August 17, 2005

Jade Empire

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4 out of 5 stars

My first real game review. Could even be the first game review.

Bioware. Made Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights and Knights of the Old Republic. All of them Action RPGs with familiar backstories - the first two in a D&D setting with a game world spanning 11 games/add-ons and the last one being set in the Star Wars universe, hugely successful amongst the fans who had actually grown up since the original trilogy.

They could have made the sequel to Knights, but they didn't: they made Jade Empire. I'm rather glad they did.

While the consequence of this is that Knights II was rather clumsy graphically, Jade Empire is absolutely beautiful – while the Xbox is probably the most powerful of the current consoles they get more out of it than I thought possible, given it's based on technology which seems very outdated to PC users. Smoke effects, running water, rain, fountains, waterfalls and an amazing water trickling over stone effect all add to a believable and wonderfully detailed world. Typically as the Xbox's replacement looms into view we only just begin to see what it is capable of.

Level Design
I always judge a good "map" or "level" by how easy it is to remember – if after a couple of runs around you pretty much know your way around, the designers have done their job – they've made it "real" and they've made it distinctive. A perfect map of the old Senate House corridors isn't going to make a great level, and no level is going to win awards if it's all made out of plain concrete.

New Thing
This is a new thing for Bioware – the game world is basically ancient China, but a China where all the stories you ever heard about magic and demons and crazy kung foo antics were all true. Plenty of Emperors, Monks and Spirits too. They went a bit mad with it, and I'm not sure if there's enough left for a sequel. What's not new is the "Open Palm"/"Closed Fist" meter - it's just the "Light Side"/"Dark Side" meter taken straight out of Knights and while the game has plenty to say on the merits of either course, in actuality it's a good/evil choice as usual.

The controls are a little different from a regular RPG, and more what you'd expect from a game based around martial arts, but are nowhere near as hard to master as a straight beat-em-up. Actually there's loads of things to help you – there are buttons for healing, dealing more damage and even a "bullet-time" mode – the latter two only really being necessary when you're in a desperate scrape.

Overall I found it rather fun, most of the lines are spoken in not-too-annoying style, the good/bad thing works well, difficultly is constantly adjustable so you shouldn't get stuck/bored, there's a nice variety of missions from finding lost animals to repelling a siege, great story and it looks superb.
Having finished "good", I will probably give it another play through as "evil", but not right away.

The limited edition reviewed here gives you an extra selectable character Monk Zeng but his Leaping Tiger move is available to other characters, so I'm not sure if it's an exclusive - it was my favourite move, though. You also get a Making Of DVD which is reasonably interesting, but recorded at a pitifully low resolution and probably available for download from the game TV channel it was taken from

Edit: on reflection have reduced the rating to four stars – while it scores highly on all the criteria I am interested in, I will only play through it a maximum of two times, good and evil paths, unless a significant amount of extra content becomes available for it.

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  1. Erm. Black Isle made Baldur's Gate I and II. Let it never be forgotten.

    Of course, Bioware were very keen to stress that the Jade Empire actually isn't China, even going so far as to create an entirely new language for its inhabitants to speak. This was to give them the freedom they needed to do whatever the hell they wanted in terms of geography, history and politics, but keep the Oriental setting which work so well.

    I started writing a review of this months ago, but was too lazy to finish it. I should really do something about that.

    17 Aug 2005, 13:23

  2. Simon, it's a common misunderstanding but Bioware made most of Baldurs Gate 1 and 2, Black Isle did some bits as well, it was an unusual arrangement. Black Isle made ALL of Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale 1 and 2, as well as the Fallout series. My conclusion is that it's just Black Isle's magic touch that made games awesome.

    Neverwinter Nights was a pile of poo, i'm sure it was wonderful if you just wanted to play tabletop DnD but over the internet, but I wanted something to continue the awesomeness of BG2 and PS:T. I'd love to play Jade Empire, but i'm not really keen on buying another console just to play it, I already have a Gamecube and a PS2. KoTOR was enjoyable, but it was let down when you realised that as soon as you get all 4 star maps you went to the final area, it wasn't the roaming unpredictable adventure feel that I enjoyed in BG2 and PS:T. KoTOR2 should have been much better but Oblivion (Black Isle reborn) had to cut a lot of quality game content out for some reason unknown to me, so it was pretty much an unfinished game. Like Daredevil (movie) was before the awesome Director's Cut.

    17 Aug 2005, 13:46

  3. Oh. I never actually played Baldur's gate, just looked on the Bioware website to see what else they had done. Thought it would be much more as I'd heard their name so much, but that was probably people going on about Neverwinter taking however many years it took.

    The "old tongue" language some of the characters speak sounds rather like the Sullustan in Knights (had to look that up ).
    I recognised it as the "China" you see in martial arts/fantasy movies rather than China.

    I waited until I'd finished it, and also for the 'game review' feature to become active in blogbuilder.

