pre-flop that wildly over-betting had them folding so often that they could've been an origami master.
As you've probably guessed from the terminology in this review so far, Texas Hold'em is only the variant of poker on offer here, and the game has sensibly been designed with six-person tables across the board so as to keep the action moving at a decent pace. Heading online you'll be able to take part in either ring tables – where you can join or leave whenever you want – or tournaments, where for a set entry fee you'll play until one person has all the chips. Each game type has varying levels of buy-ins, but with the limited funds at your disposal early on – especially if you choose to purchase a cosmetic item or two – you'll probably be starting at the lower end of the scale.
As you'd expect it's a real scrap at these cheaper tables, as people throw their chips away with wild abandon. However, unlike most poker video games, once you've lost your initial windfall of cash you'll have to wait to get back into the game, and this is where the free-to-play hooks come in.
If you want more money to play at the tables there are a few routes open to you. Firstly, every 24 hours the game gives you your 'Daily Cut'. This is the equivalent of giving you pocket money, and how much you get is determined by factors such as your character's reputation level, and the number of concurrent days you've logged into the game. If this isn't enough you can also get occasional cash injections when you hit certain reputation levels, or alternatively you can pay some real world money for one of the cash bundles available on the PlayStation Store, but to be frank, this seems like an odd thing to do – especially when there are other ways out there to spend actual money playing poker.
Prominence Poker's free-to-play approach certainly has its benefits. By restricting the flow of money at your disposal it manages to make you feel each triumph and failure a little more keenly, while also keeping those hopelessly erratic players, with a penchant for going all-in, all the time, from over-running the tables. This makes it an enjoyable way to play poker for anyone who doesn't particularly want to risk their bank balance playing for real money, though the lack of a compelling progression system and underwhelming single player scenarios will more than likely stop you from going all-in.