If you like your card games served with a helping of dystopian horror, Pure Hold’em has you covered. It presents a disturbing vision where the titular pastime is enjoyed not by human beings but by sentient tablets, which gather together to play a few hands, using advanced nanotechnology to invisibly move chips and shuffle cards. Using complex algorithms, they’ve formed their own artificial personae, positing themselves as impulsive gamblers and wily old veterans. But this is all just pretence. There is no sign of human life within these pristine penthouse suites and out on those immaculate casino floors. Clearly, we're looking at a future where everyone on the planet is dead.
Okay, perhaps we’re allowing our imaginations to run away with us a little, but we’re making a serious point here. Until now VooFoo Studios has followed a similar template to reasonable success. Both Pure Chess and Pure Pool are exceptionally polished takes on their chosen pastimes, boasting luxuriant looks and no little style. There’s certainly no shame in appreciating their premium aesthetic: look around the mahogany tables with their expensive baize and injection-moulded chips, all lovingly rendered in pin-sharp definition, and the lifestyle of a high-stakes gambler suddenly seems a whole lot more appealing. Even if it does mean subjecting yourself to a soundtrack of Anchorman-style jazz flute, fifth-rate hip-hop or bizarre big-band numbers espousing the joys of poker.
But much as there’s an undeniable tactile pleasure to Pure Hold’em, it’s a game with a fundamental problem at its heart. Put simply, the inability to see your opponent makes it a poor substitute for the real thing. Hold’em is a game about reading tells and learning behaviours. Over time you’ll gain an instinct for when a rival has a good hand and when they’re bluffing, and you do that not just by spotting play patterns, but watching how confident they look, how carefully they consider their options before checking or raising - even how often they glance at their cards.
When playing Pure Hold’em online, all you can see is a progress bar that fills up while a human opponent is pondering their next move; any AI players filling the spaces around the table will make their play instantly. You’ve only got 15 seconds per turn, so even the most cautious player doesn’t have a great deal of thinking time. Admittedly, it’s a problem that isn’t exclusive to Pure Hold’em, but it seems more noticeable here – perhaps because VooFoo has otherwise gone to such great lengths to replicate the look of a real game, and so the absence of humanity is more keenly felt.
Then, of course, there’s the inherent issue of gambling with fake money. Each table has a buy-in fee, and your meagre supply of chips at the outset means you’ll need to spend plenty of time on the Joker and Jack tournaments for novices to earn entry to the Aces and Masters events. Alternatively, you can spend a little real world cash if you want to up the ante a little sooner: we bought 1,000,000 chips at £4.79 to get a spot at the top tables. Yet even players who’ve shelled out for these tokens are going to be unrealistically comfortable taking risks. During our second online session we watched one opponent gain 900,000 chips before losing it all by going all-in on a pair of queens. Meanwhile, offline play gives you a short bio for each of the AI characters as a primer for their playstyle, but there’s not much difference between most of them – only the ultra-cautious and consistently reckless competitors stand out.
For all our complaints, we’re sure there’s an audience out there for a game of digital poker that’s put a little more effort into dressing for the occasion than its perfunctory peers. And with its gorgeously lit environments, its trio of smartly designed card sets and its customisable cloth patterns, Pure Hold’em is undoubtedly a class act. We just wish it had a little more soul.