Jade Empire Impressions

BioWare shows off another facet of its exotic Xbox RPG.

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At the Game Developers Conference, we had the chance to sit in with Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, joint CEOs of famed Canadian development house BioWare. The pair were on hand to walk us through a demo of the combat and character development elements in Jade Empire, the upcoming Xbox RPG that's set in a mystical, Eastern-themed land. The game was debuted at this year's Tokyo Game Show, during which the good doctors gave us a brief demonstration and overview of the promising new game. While the TGS demo gave us a general feel for the game's direction, today's demo offered a much more focused view of just a few elements of this deep game.

Following in the impressive footsteps of KOTOR, Jade Empire is BioWare's newest Xbox RPG.
Following in the impressive footsteps of KOTOR, Jade Empire is BioWare's newest Xbox RPG.

The work-in-progress demo started out with a quick look at Jade Empire's character creation process, which, while not final, gave us an idea of what to expect. There were several male and female characters to choose from, with names such as "Furious Ming" and "Wu the Lotus Blossom" (which may or may not be final), different fighting styles, and varying ratings for body, mind, and spirit. Each character featured his own unique attributes, which affected his abilities in the game and were tied to his secondary attributes. Body will be linked to your character's health; mind will relate to his focus ability, which lets you slow down time during combat; and spirit will be bound to your character's chi, which you can use to heal yourself at any time.

While the characters in the demo started out with their own unique fighting styles, you'll actually be able to customize your fighters, to a certain degree, in the final game. The exact details weren't revealed, but it sounds as though you'll be able to adjust their body, mind, and spirit levels as well as choose their fighting style. As a result, larger characters can end up being surprisingly nimble despite their size--if you get the balance right. All told, the game will feature more than 30 fighting styles split among hand-to-hand, magical, and weapon-based styles. While most of the customization will occur under the hood and won't really affect the character template's appearances, at least they'll all feature a number of unique voice samples.

Once the character was selected, the demo shifted to combat set in three different areas, which gave us a feel for the way the different ways battles will unfold and provided a showcase for the lush graphics bring crafted for Jade Empire. The first area was an outdoor area known as the "Grandfather River Region," which, for anyone trying to map out the game's geography, is near the town called Two Rivers, located close to your martial arts school. The demo made use of the male character currently going by the moniker "Furious Ming." Señor Ming took on a gaggle of baddies by starting in the "paralyzing palm" style and then shifting to "legendary fist." For demo purposes, Ming was pretty powered-up and had access to a number of high-level attacks in each style, which could be used in combination on the fly. For example, one of the paralyzing palm style's powered-up moves is a souped-up form of paralysis that petrifies your foe. Once your enemy is incapacitated, you can shatter him with spectacularly explosive results by using a legendary fist move.

The demo also showed off a segment using weapon combat that indicated the potential and flexibility of using a weapon in a battle. For example, swapping in a sword allows you to juggle a foe to dole out some serious damage. The graphics in this level were very impressive, showing off a lush woodsy area that, not surprisingly, was near a gorgeously rendered river and forest. The color palette was of special note in the level, as it featured rich, vibrant tones that gave it a unique, surreal quality.

Nobody likes a toad demon.
Nobody likes a toad demon.

The next area, called "The Land of Howling Spirits," offered a marked change of pace, visually, as it was set in a snowy mountain region that was apparently inspired by Tibet. The combat in this level highlighted the different ways you can use your character's abilities, such as using chi to heal yourself or combining focus and weapon attacks to perform unique moves, and it reinforced what was shown in the first area. The demo also showed off special buffs you could perform on yourself to enhance your offense, such as the fire-based abilities used by Furious Ming and his foe, a Lotus Wizard, that offered a way to enhance your attacks or shield you from damage. One of the big aesthetic draws in this level was the plethora of little touches, such as real-time cloth physics that were matched by a complex particle system used to re-create the movement of wind and snow.

The final area shown was a cave interior that housed what appeared to be a boss character, a toad demon with a versatile tongue. This level showed off the options open to you in battle when you're in a bind. One of the best resources you'll have in combat is the interactive background. In the case of the cavern fight, it will be possible to attack outgrowths from the ceiling, which results in pieces of the roof coming down. If you manage to position enemies in the right area, the falling debris will prove quite useful. However, the demo did give us an important life lesson that anyone hoping to play Jade Empire should take to heart: Sometimes falling debris isn’t enough to take out a toad demon.

