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Platform: Xbox
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Bioware
Genre: Action RPG
Format: DVD-ROM
Release: US Q1 '05
Japan N/A



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"Henpecked Ho, Jade Empire's Minsc"
 
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"One of Jade Empire's many environments"
 
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"Seconds later, heads were on the ground"
 
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"Um. Hi."
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John McCarroll
Hands-On Preview
08/26/04
John McCarroll

Bioware's been behind some of the biggest RPGs of the past ten years; Baldur's Gate; its successor, Neverwinter Nights; and RPGFan's Game of the Year 2003, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. For the first time, however, Bioware is breaking the mold and releasing a game based on its own intellectual property. Jade Empire is their Aurora Engine Action-RPG based in the myths of ancient China. With a team of 70 that worked on Neverwinter Nights, MDK2, and Star Wars: KotOR, Bioware is trying to create another mind-blowing RPG, and it looks like they are on track to do so.

Jade Empire, based on the Aurora Engine created for KotOR, is a simple game at first glance. With only three statistics and pre-created characters, Jade Empire has a system that is just as customizable as Dungeons and Dragons or White Wolf's Vampire: The Masquerade. Although the seven avatars are pre-created, players are able to mince their stats so that they have the character they want with a particular avatar. The three statistics, Mind, Body, and Spirit, directly affect gameplay; Body affects character strength and hit points, Mind controls the Focus ability, which is quite similar to Bullet-time, and Spirit controls Chi, the force of the body used to heal and cast spells. Similar to Feats and Skills, characters gain levels in different types of fighting styles, which range from the mundane martial arts styles to the more complex magical styles.

Combat is fast-paced, turning the round-based actions of KotOR into real-time button presses. Able to map four styles at once, characters can utilize "Harmonic Combos" to maximize damage. For example, a character can start in a style meant to paralyze and shift to a strong, albeit slow, style to finish them off. Characters are also able to use the Focus system to help with the beat down. Unlike standard bullet-time systems, the Focus system has the character act at standard speed while everything else is slowed to a crawl. The last of the fighting styles may well be the most unique. Characters are able to change their virtual avatars into certain monsters they have fought previously, inheriting their abilities. Combat is also collision-based; characters thrown into objects will break them, and their clothes will sway as they should.

Statistics also affect the conversation in-game. A character with a higher Mind statistic might be able to con or flirt their way out of a situation, while a character with higher strength could bully his way through the same bind. Characters' lines will be voice-acted, and both male and female characters will be able to find a love interest when playing with up to two allies at a time. Bioware was tightlipped on whether or not there would be an equal amount for females, unlike Baldur's Gate II. One of the main NPCs, Henpecked Ho, is set up to be the comic relief, ala Minsc from BG2 or HK-47 from Star Wars: KotOR. Bioware has said that many mini-games will be included, but the only one shown so far is a 1942-style shooter for travel between areas.

Jade Empire is graphically on-par with most of the Xbox's current games. It outshines its predecessor, but still falls short of some recent releases such as The Chronicles of Riddick. Most cut scenes are done with the in-game engine and remain impressive. Characters' faces are modeled similarly to KotOR, but stand to look a bit more realistic. Motion capturing is being done by Giant Studios, the MoCap firm behind the Lord of the Rings movies. The game is also aurally impressive, with both background noises and music standing out in the pack with full 5.1 surround sound support.

Bioware seems to be doing a bang-up job with their first franchise, and plans to branch out after its release. Graphically in the top of its class, Jade Empire is slated to bring in both the casual gamers and the hardcore looking to twink to their heart's content. Bioware has stated that a PC release is, "Up to Microsoft," and have announced the Xbox release date of Jade Empire for the first quarter of 2005.



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