Jade Empire is brought to you by the same team behind the Knights of the Old Republic series, and it's easy to spot the similarities at first glance.
Both put you in control of a single character through a third person perspective. Both have you traversing large game worlds accompanied by several team mates. And both give you several moral choices throughout the game which pushes your character as either good or bad (or in the KOTOR games, light or dark side), with subsequent effects on gameplay. Become truly good, for example, and you master abilities only available to the virtuous. Become bad and evil abilities are at your command.
But that's essentially where the similarities end. Jade Empire is set in a land much like ancient China (so there's no chance that you'll run into any droids or Sith), and follows the adventures of a young martial arts expert as he combats evil around the land. After selecting your character (you can choose from one of six presets, each with differing abilities), the game begins with you and another student in a sparring session in a dojo. The sparring session serves as the game's tutorial, and introduces you to Jade Empire's biggest differentiator over KOTOR - the combat system.
Where combat in KOTOR was turn-based, Jade Empire puts you in complete control of your character during all of the fights. Controls are fairly simple - A is for attack, B jumps (and blocks when your character is standing still) and X is a power attack. Pressing Y enters the spirit mode, which slows down time for everything but your game character. Your Spirit meter, however, drains slowly while you're in Spirit mode, so you can't stay in fast forward indefinitely. Pressing the White button heals your character, although the amount of healing dished out depends on how much Chi you currently have.
The first sparring session also introduces you to the concept of Styles, which adds another layer to the game's combat. Your character will attain different Styles during the course of the game, which will either enhance your attack or defence capabilities. During the sparring session, for example, you're given a Style which doesn't do any damage to an opponent, but instead bestows status effects such as slowing them down. Styles, which can include weapons and magic, can be mapped to the controller's directional pad. Press on the appropriate direction and your character will change Styles on the fly.
The combat in the game looks superb, making you feel like you're in a martial arts film thanks to the various characters' realistic movements. After the initial sparring session, you're given the task of helping deal with bandits who have attacked your small town. You soon get yourself a weapon (another Style) which you can use to dispatch your enemies. The bandits at this very early stage of the game proved to be no bother, with only a few of them bothering to block your attacks or use offensive magic spells against you.
With the addition of controlling your character during combat, Jade Empire looks set to surpass the high standards set by the KOTOR games. CNET.com.au will bring you an in-depth review as soon as we get our hands on a full copy. Jade Empire is slated for a May release in Australia.
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