Slowly but surely, Apple Computer is building one of the best verticals in the entertainment business. It already dominates digital distribution with iTunes; it owns iPhone, currently the hottest mobile device in the world; and now it is starting to publish its own games, too. The first of these titles to hit the App Store is Texas Hold ‘Em, a very competent edition of the very, very popular card game. This game is easy to play and fun to watch, and its feature set is just big enough to satisfy the large majority of poker fans who don’t care about game variants or customization.
Apple specializes in making attractive, elegant software that anyone can use, and it’s brought the same ethos to Texas Hold ‘Em’s production. First of all, the gambling controls are a fairly exact analog to the same movements in the real world. For example, you fold your cards by dragging them to the center of the table, and check down a hand by double-tapping. You can also skip through the action as fast as you like by tapping the screen until the game gets back around to your turn, and even check the relative strength of your hole cards by tapping on them. It’s all super-intuitive and manageable with a single finger.
Secondly, the game’s graphics are fantastic. Texas Hold ‘Em offers two viewpoints, depending on how you hold the phone: portrait gives you first-person play, while landscape gives you a more traditional top-down table view. The traditional mode is perfectly serviceable (and in fact more functional in several important ways), but playing in first-person mode is a hoot, because you get to see live actors ham it up at the table. They offer you tells and generally chew the scenery as a pretty funny collection of stereotypes–from the goofy, bare-armed redneck to the super-conservative soccer mom–and their play styles seem to equate roughly to their personalities.
On the other hand, first-person view is not so great for figuring out how many players are left at the table or in a hand, or what your position is in the dealer/blinds cycle. This is vital information, so it’s best to play top-down until there are only one or two opponents left, and then switch to first-person to try to figure out if they’re bluffing you.
Texas Hold ‘Em may be a lot of fun to play, but it’s basically a one-trick pony. All you get to play is straight up no-limit Hold ‘Em in a tournament format. There are no options for cash games, structured betting, Omaha, or anything else. The tournaments get progressively more difficult as you go along, and the buy-ins and stakes rise accordingly, but you can’t organize a custom tournament against players and styles of your choice. The game’s multiplayer mode works well enough, but it only functions in landscape view, and you can’t pick the time limit for moves, or how quickly the blinds advance. Furthermore, it’s purely local–there’s no internet play. This seems like an oversight.
Finally, the game’s single classy jazz number is cool, but after hearing it loop for about the 20th time, it’ll start driving you insane. Where’s the custom soundtrack mode, Apple?
Overall, Texas Hold ‘Em is a nice mass-market poker game that should keep casual players at the virtual table for hours. If you need heavy-duty options, you may be better off waiting until Apple adds them in an update, or something more comprehensive comes along.