Saturday, 23 April 2005
Chris Hicks sets off on a quest through ancient China to deliver the verdict on Bioware's latest title.
Bioware doesn’t make games based on Jane Austin novels, but if they did they’d be something like this. You play a person on the verge of adulthood, whose only concern is to find an eligible suitor. Unfortunately, before Mr. Bingley and Darcy can arrive, a shadowy group of royal soldiers raid your home and murder your family. The stableman – a secretive, yet striking type – drags you to safety and says you must journey to London to stop a mysterious figure from overthrowing the monarchy. On the way, you encounter a sharp-tongued woman, a lost girl, an immoral tradesman and a dashing rogue. You’ll also periodically meet people asking for help, of which you can give freely, charge for, or simply not act. When in London, a party member or two might betray you or even confess their repressed feelings to you, but eventually you’ll end up fighting the mysterious figure and defeating him, thereby restoring power to the monarchy or taking it for yourself. Simply put, it would be like every other Bioware game, including Jade Empire. And like Jade Empire, it would be great, despite its unoriginality.
Jade Empire is set in a mythical representation of China, where all the ancient legends of the land exist. Magic, kung-fu, dragons and more populate the world, creating a rich and varied environment as rich as any of Bioware's licensed games. Hinting at permanently unseen places and recalling fictional history we’ll never witness, Jade Empire’s world simmers with life, yet doesn’t revel in its own brilliance. This throw away approach to their research is all the more comforting, given that it’s Bioware’s first ever intellectual property. Anyone concerned for Bioware’s ability to invent their own franchises will be happy to know they can and have done - but as with all their products, story and the game come first.
Like most western RPGs, Jade Empire works by sending players on quests that earn the character experience, cash and items that gradually turn them from a pasty runt into a fearsome warrior. Clocking in at about thirty hours play, it’s shorter than most of its forbearers, but still as compelling. Despite being Bioware’s first IP, it sticks close to the tried and tested formula developed in Baldur’s Gate and Knights of the Old Republic. If anything, Jade Empire is a culmination of everything learned by the company.
Yet unfortunately, it’s not a culmination of everything learned by the genre. It’s polarised approach to good and evil is disappointing, especially in wake of Obsidian’s flawed, but ambitious The Sith Lords. Dialogue choices seem particularly limited, offering the basic “I will help / I want money / Die wench!” approach that now feels somewhat dated. More annoying is the way Bioware equate the concepts ‘open palm’ and ‘closed fist’ with good and evil. The early explanations of these ideas hint that morality will be blurred in Jade Empire, so it’s doubly disappointing when you realise they’re just substitutions the dark and light side from KotOR. Whilst the system still offers enough choices to be interesting, post-The Sith Lords it feels a little regressive.
This feeling is not limited to dialogue choices, either. Just as Neverwinter dropped Baldur’s Gate II's group system, Jade Empire bizarrely restricts control over NPCs that KotOR implemented so well. Direct control is impossible and upgrading party members is negligible and has no real effect. Those familiar with the accursed party system from Fallout will have more flashbacks than a Quentin Tarantino movie when playing Jade Empire. At best, NPCs do nothing. At worst, they really get in the way, especially in combat. This becomes a bone of contention, given that Jade Empire is Bioware’s first game in real time.
Real time combat is simultaneously both Jade Empire’s greatest achievement and its biggest flaw. When it works, it’s more satisfying than any role playing game on the market. This is marred, however, by a dodgy camera and flawed upgrade system. New techniques do not build on what you already know, but instead require you to replace your existing powers with them if you want to use them. This isn’t that appealing when there is no way to tell if a fully upgraded lower combat skill is more powerful than a virgin higher one. And when testing out these new powers, it doesn’t help that the camera can become an additional enemy in a fraction of a second. It moves in an atmospheric and kinetic way, pushing in close, swinging around and pulling out, but often your character is so fast that the camera just can’t keep up. Other adversaries and allies sometimes block your view, especially if you’re stuck in a corner. It’s not a problem that occurs frequently, but when it does you can guarantee that it will happen when you’re inches away from death in a dual with a tough opponent. Although your character can’t, expletives can and will fly.
However, these flaws are the exceptions to an otherwise superbly polished and involving game and disappointment soon wavers as you begin to appreciate the quality behind it all. Unlike The Sith Lords, the game passes largely without faults or bugs - and whilst it is shorter than most RPGs, it feels better structured and more complete than any RPG since... well, Knights of the Old Republic. The dialogue is good for the most part (except for Sky, whose cliché motivations and contrived romantic dialogue should have been buried with Carth Onasis when I severed his head on the Star Forge. Ahem) and the production values are expectedly top-notch. There is little reason not to go back to it, particularly as character relations change so drastically depending on how and whom you take along for the ride. Despite its flaws, Bioware has shown with Jade Empire that their own IP will become as treasured and valuable as the work they’ve done for other licences. It’s not often a game is compelling enough to warrant replay straight away, but Jade Empire isn’t a game that comes along often. You’ll replay it, again and again, until their next one. It may not be universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want for a new Bioware game - but after playing Jade Empire, it’s about as close as it can get.