    17 Aug 2005, 14:00

  4. never played the greatest game series of all time!?


    17 Aug 2005, 14:03

  5. Didn't interest me at the time, and looks too primitive now – probably played a demo and then went back to Quake/Half Life. Even Neverwinter's control system is a frustration now that I've experienced the ease with which it's possible to glide around the World of Warcraft.

    Actually I'm bored of WoW, too. Next!

    17 Aug 2005, 14:09

  6. The infinity engine still has the most detailed graphics in any game i've played, BG2 is a truly beautiful game. BG2 is also one of the only games ever to be finished AHEAD of schedule and subsequently released about 2 months early.

    17 Aug 2005, 14:13

  7. I tried the demo of BG2. Probably the worst game I have the misfortune to experience in a long time. Glad they don't make 'em like that anymore. Just my opinion of course, I know a lot of people thought they were great at the time.

    I shall try the demo of Dungeon Siege II, now. I think I will like that – I get bored very easi-oh! what's that over there?

    17 Aug 2005, 20:48

  8. Andy: Ah. Thanks for clearing that up :-) Yes, NWN was shite. For exactly those reasons. And yes, KotOR 2 should have been better, but I loved what it did in terms of how your decisions really affect the people and world around you (to the point of getting a different character in your party depending on your side etc).

    Phil: You claim to get bored easily then say you want to play Dungeon Siege II, sequel to the world's dullest and most repetitive RPG? I mourn your lack of taste.

    17 Aug 2005, 23:23

  9. Looks like I got distracted again and didn't play Dungeon Siege II, so I'll leave any comment about it specifically until I have.

    Dungeon Siege, I agree, was immensely dull, mindless, monster-bashing. It did, however do some things very well: The controls worked well enough, while there was a bit too much clicking, at least it had a 'pick up all' command to save that mouse button. Graphically, it showed what the future looked like, while judging a game purely by looks might be rather shallow there was evidently a consensus that polygons, shadows, lighting effects and whatnot were the way to go, as all games utilise them now. Something not so widely used elsewhere was the way it would constantly load the next bit of the map, so you never got a loading screen. This was an impressive technique, but also a flaw: it meant the only part of the game world that "existed" was the part the player was currently occupying, so the network play was a disaster as you spawned your own version of the game world which vanished when you logged out.

    Diablo II was much the same sort of thing though with even more clicking if that's possible, while these days it looks a bit dated with it's low resolution and sprite-based characters it had more customisation in the way you developed your character and importantly, a persistent, server-based, game world.

    Neverwinter had the potential to be a great game, looked nice and was slick to control, and must have been a dream for D&D players who had Dungeon Masters able to modify the game flow on the fly. Trouble is, they based the network play model on that of an FPS, where you "join" a "map" and just trudge through the same game as single player with uncommunicative strangers who loot all the treasure.

    Between them they had the makings of a great game and surely provided inspiration for the multitude of MMORPGs now around – interfaces that let you just play, rather than struggle with the controls – visuals that make you feel as if you are there, not floating near the ceiling – games you want to come back to, because something new will have happened while you were away.

    That's how I rate games anyway, a "good story" is a little subjective and the best stories are the ones in your head anyway, longevity, complexity/simplicity, value-for-money don't feel as important to me as whether the experience is actually fun, so I rate on these ponts:
    – Interface/controls: can you actually play the game and do the things you want to do?
    – Attention to detail: did a lot of care go into this game's making? little things you don't notice at first, rather than flashy effects – more sophisticated graphics techniques make detail more obvious, but are not detail in themselves
    – Do you want to play?: keep playing, play them again or play them a different way? – this is the most important to me, what good are nice controls and all the rest if you don't want to go back and play some more. Games I'm still "playing" or least will definately play again once the "new-ness" has worn off.

    There aren't that many.

    18 Aug 2005, 02:53

  10. Well Baldurs Gate 2 and Planescape: Torment look far better graphically than Neverwinter Nights (the graphics engine is piss poor, it can't come anywhere near the level of Baldurs Gate and Icewind Dale when it comes to actually representing the game world).
    If you want a detailed game, go for the Fallout series too, graphically it was poor even at the time but it's such a massive game experience.

    So yeah, the main reason Neverwinter sucked for me was that the graphics engine wasn't even capable of representing a game world anywhere near as well as the Infinty Engine. This isn't the same as saying that the graphics were bad, it's just that the way they chose to build worlds made it impossible to make anything look natural and convincing.

    I have heard that Dungeon Siege 2 is supposed to be a lot better than Dungeon Siege though.

    18 Aug 2005, 03:18

  11. Of course, once I found out NWN2 was being made by Obsidian, I suddenly became interested again. And hated myself for it.

    18 Aug 2005, 11:31

  12. I might do some comparisons of the graphics in a separate post, both styles have their merits and disadvantages. Completely fair and objective ones, of course.

    18 Aug 2005, 13:29

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