At risk of this becoming a Bioware love-in, I’ve decided to go with another title from the master developer’s back catalogue for this week’s glance into the Xbox rear view mirror. Then I promise, no more: for at least two weeks!
Jade Empire was a risk. Perhaps not a big one for a studio at the height of its powers. But, sandwiched between Knights of the Old Republic, released in 2003 and Mass Efftect in 2007, it was Bioware’s final Xbox hurrah. A brand new IP, it was typical of Bioware circa the early 21st Century to put all their weight behind a type of game they had never before attempted, and then absolutely nail it.
You might think you’ve read some of the mythology from the game. You might think you’ve seen some of the fight scenes in countless kung-fu action movies over the years. The reality was that while borrowing heavily from both; the world, story and combat systems were build from the ground up just for Jade Empire. It was an incredible love letter to Asian film-making and showed wonderful understanding and respect to Chinese folklore. Bioware even had a university professor create a completely new language, Tho Fan, spoken by the elders in the game. Combining part Mandarin and part Khalka from Mongolia it was a perfect example of Bioware’s dedication to its craft. More than anything, they wanted you to believe the world you were choosing to inhabit.
Oh, and it wasn’t a bad rpg from a mechanics point of view either. Replicating the success of the dark/ light moral compass from KOTOR, here known as the Way of the Open Palm and Closed Fist, the dialogue encouraged choice with the ending influenced by how much or how little a dick you were. Dozens of side quests ranging from your standard fetch-a-thons to multi-part epics and even some comic relief combined to make hours upon hours of content.
But the story would have felt pointless if it wasn’t layered on top of a simply stunning real time battle setup. At its heart was a fairly simple rock, paper, scissors type rule set. The block/ shield button could be beaten by a charged attack but it took ages to get to full power, so quick enemies could floor you in the mean time. Did I mention there was magic too? It was fast and very hands-on. The essentially turn based combat from KOTOR was dispensed with wholesale and completing the game was a significant challenge. It’s another example of a needless risk taken by Bioware in Jade Empire’s creation. Another studio would have grabbed KOTOR’s best bits combat-wise, stuck an oriental theme on it and pushed it out the door.
To my mind it sits comfortably in the top 10 Xbox games of all time – maybe its time for a sequel Bioware? What do you think?