Way back in the mists of gaming history, when Microsoft first announced that it was going to build a console, one of the more troubling accusations levelled at the Xbox was that it would be a death-knell for PC gaming. This, of course, was back when Microsoft was the bad guy, as incredible as that seems now. The accusation didn't hold water; sure, the likes of Halo may have been plucked from the PC release schedules, but we've seen plenty of top-notch platform exclusives on Xbox and PC alike in the last five years. Whatever other problems the PC may have had, the Xbox hasn't been one of them.
Popping Jade Empire: Special Edition into the DVD drive of a PC brings the memories flooding back, though. With big exclusives harvested from the PC, Microsoft promised that they would be ported back to their home platform - but the process took years rather than months. By the time the likes of Halo turned up on PC, its Xbox incarnation had been in bargain bins for ages. On the plus side, PC owners do still get to play some console greats. On the down site... Well, we'll get to that in a minute.
Empire of the Sun
Legendary Canadian RPG developer Bioware is one of the PC teams which turned its hand to console development when the Xbox came out, and found that it suited rather well. After many years of creating masterpieces from other people's franchises, such as Baldur's Gate and Knights of the Old Republic, Bioware also decided to strike out and build its own worlds and stories. The first product of that latter decision was Jade Empire - a flawed but extremely polished and, crucially, well-scripted game which earned itself a solid eight marks and a shiny silver star. Eurogamer doesn't award silver stars, admittedly, but we licked the back of one and stuck it on the game box anyway. It just seemed right.
Herein lies the rub. That was two years ago, give or take a few weeks.
On a lot of levels, that doesn't matter. Jade Empire remains an excellent game, with beautiful art direction, excellent dialogue and a universe and storyline which are portrayed in confident, expert strokes by a developer whose narrative skills are second to none. Its weakness lies in its combat system, which lacks the complexity or subtlety it initially promises, but remains engaging enough to suffice throughout the game. It is a polished, extremely well-executed and professional piece of media. That hasn't changed.
Our praise for the gorgeous graphics of the game, surprisingly, remains mostly intact as well. Jade Empire may not be the most technically accomplished game on the PC by a vast margin - unsurprisingly, given that it was developed for a system at whose heart lay a 700Mhz Pentium processor and a GeForce 3. However, the game still looks fantastic, which is a tribute to the skill of Bioware's art team. The world, which is based on the legends of ancient China, is a rich and interesting place from a visual perspective, and plenty of soft lighting effects are used to give the whole thing a mythological feel. The game was always going to lose something in the transition from the TV-and-sofa setup to the monitor-and-office-chair setup which most PC gamers use, and the graphics are the major victim. But, happily for our ongoing belief in great art over technical wizardry, the impact on the eye candy is far more acceptable than we expected.
The storyline and dialogue, of course, are still great as well. No platform transition will change that. Anyone who's gorged themselves on martial arts films will find the basis of the story familiar to some extent. You play the top student of a hidden dojo, who discovers that you have a Secret Destiny - only for the dojo to be attacked by soldiers of the Evil Emperor. Off you go on an adventure around the Orient, accumulating interesting and chatty companions along the way, helping (or being nasty to) the people you encounter, and generally progressing the story. Thankfully, it all becomes a bit less hackneyed and vastly more interesting along the way.
(As a point of minor interest, it just took three attempts to type that paragraph without accidentally suggesting that you may have watched your fill of marital arts flicks.)
The major thing which makes the story worthy of praise is the cast. They're a superb group of characters who accompany you on your journey, and whose dialogue is superbly written, varied, and often sparkling with wit. You choose one character to accompany you in battle most of the time, and depending on who you've dragged along with you, dialogue will play out differently as they interject with their own comments, which is a great addition to the game.
So, the story is still great, and the characters are still great - although, sadly, the "Good / Evil" axis which exists in this game is a bit of a weak point. Fresh from the triumph of their system for plonking you on the Light or Dark Side of the Force in their Star Wars titles, Bioware implemented something similar in Jade Empire, with rather less success. The idea is intriguing; rather than good or evil, it's assumed that you'll want to do good deeds, since that's the character you're playing. However, the manner in which you do those good deeds determines plenty about your character.
One set of options, in general, will directly help people out - lending your strength and support to solve the problems which burden them. The other set of options is the tough love approach, which largely leaves people to sort their own lives out and holds firm to the belief that if you solve people's problems for them, they'll become dependent and useless. It's less Good Vs Evil and more Left Vs Right, really - or, in Jade Empire's own parlance, Way of the Open Palm versus Way of the Closed Fist. Which way you embrace determines the kinds of attacking styles which you can learn, and in theory, also influences the ending you get - although there's a single choice near the end of the game which is the real deciding factor in that, which renders the whole thing a little pointless.
