Jade Empire Hands-On

We fought our way through several action-packed sequences from BioWare's next Xbox role-playing game--and also witnessed the best minigame we've seen in a while.

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Jade Empire is BioWare's upcoming martial arts-themed role-playing game, which combines Hong Kong-style action with the depth and open-endedness characteristic of the company's games. This week at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the game was publicly playable for the first time. However, we were fortunate to get to play a behind-closed-doors build of the game, in which we fought our way through several spectacular battles and also experienced a remarkable minigame--a vertical shooter, reminiscent of classics like the Raiden series or last year's Ikaruga. As if Jade Empire wasn't already packing in enough of our favorite stuff...

In the game, players will assume the role of a martial artist who gradually realizes his or her true potential, as well as his or her ancient heritage. While Jade Empire basically resembles last year's outstanding Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic in terms of basic look and feel, not only is there a fundamental difference in the settings but also there's a fundamental difference in the two games' combat. Namely, KOTOR's pseudo-turn-based combat is cast aside here in favor of what's essentially pure action, which combines elements of brawlers and fighting games with a convincingly kung fu-movie-style atmosphere.

We got to fight against multiple martial artists, as well as gigantic demons shaped like toads and elephants, during our solid half hour spent with the game. We found that the combat is fundamentally sound already, since it allowed us to easily target foes, dodge around the battlefield as needed, and muscle in to deliver flurries of punches, slashes, and more. We also learned to pull off chi attacks, which resulted in some truly devastating results, and several other special techniques. For instance, we learned to enter into focus mode, sort of a Max Payne bullet time-style effect, which forced our enemies into slow motion while we ourselves could continue dishing out the damage at top speed.

Another extremely important ability is switching between combat styles, which is accomplished simply by pressing the D pad in different directions. We were able to readily switch between armed and unarmed combat, as well as multiple, different martial arts styles, affording us with considerable variety in battle but not at the expense of pick-up-and-play accessibility. The different martial arts have various advantages and disadvantages, so there will presumably be some split-second tactical decision-making needed to be made during the course of the game.

The combat is already quite responsive and surprisingly visceral. Those players who wished that the melee combat in KOTOR packed a bit more of a visual punch ought to be thrilled with Jade Empire's graphic attention to detail. We noticed, for instance, that our sword strikes would sometimes rend foes to pieces, generating Kill Bill-style geysers of blood. As well, one of our powered-up, unarmed attacks caused an enemy to simply explode in a puddle of gore. Jade Empire's content isn't really out of the ordinary for this type of genre (meaning, the Hong Kong martial arts extravaganza), so we're hopeful that Jade Empire will earn its "M" and ship with it.

As mentioned, the other aspect of Jade Empire that impressed us was the vertical-shooter minigame, in which players will need to guide the Marvelous Dragonfly, their ship used throughout the game, to new areas. Basically the game turns into Galaga, with waves of foes sweeping in from every angle to try to shoot or otherwise just run into you. This mode plays similarly to the Raiden series, and with a little more polish, it seems like it could be a ton of fun.

BioWare's action RPG looks to be coming along nicely and has plenty of time left to shape up between now and the game's first-quarter 2005 release. On the one hand, we wish we could play Jade Empire as soon as possible. On the other, we think this concept is looking so good that we hope BioWare will take all the time it needs to make Jade Empire at least as good as KOTOR before it. The game's action-oriented combat, impressive good looks, and original setting might well make for a truly remarkable experience.

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