BioWare has been inspiring devotion from PC gamers ever since the original Baldur's Gate six years ago. The Dungeons and Dragons-based combat not only went a long way towards revitalizing D&D and PC RPGs, but it also lasted longer than a visit from the family. The second Baldur's and the Neverwinter Nights series used the same combat, but the latter introduced a new and improved engine to go with it. That was used in Knights of the Old Republic, a game which not only proved that BioWare should rule Canada with some sort of gaming oligarchy, but revived console RPGs - which had gotten stale with an overabundance of Japanese RPGs that lacked most of the RP. Knights of the Old Republic made such a big impact that even the formerly unstoppable Final Fantasy series had to stop and take notice, and you'll see that the twelfth installment of the series takes a lot of its direction from BioWare and its games. Despite that, Square Enix is going to have some serious competition for gamers' hearts by the time it launches Final Fantasy XII next year.
Jade Empire, BioWare's second recent venture into the world of console RPGs was recently shown at E3, and despite the fact that the developers are ditching the Neverwinter Nights engine and D&D-style combat, Jade is still a BioWare game all the way. How do we know that? Well, the first thing they talked about with us at E3 was the story, and while they didn't reveal too much, they assured us that the story was where all the emphasis was being placed. Essentially, you are an up-and-coming martial artist in Ancient China. Danger is looming, so you travel the country, mastering different martial arts and fighting demons from Chinese lore. It sounds simple, but like in any BioWare game, you decide just how the story moves along and whether or not you're going to be Mr. Nice Guy or tell them all to go to Hell. What you do, what you say, and how you treat people is all up to you. Want someone to do something to help you out? You could ask him nicely, demand that he does your bidding, or, of course, you can always "Charm" him, which works in the same way as "Persuade" in KOTOR. Jade Empire might actually have more options than real life.
Speaking of charm, Jade Empire's battle system is a beautiful thing to behold. Every battle is in real time and without any of the "pause the battle then queue your actions" gameplay that you might be used to from BioWare's previous games. You can pause and switch who you're looking at or your fighting style and that's it. The rest of the time it's all about quick thinking and even quicker action. Fighting styles are chosen using the D-pad and can be switched at any time in or out of battle. And with over thirty different styles in the game, that's a lot of switching. The action is all very fast and satisfying, and in addition to your normal attacks you have a chi meter, which when filled allows you to unleash a devastating attack that can do things like decapitate multiple enemies at once. The different attacks and methods of combat all flow together seamlessly, so while the pace might be more demanding than most RPGs, it's also very rewarding.
Martial Arts is the style you begin with, and it includes all of the hand-to-hand disciplines, like Legendary Fist (the first available style) and Storm Dragon. Not into hand-to-hand combat and prefer something more mystical? There are also magic styles, such as Dire Flame (shoot fire from your hands) and Paralyzing Palm (turn enemies to stone). Using the latter attack on an enemy allows you to shatter them, and it is as impressive as it sounds. Lastly, you have weapon styles (Halberd and Twin Axes, for instance) that provide you with a means to take out your anger with a foreign object. So there's a style for every taste, and you can mix and match them all you want. But because you actually have to use a style for a while to be good with it, you have to be a bit more selective about what style you use and when. Each created character also has her own Dragon Amulet, which you add gems to in order to increase certain abilities and stats, and in that way it functions similarly to the lightsaber in Knights. As you progress through the game, you find these different gems and may use whichever of them you wish whenever you wish to. You are of course limited in how many you can use at any time, though, so the amulet adds another layer of strategy to the game.
Whether you're walking through a forest or inside of a large village , Jade Empire has enough style to go around. The designers have taken a lot of time and put a lot of effort into creating the look and feel of ancient China, right down to the demons that you face off against, which are taken directly from Chinese mythology. Each demon, be it a frog, elephant, or other, is richly detailed and unique, and best of all, when you defeat it, there's a percentage chance of capturing its soul. That allows you to actually become the demon during battle later on. Imagine fighting a giant elephant as a giant frog and you get the picture.
If you aren't excited for Jade Empire yet, then you should probably check either your eyes or your pulse. Would it help if I told you that it included a vertical shoot-em-up mini game? Yep, not only is it an RPG, but they're giving you a little bit of classic shooter action as a bonus. At the wheel of the dragonfly, the means of flight in the game, you blast enemies and rain bombs down on anything and everything in your path - even helpless villiages, if you prefer that sort of thing.
Now you're excited, I can tell - and you should be. It looks like BioWare might have another game of the year award or twelve on their hands again, so keep your eyes open for more on Jade Empire as it gets closer to its glorious release date sometime in Q1 2005.
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