Once upon a time in China...
It takes a pretty serious game to convince the staunch GR editorial overlords to okay more than one featured preview per game, but it doesn't get any more serious than Bioware and Microsoft's anticipated Xbox kung-fu epic, Jade Empire. Sitting firmly atop countless 'can't wait to play' lists, the latest from the geniuses in Edmonton is due to chop into shelves in just about a month.
So why update our preview now? Good question. Our meek answer is that we got to sit with the game for a good two hours at GDC 2005, including a pretty thorough walkthrough by Bioware co-president and unbelievably bold mustache connoisseur, Dr. Greg Zeschuk. The resulting experience couldn't possibly be contained in our tiny collective brain, so behold our last ditch effort to explain why Jade Empire rules.
Since we last spent time with the game, very little has changed in terms of plot or general arc. We urge you to re-read the old preview for a refresher. Since you clearly ignored that last sentence, we'll sum up: you're a student of the martial arts, things have gone wrong, and off you go on a lengthy quest to set things right – or wrong.
Yep, that means multiple paths (in this case, the way of the Open Palm or the Closed Fist) and multiple endings. This should hardly surprise fans of Bioware's legendary Jedi masterpiece Star Wars KOTOR, although Dr. Greg insists Jade Empire features even more plot branching due to its more dynamic world. We privately question his calculations, but it's hard to argue with a doctor.
Since the world of Jade Empire came entirely from the obviously steroid-enhanced brains of Bioware employees, you can expect volumes of backstory in the form of ancient scrolls, should such imaginary matters appeal to you. We also learned that the doctors at Bioware went all Klingon and hired a Doctor of Linguistics to craft a new language for the new Jade world. Called "Tho Fan," it's a bizarre mix of asian languages that gives the game a unique flavor.
During our hands-on time, one of the first things we noticed was Jade Empire's smooth pick up and playability. Previous Bioware titles generally featured control tuned for those with at least a basic degree in video game-ology. Once you figured out how to command your characters, you could begin to subdue your foes with a myriad of different tactical approaches.
Jade Empire, on the other hand, is a real-time action game that has more in common with action/RPGs like Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance than classic Bioware pen-and-paper types. Much of your martial mastery begins and ends with the A button as you whip on enemies with a wide variety of fighting styles. Aside from simple A-button combos, you can also perform a power-attack with the X-button and an area-effect knock-back by pressing A and X at the same time.
Complexity enters the equation in the form of Jade Empire's thirty fascinating combat styles. The basics are surprisingly simple. You can equip four styles at once by relegating them to the four D-pad directions. From there, switching styles on the fly is as simple as pressing left, right, up, or down. So you might punch a guy with Paralyzing Palm technique, then quickly switch to Dire Flame to ignite him, and finish with a switch to Leaping Tiger for a good old-fashioned face maul. The upgrading of these styles is tantamount to success and leads to vastly different play techniques; two people will not play through Jade Empire the same way.
Jade Empire feels much like a fighting game as you hop around the battlefield evading attacks and smacking down bad guys. It's all quite intuitive and makes much more sense than we expected. While the controls may be easy to pick up, you'll still be in for some tough fights. Different enemies are vulnerable to different styles; if you've spent too much time upgrading only martial arts styles and forgo the magic attacks, you might find yourself on the wrong end of a ghost's sword.
Since we were clearly unprepared to deal with the swarms of evildoers placed in front of us during our demo, we opted to simply transform into a massive, bloated frog demon and lick our way to victory. These transformations provide some of the more visually stunning moments as your mild-mannered avatar morphs into a nightmarish behemoth. We only saw a few others, including a very gross horse demon, but all were imposing and impressive.
As mentioned in the earlier preview, you'll gain followers over the course of the game. These prove indispensable as they all come equipped with different support abilities. One might replenish your "Chi" meter (which is used to power the essential magic attacks), while another might be handier as an extra melee hand. Our support staffer of choice was a possessed little girl named Wildflower. When we were wandering around exploring Jade Empire's mystical landscape, she would maintain her cute, diminutive form, but as soon as danger reared its ugly head, she'd rear one of her own and transform into a big, brutal demon. It's just like junior high!
While you probably won't be passing any notes or necking in any movie theaters, you can get a little flirty with some of your followers. The Jade team told us that there would probably be three romantic interests regardless of which sex you chose, and that you would also be able to slowly convert followers to your philosophy. Seducing a wholesome princess and indoctrinating her with your evil ways sounds positively delicious.
Speaking of which, the GR staff is drooling like Pavlov's dogs over this one. We see a lot of games over the course of the year, but few give us that warm, glowing feeling of Olde Tyme gaming nerdosity (which we hope is an actual word in Tho Fan, by the way) like Jade Empire. You'll get your kicks in a month, but in the meantime, check out six exclusive GR screenshots below!