Monday, April 18, 2005

Jade Empire (Xbox)

I intended to have Jade Empire impressions up on Friday, but I was stopped by a serious problem: I couldn’t stop playing the game long enough to write the column. I wanted to get in ten hours of play before I wrote anything, and when I did I thought fifteen hours would be better. But if fifteen is better than ten, twenty is obviously better than fifteen, right?

Yes, it’s that good. It’s so good, in fact, that I hardly know where to begin.

For Knights of the Old Republic (my favorite game of 2003), Bioware brilliantly reinterpreted the Star Wars universe, maintaining fidelity to the canon while still creating a unique and fascinating world. Jade Empire is a different undertaking, a world influenced by Chinese mythology (and, to a lesser degree, kung-fu films) but essentially created from scratch. It is convincing and captivating and entirely beautiful.

The best way I can describe the world in Jade Empire is to compare it to Morrowind, which is one of the finest (and best-written) RPG’s I’ve ever played. In Morrowind, the history of the world is substantiated by hundreds of volumes that are available as one progresses through the game. It’s remarkable, to feel like a historian in a game world, but at the same time, the empire of Tamriel is most fully-defined by the written word. The world itself, though brilliantly done, is of a paler shade.

The history of the Jade Empire, in contrast, is sketchily defined by texts that are barely better than pedestrian. Yet in motion the world is beautifully dynamic and immersive, defining itself beyond the written world, which I see as a remarkable accomplishment. I experience the Jade Empire most fully not by reading, but by being.

Bioware excels at telling stories, and Jade Empire is no exception. The main story is deep and rich, and the side-quests are just as good. The side quests are truly remarkable because they are so deeply personal. Fear, anger, love, greed—they are all on display. It’s a vibrant world, bursting with life, full of both detail and astonishment. Yes, it’s a Bioware game, but there are certainly moments when I think of a game like Final Fantasy VII because of the sheer spectacle involved.

Visually, the world is beautiful and richly detailed. Some reviews have groused about the level of detail, but I don’t see how the existing Xbox hardware could be pushed any further than it’s gone here. I never get the feeling of being in a world that lacks dimension, which is also one of Bioware’s finest qualities—nothing about the world or the people in it feels flat.

One of the important reasons that people don’t feel flat is because they speak. Just as in KOTOR, the voice-acting is brilliant at times, and thousands upon thousands of lines of dialogue have been recorded. There are some inconsistencies in the voice-acting, but they relate mostly to style. Some characters speak with what sounds like (to my very clumsy ears) a Chinese accent, and some of these same voices speak just slightly more quickly, enough so that it almost sounds like a sly homage to English translations of kung-fu movies from the golden era of chopsocky. It never sounds ridiculous, but it’s a very distinctive style. Many other voices, though, have no accent at all. On paper, this sounds like an enormous incongruity, but as spoken it’s only slightly jarring. It is, however, there.

The basic dialogue mechanic hasn’t changed from KOTOR, or indeed, from the beginning of time. The dialogue tree convention has been around for twenty years (at least), and they’re very long in the tooth, but the voice-acting is so good that it makes up for the stale mechanic. The only time it wavers is during exposition—there are so many questions that can be asked by your character that “draining” a single NPC of information can take far too long. There is a more elegant way to handle that, which I’m not going to discuss now, but the dialogue tree is a convention that is badly in need of permanent retirement.

Much has been made of the fighting mechanism, and it’s certainly fun, but it hardly feels revolutionary. It’s real-time, and you can combine different styles during combat (selectable by the D-pad). The diversity of opponents and their styles, however, is extremely well-done. There’s an arena section in the game, not unlike the arena in Fable, but the intrigue behind the scenes and the wildly divergent nature of the battles are far, far more satisfying.

One other very important design element with this game is that it can be played. I know that sounds ridiculous, but so many games lock difficulty at inception. If you find yourself in a battle that cannot be won, the plot cannot be advanced. It might take sixty tries, but that battle must be won. It essentially represents the same kind of dead-stop situation as a difficult jumping puzzle in a platform game. With Jade Empire, the difficulty of both the fighting sections and mini-games can be changed at will, with the only exception being that difficulty is locked during combat. I’ve had two battles (on regular difficulty, which is called “Master”) that were tremendously difficult, and after attempting each one about fifteen times (and these weren’t short battles, so it took quite a while for this to play out), I reloaded a save, lowered the difficulty level, and was able to finish them both. It kept the story advancing and my frustration level down, and I was able to go back to Master level afterwards.

I get no sense of accomplishment from trying the same battle (or jumping puzzle) fifty times. It’s a fundamental tenet of game design that a player can’t experience the game if they quit playing, but I’m amazed by how many games don’t seem to embrace this principle. I don’t mind different endings, or lowered experience points, but there should be some way to progress through the game.

So as a game, Jade Empire is certainly not revolutionary, but the remarkable ability that Bioware has to balance a game is on full display here. They do an extraordinary job of creating cohesion and balance, and they’ve done it again. There’s so much here, and it all fits together beautifully.

And above all, a Bioware game is personal. The interactions between characters are filled with emotion, and the voicing of dialogue only enhances this feeling. Jade Empire is deeply immersive, almost encompassing, and a step beyond KOTOR in my mind, at least during the first twenty hours of play. I find it particularly interesting that Jade Empire, like Darwinia, is a triumph of a kind, but for deeply different reasons. Darwinia’s design is so clean and sharp and it could be written on a single piece of paper. Jade Empire’s design probably filled five hundred pages. Yet each game, for its own reasons, manages to be involving and authentic and, most importantly, a true pleasure to play.

A wonderful game. A wonderful experience.

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