January 03, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST

The poker game ”Stacked”: A good bet?

(Myelin Media; Teen; PC, PSP, PS2, and Xbox)
Easy there, fellas — this game ain’t about Pamela Anderson. It’s about poker. (You know, as in poker chips?) Over the past few years the game has hit big thanks to shows like Celebrity Poker Showdown, The World Series of Poker, and even NBC’s Las Vegas. Most of the allure is due to the big-daddy game they call Texas Hold ‘Em. But between the flashy edits and (lame) play-by-play commentary, it’s hard to blame the amateurs at home for not understanding that poker is, for the most part, a slow-paced game. Never mind those dramatic bet-the-house moments — most fortunes are won and lost incrementally.

Stacked nails the pace of playing in the real world. And while that’s not a slam, it is a warning: Would-be card hustlers anteing in a hurry will find themselves broke while cursing Lady Luck at the digital all-you-can-eat buffet. Though the graphics are barely passable, the artificial intelligence (called Poki) does a masterful job of reading how you play and responding. When I constantly bluffed and was busted for it, Poki started to spank me for cash whenever I tried again. Play tight, and Poki changes strategy or reacts by changing how each of your eight opponents works the cards. Apparently, the only hope for throwing off the computer is tossing out bets like a ”Maniac.” And that’s a bad thing, according to your host (and famous tour pro) Daniel Negreanu, who covers everything from odds to reading opponents in the entertaining Poker School. The game also features a quick-play mode — as well as online and tournament options. Pick up Stacked to practice for a real casino — or save some dough by not going to the casino at all. They’re both good bets. B+Paul Katz

(Eidos; Mature; PS2, Xbox, and Xbox 360)
Mr. and Mrs. Smith had it easy. In Hitman, you play Agent 47, the titular executioner-for-hire whose life as a professional assassin never, ever involves smooth getaways, clean kills, and a gourmet dinner by 6 o’clock. Novice gamers may find that getting through this gory game can be an agonizing, hair-pulling affair (which could explain why Agent 47 is bald). Bursting onto the scene with guns blazing won’t get you very far. Careful planning, silent kills, discretion, and…lots of costume changes are mandatory. Each operation hinges on taking out a thug or bystander (quietly!), then dressing yourself up in the victim’s clothes — which during the course of this game include a tuxedo, a security guard uniform, and strangest of all, a chicken mascot outfit.

Even after you’ve put on a disguise and snuck into your target’s inner sanctum, there are still plenty of opportunities to screw up. Computer-controlled enemies are supersmart and quickly pick up on suspicious behavior. Here’s what makes the game really unforgiving: Once you’ve been made, you go from hitman to dead man in a flash. For example, if you forget to hide the body of your victim — you can hide corpses by dumping them in storage bins or, for real closure, toss them over cliffs — astute sentries discover it and unleash an unstoppable onslaught of armed cronies. You’ll get similar results if you foolishly blow someone away with a noisy shotgun instead of stealthily stabbing him with a poison-filled syringe.

Still, a high degree of difficulty notwithstanding, there’s a lot to like about Blood Money. Levels are very open-ended; you can achieve your goals using totally different methods. Plus, your victims are mostly drug dealers, murderers, and corrupt politicians. To paraphrase Arnold Schwarzengger in True Lies, you’ll kill many people, but they’re all bad men. BGary Eng Walk

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