The problem is that the direction you take doesn't really influence much, aside from the opportunity to learn certain fighting styles. And since the vast range of fighting styles available to you doesn't really affect your proficiency in battle much, that's not much influence at all. If there were genuinely divergent paths in the game depending on your alignment, it would be much more interesting, but that's not the case. Another fundamental problem is that while Open Palm and Closed Fist are meant to be different philosophies, rather than good and evil by another name, Bioware ended up making the moral decisions in each case so utterly straightforward as to be meaningless. In Jade Empire, the left-leaning decision involves helping people at the risk of making them dependent; the right-leaning decision involves eating babies. And then using their tiny, brittle bones to stab their mothers. Probably. It's all a bit unrealistic; even UKIP dropped that promise from their manifesto a while back.
We mentioned the fighting styles a minute ago, and earlier we touched on the fact that the combat ticks the boxes, but doesn't do much else. This is, indeed, a weak point of Jade Empire. Bioware went to the trouble of implementing a host of interesting and unique fighting styles, and then seemingly decided that making a combat system which was complex enough to do them justice would alienate their RPG-loving fanbase. The result is a disappointingly simple system which allows you to stroll through the game by mashing one or two buttons and rolling around a bit. The most taxing strategy you'll need in combat is to slow an enemy down by pelting them from afar with a technique from one fighting style, then flick styles and roll in to mash at them with standard melee attacks. For boss characters, you'll probably just turn on the ultimate Get Out Of Jail Free card - the bullet time effect - and pound them a bit. It's never difficult, even on higher skill levels, and while it's not boring as such, it's not actually very interesting either. It's just there. It's unremarkable; it's average; it's okay.
In Bioware's defence, though, it's better than it was on Xbox, which took us by surprise a bit. For a start, we expected the PC control scheme to be an abomination, an ugly creature which would scurry and hide from our ferocious critical gaze. On the contrary, it works rather well - in ways it's even better than the Xbox version, actually. While the keyboard buttons and mouse are mapped nicely to movement and attacks, the number keys are used to flick between a host of fighting styles, where the Xbox version could only manage a paltry few directly accessed from the pad. Score one for Bioware's fine porting abilities - along with the perfectly servicable graphics, that's quite an accomplishment. The game also boasts better AI for enemy characters, and indeed, we did notice that battles are somewhat less predictable than they were in the original version of the game. But, frankly, it's a subtle change, and Jade Empire is still very, very easy to progress through by mashing buttons. The improved AI gets a nod for effort, but little credit for actually making the game more enjoyable.
Pass with Flying Daggers?
Okay, so all of that stuff works, and remains the same - and somehow we've cunningly rounded up the salient points from the original review in between saying that there's a problem, and explaining what the problem actually is. Here's paydirt, then; the problem really is those two years. In part, it's the fact that in two years, this game has acquired little more than a new demon form and two new martial styles (one for each alignment), which doesn't really make it a Special Edition in our view (although it does include the content from the Xbox limited edition pack), and now sits uncomfortably on shelves alongside games which cost around the same but boast vastly superior technology.
That in itself is enough to raise an eyebrow, but we fully admit that it doesn't detract from the strengths of the game - the art, the story, the superb music, the brilliant dialogue. On the other hand, the original Jade Empire on Xbox can be picked up for under a fiver either online or in stores that still have stock of Xbox games. In fact, you can have an Xbox console with a bunch of games for 30 quid on eBay, if you snag a decent deal. It's not that we can't think of reasons why you'd want to play this game on your PC rather than picking up a second hand console for not much more cash; it's just that we're concerned that the audience of people who have those reasons is perishingly small, and that even they will be disappointed at getting a two year old game with remarkably little in the way of upgrades to show for its long gestation period.
Not only are there better looking, more advanced games on the shelves now, there are also simply better games out there; this genre hasn't stood still since Jade Empire came out. It's still got a spark, undoubtedly, but faced with a two year porting process which has tacked on precious little content and fixed none of the problems highlighted by reviewers of the original game, it's impossible to rate this game the same in 2007 as we did in 2005. Jade Empire has aged better than we expected, and we still recommend it to anyone who hasn't played the Xbox original - it's just that two years on, our recommendation is a little more muted than it was the first time round.