If there's one thing developer BioWare knows how to do, it's how to make each of its games better than the previous one. We were invited to BioWare's studios in Edmonton, Canada (where the weather was colder than your girlfriend after forgetting her birthday, anniversary and Valentine's Day all rolled into one) to play through Jade Empire, its latest stunning-looking RPG, and see for ourselves what all the fuss was about.
The first thing that struck us was that Jade Empire certainly lives up to its cinematic inspirations. Mythical China (BioWare's first completely original setting for a game) has never looked so gorgeous, and these lush visuals really help to create a fantastic atmosphere. Tranquil villages like Two Rivers are picturesque and peaceful, and provide the perfect starting point for our hero's quest. The Land of Howling Spirits is an ominous, imposing mountainscape where only bad things can happen, whilst the ethereal, floating Imperial Palace is a magical sight to behold. The game was designed using a new graphics engine built specifically for Xbox, and BioWare is the first to admit its game wouldn't be able to run on any other console. Rim lighting and pixel flare look awesome, and each character now has an astounding range of facial animations.
But as Paris Hilton will tell you, looks will only get you so far. And whilst Jade Empire doesn't need to release seedy Internet movies to get noticed, these elements are concentrated on telling an epic story. The game walks the same path as BioWare's stellar Star Wars KOTOR, though combat is significantly deeper and enhanced. As opposed to turn-based combat, the life-enhancing scraps (literally) are now played out in real time.
Jade Empire's massive amount of character customisation completely blew us away as well. There are 18 different fighting styles to rumble with, and there's a vertiginous depth to each one. Because of choices you will have to make throughout the game, your character can be shaped to swing towards either good or evil allegiances. As a result you can choose to concentrate on several particular styles, growing immensely strong in each, or instead spread your bets and become reasonably adept in a broader number.
After battering an opponent you're obviously rewarded with XP, which translates into upgrade points. These can be used to tweak all the different aspects of each style, like damage and speed. With the ability to fight several characters at one time (switching between them via the triggers), after a huge bout the accumulated points mean your hero will be tougher than Popeye after falling headfirst into a vat of spinach.
What really spiced our rice however, was how the fighting transformed the game from an engrossing RPG to a frantic beat 'em up in a split second. Combat is refreshingly straightforward, with simple attacks, special attacks and a block offering loads of different combos. Special attacks are slower, yet a lot more powerful and, as we found to our amusement, cannot be blocked. But of course this works both ways and, as we found to our chagrin, take a precious few seconds to prepare for, leaving you open to an easy counter attack.
Magic provides a wealth of ranged attacks, though different types are useless against certain foes. Your character has the quick option (via the ?D-pad) of seamlessly switching between four styles of fighting at any other time. We found this to be pleasingly simple, and the intuitive controls really help to create a complex yet accessible experience.
It's often vital to switch styles when facing multiple enemies of different composition. It's easy to hack away at mortal opponents with say, the Legendary Strike hand-to-hand technique, or use the devastating Dire Flame magic attack to take out several at once. However, once undead enemies show up, players need to perform more concentrated attacks. We assigned the Leaping Tiger technique to our character, and soon found the spirits levelled with this slower yet more measured, and hence more powerful technique. As a result there's a surprising amount of tactics and strategy to each fight - think Ninja Gaiden's smarter, older brother.