It’s been less than a year since a small developer shook up the xbox world. Now, BioWare is set to repeat its success with a tale thousands of years in the making. For a day, XBN was entrusted with the keys to the kingdom—welcome to the jade empire…
Telling a story is hard enough; telling a good tale is even harder. But fabricating an ambitious, epic yarn that features a cast of hundreds and spans an empire spun simply from ones, zeros, and the imagination—that’s the sort of work best left to the most skillful of storytellers, masters of the craft like BioWare. This unusual developer is based in an unlikely place and has followed its own nontraditional path to success.
Xbox owners know BioWare as the developer that secured the rights to the world’s most blessed, most cursed license, treating it with a matchless mix of joie de vivre and appallingly good taste, as well as earning critical adoration, commercial success, and a whole new audience along the way. Xbox owners also know that the company’s next big project is Jade Empire, scheduled (and on track) for release at the end of 2004. They know what it’s about and what it will look like—and that its awesome ancestry ensures plenty of avid attention between now and when the game ships. They also might know, possibly to a lesser degree, how important it is for BioWare to show it can create a world that has nothing to do with—but is every bit as compelling as—a world of lightsabers, walrusmen, and making the jump to light speed. Still, in the words of Dr. Greg Zeschuk, BioWare’s cofounder, co-CEO, and co–executive producer: “The game probably isn’t what people are expecting.”
The Search for Enlightenment
Gamers willing to go a little deeper for their interactive satisfactions know that little more than a few games dabbling in the rich mythology of China have shipped to these shores. Not surprisingly, few—if any—Western developers have attempted to bring these stories to life, and certainly none have been as ambitious as BioWare.
If the company has a public face, it’s surely Drs. Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, both former practicing physicians who have channeled their energies into pursuing a greater passion: telling stories through games. In person, they speak easily and with assurance, frequently completing each other’s sentences and thoughts with aplomb. When asked about the impetus for creating this admittedly ambitious menagerie of mythologies both real and imagined, Zeschuk explains: “Part of it is impressing upon people that we can do an action-oriented game. A few years ago, we thought about this martial arts RPG and concluded that it’s got to be about action. This is where we think the evolution of our games could be, at least on the Xbox.” Muzyka elaborates: “We made some really specific decisions along the way: We wanted to do mythical China, [not] historical China. We wanted the freedom of having our own world and not having to stick with existing conventions—not a contemporary setting, but an ancient setting in the past. Myth, fantasy, all of those things work really well with our original vision, which was to roleplay a martial arts master.”
Follow The Leader
As previously revealed, Empire incorporates a Follower system. Dozens of characters, ranging from the awesome to the absurd, can be found throughout the lands, and each helps embellish the game’s rich sense of history. In traditional BioWare fashion, some followers will be attracted only to the more pious of players, while others will be practitioners of the bad following the bad: Ninjalike assassins, for example, are sure to be of great value to certain unscrupulous players, while Kang the Mad, a wizened and bespectacled inventor (note the blast marks around his goggles), will have more constructive compensation to offer, surely.
All the Splendors of the East
In describing the denizens of the Jade Empire, Lead Designer Kevin Martens sets the tone: “They consider it to be the center of their world; anything outside of its boundaries is barbaric at best. They do trade with other people, but they have a lot of disdain for them—they believe that they have the best food, the best culture, and the best religion.” Although the team is quick to stress that East-meets-West scenarios will comprise a modicum of the story line, at best, players can expect to meet at least one “foreign” NPC—garbed in Spanish-style armor—but any confrontation with him will be intellectual in nature. Preparation for philosophical debate will be a must, and in this empire, there’s only one place to seek out this sort of enlightenment: the Imperial City.
While the hovering home on which it’s perched was first seen at the Tokyo Game Show last fall, this is the first time a lowly outsider has ever been permitted to gaze upon the Scholar’s Garden—and it’s suitably impressive. Nestled within the Scholar’s Quarters in the Imperial City, it’s a seemingly serene place, replete with lush gardens, elegant edifices, and meandering paths riddled with waterways. Misshapen rocks called “sprightly stones” bob in the air, tethered to the ground by chains. An enormous sculpted façade, Sagacious Tien, first and greatest of the Golden Age’s emperors, keeps watch, making the tranquil courtyard by turns inviting, exotic, and ominous.
