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Reviews

Jade Empire

Following up a classic is never easy. Just ask George Lucas. Or BioWare for that matter. After the Canadian developer unleashed Star Wars: KOTOR upon us, it wasn't interested in following up with a pure sequel - it left that in Obsidian's more than capable hands. Instead, it turned its attention to an altogether new setting. The result? Its Empire Strikes Back is a sweeping, glorious role-playing game set in mythical China that, aside from delivering like a 24-hour takeaway, more importantly won't alienate fans of the previous effort. So settle down for a tale of intrigue, a long time ago, in a beautiful land far, far away from any space saga...
With any RPG comes the task of choosing a playable persona, and we now know how hard a choice it must have been for Blind Date contestants at the end of their 15 minutes of fame. Six different characters (seven if you fork out for the limited edition) provide the not-so-blank canvases with which to start your quest, though all are considerably better looking than the mutton that used to put you off your tea on a Saturday night. Each falls into Magical, Strength or Balanced categories, but because of the huge amount of character customisation on offer throughout the game (and hence the vast amount of ability each can amass), these don't have the far-reaching implications we would've liked, and all become a bit academic after the first third of the game. All, however, boast incredible facial detail, which is brilliantly reflected during conversations between folk. Subtle alterations in their expressions may not sound like much but make an Empire-sized difference in creating an absorbing atmosphere.

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And it's not just a tacky weekend to Center Parcs you'll be spending with your chosen companion either, but a hefty, wondrous journey through this truly fantastical frontier. Each episode of the story takes in incredibly designed, sumptuously spectacular locations, from tranquil villages and mountainside temples to claustrophobic underground caverns and the bustling dynamic of the hub-like Imperial City. There's an overall majesty resonating in every new area you discover, and the fantastic visuals really are jawdropping. We could spend longer gazing wistfully at the gorgeous waterfalls and rainbows here than at the latest Gossard billboard, but then that wouldn't get us very far on our quest to restore balance to the world of spirits and humans, would it?

There's never a huge sense of urgency to complete the main objectives either, so it's a joy to wander at will and explore every square inch of this wondrous land. It's a tribute to the developer's wild imagination that these both advance and complement the storyline without ever being too intrusive or in your face. Brilliant audio - from the soothing tweeting of birds and calming guitars to the rousing orchestral score during boss battles - is also a fine accompaniment.

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Sweeping and all-encompassing in scale, the progressive script limits to-ing and fro-ing, and always does enough to keep players interested. The main story charters your humble beginnings as a promising student at your master's dojo. A few fights and cryptic musings from wise old men (that seem to litter these types of games) later, and we know something bigger is afoot. Teasing titbits of info are drip-fed to your character at an appeasing rate, and you'll be constantly itching to discover the next piece of the puzzle.

Cutscenes are frequent and impressive in composition, but do have an annoying tendency to drag on for that bit longer than necessary. That's not to say it's all serious though, as every other conversation is smattered with humorous dialogue and entertainingly eccentric NPCs. The same 'go here, talk to him, go there' vein of gameplay as KOTOR pulses throughout Jade, though tasks never become laborious thanks in part to the quality of sub-quests, and to the continually entertaining combat.

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