I'm Trying Desperately to replenish my chi before my scantily-clad female character wades back into kung fu combat with a flaming horse demon. Of course, that's pretty much par for the course in Jade Empire, BioWare's latest role-playing epic in which the traditional fantasy trappings have been replaced with a mythical Chinese setting. But being a port of a two-year-old Xbox title, is this a case of glorious reincarnation or ageing master?
The first act introduces you to the controls and the story. Ghosts are inhabiting the world of the living and after your hometown is destroyed and your master taken by the Lotus Assassins, it's a non-stop action ride to set the world's problems straight Expect a journey packed to the rafters with a fantastic supporting cast (see 'A Little Help From My Friends' right), and a wide variety of inventive foes, from arrogant fellow students to animal spirits and creepy ghosts.
Jade Empire is set in a massive and lush world, which borrows liberally from several Far Eastern influences. The game offers some of the most beautiful levels we've ever laid eyes on, with plenty of variation on offer too, from fungus-lit caves through haunted forests to (quite literally) small slices of heaven.
Everything feels like BioWare have poured their hearts and souls into the game, from the inclusion of an entirely made-up language to the masses of scrolls, signs and conversations that fill in the back-story and work to create an accessible and hugely believable world.
Incidentally, the morality system seen in Knights Of The Old Republic makes a partial return here, though it's been toned down substantially, with less of the black-and-white moral decisions. They've also cut back on a few non-essential RPG staples, with slimmed-down character development and not an inventory in sight However, don't fret because it all feels marvellously balanced and you'll soon forget that you ever needed those things in the first place.
Mind, Body And Kick-Ass Moves
As you may have realised, however, the core of the gameplay is action. Unlike KOTOR, real-time combat using fu techniques and to their credit BioWare have done a pretty good job mapping the mass of controls to the PC. Once you've got past the first hurdle of getting your fingers accustomed to the multitude of controls, you'll soon discover that the system is relatively easy to pick up but a bit trickier to master. Just bashing the light attack button may eventually win you your first few fights, but if you actually manage to get to grips with swapping styles, dodging, blocking and using the harmonic combos for maximum impact, combat becomes far more satisfying and like a true kung fu master.
The fluid animation of the characters really helps things along too, making you feel like you're right in the thick of the action. There are a few niggles though. The game always defaults back to the last style used in battle once a fight begins (even if you've changed this in between). Plus, despite the richly designed environments, low-res textures still abound. However, with a great story, tons of missions, beautifully rich settings, satisfying fighting and brilliant characterisation, all swaddled in over 20 hours of play, Jade Empire has transcended its Xbox roots to reincarnate itself as a high-kicking, epic RPG for PC. The chi is strong with this one.
"It's actually a game we very much wanted to make from way back - the original idea is ten years old. It's one of those ideas that was there at the beginning of the company, and we've had to wait for the technology to get to the point where we could make it The guys here are huge martial arts, kung fu and Chinese action-flick fans, and we wanted to make a game that was a more action-oriented adventure-RPG. With all the history we could use from ancient China, we knew this would be a great one to finally make, and the Xbox 360 gave us the lift of power we needed to make the game we wanted to make."
"One of the things that the designers were looking forward to the most was not having the restrictions of a licence. A licence is really beneficial when it comes to structure and the framework of a game, and you can take a lot from research. Star Wars a great example of that - we were really able to reinterpret it all. However, just to be able to do anything you want, and know that you're not contravening the rules or someone else's idea of how it should all go is cool. It's nice not to have to worry too much about that."
"Within 24 hours of us registering the name for Dragon Age, one of the fans had found it and posted on our site. He was saying: "Hey, guess what, BioWare have got this Dragon Age, and boy, is it gonna suck." Immediately, we had someone replying: "You've got to be kidding, it's going to have thousands of dragons flying around everywhere." All we'd done was register a name that at the time, we may or may not have been going to use, but yeah, some people get pretty fanatical. I think you could just post the name, and the fans would just design the game for you - the speculation is unbelievable.
LOOK AT THESE:
"There was a lot of interest beforehand in the martial arts and the Chinese movie mythology. Not just in the likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but our designers and writers would go down to the level of Five Fingers Of Death, Seven Samurai and the kind of things I've never heard of - the real hardcore stuff. We also sent our art team over to China in an attempt to keep the background fairly accurate. Then there was a lot of research into Chinese myths, so we felt free to borrow equally between myths and history.
"I was working with the art team on the original research, and you're booking four guys to go to China for two weeks and take photographs of bits of old brick - it's not a bad job at all."
"Not being constrained by other peoples rules means you can be a lot more imaginative with the kind of things you can do. We didn't want to be constrained by a real universe. Once you step away from the real world, you can just do things because it feels cool or it looks nice, and you don't have to worry about people complaining that it never really happened. For us, it's the escapism of games, and telling the stories you want to tell. We made a fighter simulation once, called Operation Overlord. A guy phoned up to complain that Biggin Hill landing strip is 15-degrees further north than it should be. It makes you think, 'It's also just a vector graphic rectangle', but people get very defensive when it's meant to be true."
OPEN PALM, SLAPPED FACE:
"There's a mixture of karate, kung fu and around five different real-world martial arts styles included in the game, and we used motion capture to make sure it was accurate.
"When we wanted to add different moves, we borrowed from other sources. Things like the transformation styles - we borrowed J some stuff from Chinese mythology, things like the cat demons. Then " we added things we thought fitted in - that weren't taken from the mythology, but fitted in with what we were doing. Also, we were able to develop the Iron Palm style a little bit further and put it into the PC version.
"The first style I ever played in the game was the Leaping Tiger style. Just for that reason, that's probably my favourite style, because it's the first one I ever used. Although I love the transformation stuff too -getting the Jade Golem and kicking the crap out of everything was probably one of the best feelings for me in the game. I'm rubbish at Drunken Master, though."
"What we wanted to do is tell stories through character, so you want to build up a varied cast with their own histories, who relate well to each other. If you look at BioWare games, there's always one there for light relief - that's Henpecked Hou. He gets pretty much all of the best lines, he's absolutely the character I'd use, just to listen to him. He's absolutely useless in combat but I'll use him, just to hear what he says next. My wife's not so keen on him, because he's constantly complaining about his own wife. He's definitely a man's character, and Henpecked Hou is a well-known character from China."
"The Outlander is a composite of different European explorers. His helmet is Spanish, his breastplate is German and he's obviously very English - lie's an amalgamation of the European explorers who wandered over to China. Getting John Cleese was just one of those fortuitous moments. We were recording in Los Angeles, John Cleese was there, his agent was there and he was really open to the idea. We asked him if he had time, he said yes and it was all done in an afternoon. You'd expect something like that to take months, but it couldn't have been more simple."
MOUSE AND KEYBOARD:
Actually, I'm probably proudest of the PC interpretation of the control system in the whole project. From the outset, we were adamant that the game had to play well on keyboard and mouse, otherwise there's no point in making the game. We threw a dummy control system in at the outset of making the game, so we had the whole development process to perfect the controls. Personally, I think it plays better on keyboard and mouse, because your ability to jump between styles is a lot more fluid than it was on the Xbox.
Processor: PC compatible,
OS: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game Features:Single game mode