However, when faced with a situation where you're being hassled by said toad demon, who's unfazed by debris falling from the ceiling, you should fall back on your transformations. In the case of this particular battle, Ming transformed into a rather unholy-looking beast that towered over the evil toad and doled out wicked punishment (although the toad looked pretty freaking tough while taking it). Although the cavern level demo seemed designed more to show off the transformations and level interactivity, there were some nice graphical touches on display here as well, such as lighting, texture detail (especially on the toad and his tongue), and the animation during battle.

The game features some of the most luscious and exotic graphics on the Xbox.
The game features some of the most luscious and exotic graphics on the Xbox.

Speaking generally, the graphics in the game are looking quite impressive thanks to an all-new engine that relies very little on the technology used in BioWare's previous Xbox RPG, Knights of the Old Republic. While the demo we saw used a work-in-progress version, the game already moved smoothly and showcased a ton of effects that take advantage of the Xbox hardware. The target frame rate for the game is 30 frames per second, which already looked to be locked down. The miscellaneous effects on hand included light blooming and a high level of character detail that offered vivid detail on the characters we saw. Animation stood out quite a bit, thanks to BioWare's use of motion-captured movement for all the styles in the game, which added a layer of polish to the visuals.

As for the game's combat system, we obviously got some great examples of what the flexible system is going to offer, but at the same time, there appears to a quite a bit more to it. The game will use a system similar to KOTOR's in that you'll be able to play in real-time or pause the game and go through in a more turn-based fashion. However, the ability to change fighting styles on the fly was impressive, especially the combos you could create by doing so, and appeared to bring a new level of strategy to combat. Control appears to be simple--you'll assign attacks to the various face buttons on the Xbox controller--and should be easy to pick up. The process of leveling up your character and becoming more proficient in your various abilities (each fighting style should have roughly four to seven moves) appears to offer a deep experience as well.

Each of the fighting styles you can choose winds up evolving in different ways, and each style even features some unique branches on its individual path. The branching system gives the development of the various styles a more organic feel that should make you feel more like your character is evolving than simply earning a new move. We're especially intrigued by the ways you'll be able to combine different abilities into complementary pairings. For example, you can use a chi-draining ability to help you get more use out of a chi-intensive attack by draining chi from your foes to allow you to perform the latter move more often. While a good chunk of Ming's battle with the toad demon was spent with him in a transformed state, when the final game is balanced you won't be able to stay in an alternate form for too long, as such a move will be a heavy drain on your store of chi, thus forcing you to be selective about what you do. Another unique element to combat is the company you'll be keeping at certain points in the game. Apparently, as you go through the game you'll pick up minions who'll tag along and help you in combat as best they're able. While you won't take direct control of them, they should be useful in a pinch.

Jade Empire's martial arts-based combat system will provide a rich and detailed experience for RPG players.
Jade Empire's martial arts-based combat system will provide a rich and detailed experience for RPG players.

While the main focus of our Jade Empire demo was on combat and character development, it also gave some insight into how the menu and item system are coming together. The in-game menu that lets you toggle through various options is in the same vein as KOTOR's sleek and functional interface, although what we saw is likely to evolve as development continues. This menu features a detailed map system that lets you track your position in the massive world where Jade Empire is set. A journal system will let you manage the various quests you'll take on, while the game's collection system will let you track the items, weapons, and spirits (which enable you to transform into different forms) that you'll collect. A style progression page will let you see how your various fighting forms are coming along.

Interestingly enough, it doesn’t appear that Jade Empire will have a traditional equipment system, like BioWare's previous games. Rather than get items, such as armor, that you'll equip to enhance your character's abilities, you'll buff your character by putting items in the slots of an amulet you'll wear. The last bit of info we got during the presentation was that Jade Empire will feature some type of downloadable content, which BioWare will reveal later on down the line. Although our look at Jade Empire shed a bit of light on one aspect of the game, we definitely got the feeling this was just the tip of the iceberg. Barring an act of God (or a toad demon), Jade Empire should stand as one of the bright lights in the Xbox lineup when it ships. At present, it looks as though the game is slated to be released sometime later this year, so we'll bring you more as that time approaches.

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