Jade Empire Updated Hands-On

We meet with BioWare and check out an almost-finished version of its eagerly anticipated Xbox role-playing game.

Jade Empire, in case you've somehow managed to miss our previous coverage, is an Xbox-exclusive role-playing game set in a fictional world that bears more than a passing resemblance to ancient China. The gameplay in Jade Empire is reminiscent of that in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, but with real-time combat, a storyline that draws inspiration from kung fu movies, and a distinct lack of droids. We spent a couple of hours playing an almost-finished version of Jade Empire during a recent meeting with BioWare, and we're pleased to report that we have not been able to stop smiling since.

Since the game's tutorial was absent from the last version of Jade Empire that we played in December, it was the first thing we checked out on this occasion. The combat in Jade Empire is deceptively simple to pick up, and the two-minute tutorial, which takes the form of a one-on-one fight, does a great job of familiarizing you with the controls necessary to perform basic and powerful attacks, blocks, evasive maneuvers, and chi healing. Once we had cleared the tutorial and felt comfortable with the controls, we were invited to check out a number of different saved games that afforded us access to various locations and fighting styles--many of which we had never seen before.

The leaping tiger style employs large claws worn on the hands.

The first area that we visited was the same large teahouse interior that we had been shown in previous Jade Empire presentations. Fighting alongside one of the game's 12 "follower" characters, we found ourselves up against around six or seven enemies simultaneously. The four fighting styles mapped onto our directional pad included ice shard, which let us temporarily freeze most enemies with a ranged attack- leaping tiger, which saw us melee-attacking enemies with large "claws" worn on our hands- toad demon, which transformed us into a powerful (if somewhat grotesque) demon- and a sword-based weapon style. We were also able to employ improvised weapons that became available as the fight progressed, including the legs from a broken chair and a pair of hams taken from a food cart. The enemies we were fighting were far more challenging than those we faced in earlier stages of the game back in December, not only because they were quite adept at blocking our attacks, but also because they were all using different fighting styles. Freezing enemies and following up with ice-shattering powerful melee attacks proved to be a winning combination, though, and it wasn't long before the teahouse was safe enough for us to explore at our leisure.

There were plenty of characters for us to engage in conversations with as we toured the building, and the one that caught our eye turned out to be a farmer having a problem with one of his employees. The employee in question, who could be seen sulking in a corner, was an ogre named Zhong, who, for reasons that we'll let you find out yourself when you play the game, didn't want to return to the farm with his boss. We decided that we would help the farmer out any way that we could, and we managed to strike up a conversation with Zhong. He was very upset about what had happened, and as the conversation came to an end, we were presented with a number of viable courses of action. We really didn't feel that it would be nice to threaten Zhong with a beating at this point, so we checked out our conversation options and noticed that our character's high intuition and charm attributes had afforded us two options that looked particularly appropriate. We chose one, and the problem was resolved, and although the farmer offered us nothing but a thank-you, the owner of the teahouse was so happy to see the back of the sulking ogre that he handed us some money as a reward.

The next locale that we visited was called Tien's Landing, which was a beautiful wooded area with waterfalls, interesting trees, and some spectacular views. Most of the enemies that we encountered in the forest were ghosts known as "lost spirits," who attacked us at range using two different kinds of magic projectiles. Most of the attacks weren't too difficult to avoid using Jade Empire's intuitive controls, but when the ghosts started throwing projectiles that tracked our movements, we were left with no choice but to stand our ground and block them. The first time we attempted to beat the ghosts we were fighting alongside Wildflower, who, if you've been following our previous coverage of the game, you'll know is a young girl whose body is inhabited by two demons. When we told her to enter attack mode, Wildflower transformed into one of the demons and did a good job of helping us out, right up to when we ran out of chi to heal with and died. It was at this point that one of the BioWare representatives suggested we take a different approach and introduced us to a follower character named Dawn Star, whose "support" mode has her working to restore your chi rather than fighting enemies. We were also introduced to a fighting style called spirit thief, which, although it didn't actually hurt the ghosts, let us drain chi from them using ranged attacks.

The enemies that we faced at our next destination, the Black Leopard School, were a little more conventional. After besting a number of mouthy students on school grounds, we were approached by one of the school's "brothers" and eventually told that we would be allowed to enroll at the school if we could defeat a number of its best fighters in one-on-one competitions. What made the school particularly interesting, though, is that (without wishing to give anything anyway) we were basically forced to side with one of two powerful characters as our time there came to an end. Both of the characters were in a position to teach us a new fighting style if we sided with them, and the evil one of the two was also looking to tempt us by offering some kind of material reward. We won't tell you which of the two we sided with, just that the events (and fights) that followed were pretty cool.

Lost spirits are immune to certain attacks, and throw some mean projectiles.

The last location that we visited during our meeting was Jade Empire's Imperial Arena, where we were approached by a promoter looking to replace one of his fighters. We accepted his offer, of course, and went on to win seven very different fights before our meeting with BioWare came to a close. Our opponents in the arena included an ogre, groups of students and cannibals, a poisonous toad demon, and a guy named Hapless Han, who was the current qualifying division champion. In between those fights we also got to participate in a couple of unusual challenges, like demolishing a statue (a lot like beating up the car in Street Fighter II) and avoiding fireballs and spikes in the appropriately named Pit of Pain.

After spending almost two hours playing Jade Empire, we're more excited than ever about getting our hands on the finished game when it ships next month. We're a little disappointed that we didn't get to see the M-rated game's blood and gruesome deaths that were a feature of its E3 showing last year on this occasion, but we understand that BioWare will be including a gore option for those of you with a strong stomach. The only remotely negative aspects of Jade Empire at this point are that the loading screens appearing between areas, although brief, are quite frequent at times, and some of the conversations you'll have with other characters are extremely long, particularly if you take the time to listen to the voice acting rather than just click your way through reading the subtitles. To be fair, the conversations were well written and occasionally quite entertaining, and we almost certainly didn't get as much out of them as we might have because we were jumping between different areas of the game without any real context for them. We'll bring you more on Jade Empire just as soon as we get our own copy of the game.

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