Some friends of mine introduced me to Bejeweled Blitz about a year and a half ago on Facebook. Now I spend an hour or two each week making sure I’m at the top of my leaderboard. I’m super competitive, the game’s crazy addictive; it’s a deadly combination. So when PopCap Games announced they were bringing Bejeweled Blitz to Xbox Live Arcade, I was excited at the prospect of dueling and competing online, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t skeptical of how well the game was going to handle without a mouse.
Considering the logistics of a timed, match-3 game using a controller, I’d have to say PopCap Games came up with a pretty intuitive control scheme. You move around the board using the analog stick, and handle gem swapping with the face buttons. If you want to swap a gem to the right, you press the B button. If you wish to swap a gem upwards, you press the A button; and so on. It’s still a challenge moving from one corner of the board to another, and there are going to be times when you’ll want to swap gems faster than a controller will allow, but it’s not as big an issue as I thought it was going to be.
Bejeweled Blitz Live brings the match-3 game back to its roots. Sorry Facebook fans, no coins or boosts here. There are, however, two variations of the game included: Classic and Twist. In Classic mode, you swap a single gem with an adjacent one. In Twist, you rotate a wheel of four gems clockwise or counterclockwise. Due to the limitations of the controls, scores tend to be lower on average compared to the Facebook version, but at the same time the scoring system has been given a boost to allow for higher scores. The highest score I’ve amassed so far is 785,000, and that was with an x5 multiplier. Scoring that many points with that low a multiplier is pretty unheard of on Facebook.
What intrigued me most about Bejeweled Blitz Live was multiplayer. There are two different modes available: Battle and Party. In Battle mode, you compete against a single opponent, locally or live, but it’s not just about who can score the most points in the allotted 60 seconds. There are three categories: points, amps (total number of matches) and style (number of points earned with cascades and special gems). Beat your opponent in two of the three categories and you’ll be declared the winner. What I don’t like about Battle mode is not a single piece of information is provided about your opponent. You don’t know what level a player they are (XP earned), what their TrueSkill rank is, not even what their weekly or overall high score is. In other words, you have no sense of how good, or not so good, the opponent is that you’re dueling.
Then there’s Party mode, where you’ll compete with up to 15 other players in an ongoing series of matches. A grid on the left-hand side of the screen indicates where players rank in relation to each other, but there’s no indication of how success is being measured. It appears to be based on your average score over the last X number of matches, but nowhere is there an indication of what that average score is. Even though a numerical leaderboard is provided on the right-hand side of the screen, again no information is provided about any of the other players, including how many points they’re scoring each round or what their average is. Also absent is a matchmaking feature, particularly for the Battle mode. I’ve played around a total of 100 matches in Battle mode so far and lost maybe a handful at most. You can only smash opponents for so long before you get bored. A matchmaking system, based on your TrueSkill rank for example, would have gone a long in ensuring battles were a little more evenly matched. For those who aren’t interested in live battles, weekly and overall leaderboards provide a good indication of where you stand.
What disappointed me most about Bejeweled Blitz Live was the presentation. It’s got a sort of molecular theme going for it, which if anything is colorful. What I don't care for is the choice of music, comprised of a single techno track. The worst part is the sound effects. The special effects for the flame, lightning, hypercube and supernova gems are muddled. I would never know I reached “blazing speed” if the female announcer didn’t tell me so. There’s certainly no on-screen indication. And why does “blazing speed” last for such a short period of time in this version?
I was hoping, expecting even, that Bejeweled Blitz Live would be the definitive version of the game, but that distinction still belongs to the Facebook version. I’m thinking PopCap Games should have approached Microsoft and struck some sort of deal to make Bejeweled Blitz Live free to all Xbox Live Gold members. Don’t get me wrong, I love Bejeweled Blitz, but it’s hard for me to recommend spending $10 on the Xbox Live Arcade version when there’s a superior, free version available on Facebook.