AlphaJax Review: Spell it like you mean it
New Zealish developer Marker Metro hopped onboard the WP7 bandwagon prior to that platform’s launch; their indie project AlphaJax followed the platform’s debut a few months later. We’ve long considered it one of the most polished crossword games available, despite the lack of cross-platform support. Perhaps that polish and Windows Phone exclusivity are what caused Microsoft to pick up full publishing rights from the developer this year.
AlphaJax is now a free ad-supported Xbox title, with the previous free and paid versions set to go defunct at the end of the year. We’ve spent ample time with the new version in order to give you this extremely thorough review.
As with other games of this type, each player starts with seven random letter tiles. Each letter has its own point value based on its rarity in English words. There is also an uncommon blank tile which can be used as any letter, but it doesn’t add points to the overall word. Both people take turns creating new words on the board, all of which must be built off of an existing word.
Just making the longest word you can each turn won’t be enough to win against skilled players. That’s where special squares come in. These tiles double or triple the value of either an individual letter or the entire word. Their payout is so high (particularly the triple scoring squares) that building a shorter word across a special square often results in more points than a longer word without scoring bonuses.
Because of this, skilled players usually try to take as many special squares for themselves as possible while avoiding moves that set up those spaces for their opponents. It’s a clever and chess-like system in which you must consider not only the immediate benefits of a move but also the potential consequences during the following turn.
If you don’t see a good move, you can always opt to swap individual letters for new ones or just pass your turn. The game’s actual randomizer can be pretty cruel; it’s not unusual to end up with nearly all consonants or vowels on your rack, even after swapping a few out. I haven’t played other Scrabble clones enough to know whether that’s common to the genre or not, but it can certainly frustrate.
The virtual bag of tiles that players draw from every turn is not endless; you can see how many tiles remain in the bag icon just above the board. Once the tiles have depleted, the game ends when either player uses his or her final tile(s). At that point, whoever played the last tile gets points for the other person's remaining tiles. The player with the higher score then wins the game.
This conclusion is one area where AlphaJax has much room for improvement. Earlier today, I started a second game with one of our dedicated readers. He asked me if we shouldn’t finish our first game up before starting a new one. Clearly he didn’t know the game had ended, and I don’t blame him.
If you play the winning move, you’ll see a tiny “Winner” message above your name. But it’s very easy to miss. And if you don’t play the winning move, the game simply shifts from your in progress list (Their Turns) to Played Games with no real notification. Considering how we’re encouraged to have multiple games going at once (the maximum is 30), it’s all too easy to overlook that a game has ended.
The solution is to add a proper win/lose notification of some type. Push notifications would work, though some users turn those off (or can’t see them due to WP issues) and would miss them. I’m thinking a win/lose screen that pops up when you start the game or between moves/games would be the best answer. Not only would it drive home the results, it would also offer a fine chance to further integrate the game’s Avatar support by showing a jubilant or crushed character.
When Marker Metro announced the Xbox Live version of AlphaJax, my greatest fear was server issues or some other drop in performance. Of all the Xbox Windows Phone games with online multiplayer features, more of them have suffered from crippling server issues than not (which we’ll explore in a future article). Thankfully, the new AlphaJax works almost as well as the old one. The start-up time is sometimes slow (accompanied by a cryptic “Shuffling tiles” message), but seldom often enough to annoy. I have encountered error messages when playing a move, though not frequently enough to spoil the fun.
Xbox integration means that you can easily play with your existing Xbox Live friends – a huge plus for most of us. Besides inviting from the Friends menu, you can also manually enter Gamertags to challenge from the Invite screen. If the user hasn’t installed the game yet, you’ll be prompted to email that person which involves the slight nuisance of typing out his or her email address. Most Windows Phone users should have the game though, in which case the invite will likely go through without trouble. That said, I sometimes enter a Gamertag perfectly and get a “Gamertag not found” message, which should never happen.
One option the game badly needs is a way to restrict invites from random players. At present, if you get three invites during the night, you’ll also hear three push notifications that you might not want to hear. And some people consider invites from random players to be spam anyway. Sure, if everyone turned off matchmaking, nobody could ever meet new players. But an option to toggle between “Invites from everyone” or “Invites from friends only” just makes sense.
AlphaJax is one of the few online Xbox WP games with proper chat support, a feature that every single online game needs. Still, if you've already engaged in chat during a game, there's no visual way to tell if the other player sends a new message without manually checking that game's chat session. Perhaps the chat icon could change color for new messages?
My other concern prior to this version’s release has existed since the first iteration of AlphaJax began two years ago: cheating. Let’s face it, there are dozens of Scrabble solver websites out there, and there’s nothing to stop a random opponent from using one. I’ve mostly played against people on my friends list, but even a few of them have used long words that nobody could possibly know or guess on their own. It spoils the fun and once I detect someone doing it, I want the game to end as soon as possible. But resigning a game hurts your rank, so you have to go through with it and hope their solver will fail them somehow.
Cheating is a problem in any online Scrabble game, so it’s not unique to AlphaJax. But the developers should account for it somehow. Microsoft’s other online word game Wordament certainly does. Ideally, we could report people for cheating, and when a user gets enough reports, he would be investigated. But even if that’s too much trouble, at least let us avoid the player as we can do on Xbox 360. It doesn’t amount to much, but still feels better than having no recourse.
While AlphaJax does offer Pass-and-Play multiplayer in addition to asynchronous online multiplayer, you can’t play either way without an internet connection due to the game’s reliance on ads. It’s a shame that Microsoft doesn’t offer a paid ad-free version as the indie game did. After all, some people will simply never touch an ad and those people don’t bring in revenue.
Still, the only time the ads really become a problem is when you take a phone call while playing. As you probably know, a ‘minimized’ call basically takes up a small piece of real estate at the top of the screen. But AlphaJax also displays ads at the top during gameplay. Instead of covering up those ads for the duration of the phone call, the game’s entire display shifts downward, moving the player’s tiles off-screen and making it impossible to play a move while talking. Whoever thought of that idea needs to drop a hammer on both of his feet.
Many of AlphaJax’s Achievements would be difficult or impossible to get without cheating. Thankfully, all but one can be unlocked in Pass-and-Play multiplayer, where a little cheating won’t negatively affect other players. That’s about the only way most of us will ever get the Achievement for scoring two word multipliers with a single word.
The more problematic Achievement 'Lexicographer' requires players to earn a super high rating from winning countless online games. I can see it inspiring a lot of Achievement hungry gamers to cheat against innocent players. Again though, a TrueAchievements user has discovered a harmless way to boost 'Lexicographer.' It requires two phones, but thanks to WP8 many of us have a handset to spare for such an occasion.
The choice of which online crossword game to play comes down to what you care about in a game. If you’re an Xbox Live enthusiast, it goes without saying that AlphaJax is a must-have game. Even if you don’t dig Achievements, AlphaJax still offers a massive Windows Phone-specific userbase at no cost to players. The game definitely has room for improvement despite its years of updates; hopefully its newfound Xbox Live status won’t slow down future improvements. In any case, AlphaJax is one of the most addictive Xbox WP games I’ve played and well worth your time.
AlphaJax works great on WP7 and WP8. Get it here on the Windows Phone Store.