Sometimes it's good being jaded.
Few developers can match the unbelievable track record of Bioware. The kids from Canada can do no wrong, it seems, tackling alien-blasting action in MDK, securing the PC RPG throne with the Baldur's Gate games, revolutionizing the multiplayer gaming landscape with Neverwinter Nights and walking the path of the Jedi in Star Wars: KOTOR. After that kind of run, what the hell do you do next?
Why, a kung-fu RPG, of course!
Set in a fictitious alternate version of ancient China, Jade Empire is the story of a young warrior leaving the monastery for the first time and setting out to discover the world. But unfortunately for our hero, the world is a cold, unfriendly place overrun with hungry spirits thirsting for the blood of mortals. Something is clearly not right and only you will be able to solve the mystery.
The way you do this, however, marks something of a new step for Bioware - real-time action. Jade Empire strays from the company's turn-based history with a complex real-time fighting engine that features approximately thirty different fighting styles, including classics like Praying Mantis, magical styles like Paralyzing Palm and weapon styles like Twin Axes. With so many methods of execution, you might as well register your hands as lethal weapons. David Carradine, eat your heart out.
Since Bioware isn't really known for action gaming (aside from MDK), we were all a bit skeptical as to how the fighting system would work. Thankfully, our hands-on time with the game at E3 pretty much erased any concerns. The mechanics are sound and the fighting is fluid and intuitive, letting you flip over guys and dish out punishment with ease. The Paralyzing Palm style in particular was vicious, allowing you to harness your Chi and actually turn guys to stone, then shatter 'em into rubble. Brutal.
Remember those RPGs where you fought dinky rats and weak wights for the first three hours until your character sprouted a muscle or two? Don't expect the same slow ramp up from Jade Empire. Characters start off as "experienced" fighters (they've been training in a monastery since birth) and can start kicking ass right off the bat.
But while the action is definitely intense, the game does borrow some ideas from other Bioware games. For instance, you can pause the game to switch combat styles, lending a familiar turn-based element to those who might want to take it slower.
And while Jade Empire certainly looks and sounds like a pure action game, it still has the heart of a Bioware RPG. Players can start the game using one of seven or eight pre-constructed characters like Furious Ming, Wu the Lotus Blossom or Tiger Shen, but if total control is what you crave, go ahead and create your own unique warrior with his or her own appearance, voice set and abilities. You'll choose which path of the warrior to follow, gaining experience in a wide variety of styles or mastering a few. Become the noble hero or seize power for your own nefarious purposes. It's up to you!
The game manages to streamline its RPG depth using the new Amulet inventory system. Rather than having to keep track of three billion items, you'll simply equip your amulet with new gems to give boosts to your stats and abilities. More specifics haven't been released yet, but trust in the fact that these guys know RPGs.
The world of Jade Empire is vast, filled with countless NPCs to meet along the way. Some will hate you, some will love you and others will need some convincing one way or the other. A class of NPC called "followers" can be called to your side and will actually fight for you - if you can manage to persuade them.
The E3 build had two examples of these useful guys. First was Henpecked Ho, a scrawny innkeeper with an apron and the kind of mustache women love and men fear. Say the right things to this guy and he'll use his contacts to your advantage. The other guy I got to see was Chai Ka, the Guardian of the Heavenly Gate. This immortal was defeated by our hero and subsequently gave him the power to take on his hulking, horned self in a special Demon style.
According to the Bioware team, Jade Empire runs on a brand new engine that's even more powerful than its Jedi predecessor. Specifics include physics based cloth and character models with three times the polys and twice the number of render paths as SW: KOTOR. Taking the look to impressive heights is the new motion-captured animation. The team got together with Giant Studios (the guys who did the mo-cap for the Lord of the Rings trilogy) and a cast of real martial artists (national champions, no less) to put together a library of martial mayhem that anyone who's ever watched a few episodes of Kung-Fu Theater can appreciate.
Bioware is on the kind of hot streak any developer would die for, and the pressure is certainly on for them to deliver another big hit. If what I saw at E3 is any indication, they don't have much to worry about. Look for Jade Empire to hit the Xbox in early 2005.