Jade Empire Preview

OK, Ninja Boy, BioWare is finally going to give you what you’ve been waiting for: an RPG where the lone wolf martial arts master isn’t just a supporting character, he’s the star. They’ve been working with Microsoft Games to bring you Jade Empire, an upcoming RPG based on martial arts combat and developed for the Xbox. Set in a world based on the myths of ancient china, the story is similar to other BioWare RPGs in that you start out as a lowly apprentice and must undertake a perilous journey to figure out why there are suddenly so many evil creatures hanging around. This time around, though, BioWare won’t rely on the familiarity of an established world like the Forgotten Realms, opting instead to create an original universe and build a unique RPG rule system from the ground up.

Although the content is original, it’s obviously deeply rooted in the traditions of both classical fantasy and the martial arts cinema. Your character comes from a place called Two Rivers (where in the Light have I heard that before?) and grows up to become a wandering martial arts hero in the tradition of Bruce Lee, Sonny Chiba, David Carradine, and a host of B-movie actors who can deliver high kicks. Powerful spirits and magic will come into play (think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) as will the Jackie Chan-like ability to turn anything that isn’t bolted down into a weapon.

Whether you’re more interested in magic, fisticuffs, or swordplay, your primary concern will be mastering the martial arts. The thirty-plus fighting styles are broken into three schools: the Martial Arts school (based on traditional Asian styles from tai chi to sumo), the Weapons School (which is all about using classical Chinese weaponry), and the Magic School (for those who want to fling fireballs or transform into monsters). So far there seems to be no plan to give players incentive to stick to a single school. Instead, players will be encouraged to learn complimentary styles from each school, thus balancing out their strengths and weaknesses. In fact, tactical switching of styles will be a huge element of the combat system and offer a greater depth of player involvement in combat than has been seen in previous BioWare games.

Although developing Jade Empire for the Xbox means console-style fighting, some aspects of the combat system will be more familiar to PC gamers. The ability to pause the game at any point during combat to switch styles or strategies has carried over from Neverwinter Nights and a new “focus ability” will allow the player to enter a slow-motion mode something like the “bullet time” originated in Max Payne (except that you get to move at normal speed). Being console-based also means that Jade Empire will have vastly superior graphics to its PC-based brethren.

In fact, BioWare boasts that Jade Empire‘s graphics engine, which was also built from the ground up, will outshine the one used in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Jade Empire will reportedly have twice the number of rendering paths, character models with three times the amount of polygons, and will feature rim lighting and fully motion-captured animation. Add in physics-based cloth and collisions and you begin to feel that BioWare is trying to give the fantasy RPG genre a level of realism usually only found in simulation or war games.

If all this effort at realism does for Jade Empire what EA’s efforts did for Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, BioWare may spark a new trend in the world of RPGs. Don’t get worried that Jade Empire will stray too far from its fantasy RPG roots, though. Developing your character’s abilities, such as “Chi power” and the aforementioned “Focus,” will be as important as learning the fighting styles. You’ll still be offered the opportunity to play the game as a good or evil character and interacting with the various NPCs you encounter will still play a vital role in your adventure.

While you won’t have companions, you will collect followers that can be sent on important missions. Deciding which minion to send is important because failure can have long-reaching consequences (such as affecting the prices of items you can buy in villages). Some of these characters will already be interested in helping your cause, but others will have to be defeated in combat before they’ll swear fealty. One intriguing projected scenario has your character besting a demon, who then moves into your stronghold to beef up its defenses.

Although the developers have been very tight-lipped about plot details, brief glimpses like the demon scenario seem to indicate that Jade Empire‘s story line will receive as much of their attention as the physics of the hero’s rippling hair has. Since BioWare presumably knows that the majority of gamers won’t possess Quentin Tarantino’s level of obsession with kung fu movies, it should be safe to assume that they will try to make sure that Jade Empire will allow all the would-be jedis and druids a way to live their dreams, as well. With a projected ship date of 2004’s holiday season, though, any or all of this information may change.

From the little glimpses they’ve allowed us, it looks like BioWare is ready to come into its own with a completely original and innovative RPG experience. I have to admit that I’m intrigued by the concept and I hope to find more detailed information about the combat system in the near future. Until then, I’ll be practicing my “horse stance”. You can interpret that in any way you wish.

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