We were kindly invited to see BioWare's new Xbox RPG Jade Empire today at TGS. After viewing an informative demo of the game and speaking with Drs. Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka, the brain trust behind Knights of the Old Republic, we came away duly impressed with the game BioWare has been quietly cooking up for the past two and a half years. BioWare is riding high on the wild success of KOTOR, and it's following up that success by making Jade Empire exclusively for the Xbox. Indeed, Jade Empire's basic framework is quite KOTOR-like, but the new game expands upon and alters nearly every facet of its predecessor in some way.
Jade Empire is set in a mythological, fictitious China--a China that, according to Dr. Muzyka, would have existed if the stories and legends were true. As such, you'll find all sorts of mystical elements in the world of Jade Empire, such as powerful magic, evil spirits, and cities floating among the clouds. You'll begin the game as a new player character that can be extensively customized to your tastes, and you'll start out in a training institute, or "stronghold," where you'll hone your fighting skills. Zeschuk and Muzyka didn't divulge the specifics of Jade Empire's story during this early demo, but they did say it would involve an alternate spirit world that parallels the game's reality, and that it would take the player far and wide, from their initial stronghold to mystical cities and fantastical realms spread through the game's world.
Your stronghold will serve as a sort of home base throughout the game. You'll amass a collection of followers, or agents, that will hang around at this base. Some of these agents can be sent on missions, while others will passively enhance your abilities, and still others will go out and affect the game world on their own. It sounds as though the agents will in fact be able to serve all kinds of roles through the course of the game. You'll also be able to bring back a variety of monsters, either alive or in the form of statues, that you've defeated during your travels. The living monsters will even serve as guards of sorts inside your stronghold.
Where Jade Empire diverges the most from the KOTOR model is in its combat. Instead of slowly paced, turn-based battles, you'll control your character in real time utilizing a variety of different attack methods. There are three different ways to fight in Jade Empire: You can use weapons, either ones you've kept with you or ones found during a fight; you can use magical attacks you've learned by developing your skills; and you can fight hand-to-hand with one of over 30 available fighting styles. As you progress through the game, you'll be able to customize your character's fighting styles as you see fit. Some styles will be slower and more relaxed, like tai chi, while others, like the mantis style, will involve quicker attacks. You'll even be able to learn grappling styles, such as one based on sumo wrestling. In practice, the combat in Jade Empire is extremely stylish--during the demo, we were waiting for the combat cinematic to end so we could see the actual combat, until we realized that what we took to be a cinematic was the combat. The combos and special attacks you can perform by switching between various methods and styles are not only quite effective but also look damn cool.
Since Jade Empire is exclusive to the Xbox, BioWare has been able to dig into the hardware and construct an entirely new engine that facilitates some really impressive visuals. Jade Empire is doing twice as many rendering passes as KOTOR did on the Xbox, and it shows--the lighting and shading effects are noticeably more detailed and numerous than in KOTOR. Furthermore, the game's character models are using around three times as many polygons. The few landscapes we got to see are suitably stylized and have a very Chinese look that fits the setting appropriately. Finally, even with a year left in development, the game was running quite smoothly, with nary a hint of slowdown in the demo we watched. What's more, all of the fighting animations in the game feature extensive motion capture, much of which was done by grand masters of the various styles, and this makes the fights we've seen so far look suitably badass.
Though it was only a brief demo and the game isn't scheduled to be released until the latter part of 2004, Jade Empire looks like it'll be a real winner (and we'd say BioWare has the pedigree to back up that statement). Fans of KOTOR will surely eat this game up, as it uses the same fundamental ideas and expands upon them in a lot of interesting and creative ways. BioWare wants to emphasize replayability in Jade Empire, and to that end, the game will track your predilection toward good or evil depending on your actions, and the game world and your abilities will be appropriately affected based on your alignment. You'll be able to replay the game, take different actions, and have a significantly different game experience. After today's demo, we'll be watching Jade Empire with great interest over the coming months; watch this space for more details soon.