While the city and its courts might play host to political intrigue and backstabbing of every sort, the garden, according to Lead Producer Jim Bishop, is “where the most learned sages, the greatest artists and musicians of the empire would gather and take part in a very Jade Empire pursuit.” Playing videogames? Not in this empire. Instead, one might find the erudite engaging in such scholarly acts as contemplating nature, discussing philosophy, or conditioning the body and mind—via martial arts, of course. If this sounds a little dry, recall that moral quandaries, the paradoxical nature of truth, and challenging players’ wits are, after all, a BioWare specialty.
So how exactly can players brush up on their conversation skills? BioWare’s long been celebrated for its intuitive handling of building character statistics as well as compelling dialogue—Jade Empire subtly and succinctly links the two. Whatever path a player chooses, he will find new dialogue trees revealed as his avatar matures: Building physical stats increases a player’s ability to coerce NPCs, while bolstering one’s mental capacities might enable the player to simply outtalk—or trick—the unwary. The most intriguing options come from increasing one’s spiritual abilities, which makes a character more intuitive—allowing him to know, for example, when he’s being lied to.
Far more menacing than the Scholar’s Court are the Bandit Marshes. The inspiration for this area comes from a venerable Chinese collection of texts known as the Outlaws of the Marsh. Steeped in fog, the marshes are a claustrophobic array of muddy paths lined with weeds. When gamers get their chance to explore this menacing region, they can expect to face frequent attacks from brigands, rat demons, and worse. For now, however, it’s ominously empty. Given the region’s literary inspiration, a Robin Hood–style scenario seems hardly out of place—only the outlawed and the diabolic would inhabit such a place.
When the game is complete, there’s going to be no shortage of Empire for players to explore, certainly. Among the lovely environments to explore is a towering nest of seashore caves populated by pirates and scenic vistas. Another scene will be set in an elaborate roadside tea house just waiting to be trashed, conjuring images of an all-out Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon–style barroom brawl. Bring down the house!
Monster Manual: Oriental Adventures
When it comes time to populate Empire’s myriad locales with foes to fight, expect the developers to bring plenty to the table. Some creatures, such as the tongue-twirling crimson-colored toad demon and the rat demons seen at E3—seem to have been taken directly from China’s pantheon of fearsome anthropomorphic fiends.
Other characters reflect more of the developers’ artistic license. When asked about the towering stone golems that adorn early Jade Empire promotional materials, Jim Bishop admits, “We use him because he’s cool, but he’ll show up. Those are imperial siege golems. Nobody knows who built them, and there are only about a half dozen left.” Not surprisingly, these fearsome war machines, which bring to mind visions of a brutal Gondor-style assault, are, in Bishop’s words, “ridiculously powerful.”
As Art Director Matt Goldman leafs through select pages from the Jade Empire “bible,” a veritable army of foes is unveiled, from armor-clad zombies and terra cotta warriors to malevolent spirits and ministers of hell (a visit to hell itself was planned but dropped in lieu of the suitably spooky-sounding Land of the Howling Spirits). Clearly, players will have to master arts far more martial than that of the silver tongue.
The Good Fight
By his own omission, Jade Empire Lead Combat Designer Aidan Scanlan is a fighting-game fan. “But,” he adds, “I suck.” This goes some way toward illustrating just what sort of strange beast Empire is—and will become.
“We can’t put a full fighting game into Jade Empire, because it’s not a fighting game,” Scanlan says. “It’s an RPG. We’re not catering [only] to the fighting-game people out there, so we had to limit the number of moves, keep it simple enough for anyone to do basic combos here and there.”
Adds Jim Bishop, “I remember some of our early design meetings. Some-body raised the question, ‘Is this going to be martial arts? Is it going to be weapons? Is it going to be magic?'” In unison, Bishop, Muzyka, and Zeschuk all chime in resoundingly, “Yes!” So what makes a developer best known for pointing and clicking think that it has what it takes to make this admittedly ambitious system work? Describing their dedication to making martial arts magic, Zeschuk says, “Sometimes when we set out to make a game, we pose this question: What would be cool to roleplay as? It’d be really cool to roleplay as a martial arts master—that was enough. As soon as you plant that seed, you can imagine how the rest of it would work.”
Surely it’s trickier than that, but in talking with Lead Animator Deo Perez, it fast becomes clear that this is the man for the job of animating the combat in a manner that complements both Empire’s source material and its unique gameplay mechanics. As Perez (who has studied tae kwon do, aikido, and, more recently, capoeira) describes bringing Empire’s combat to life, he assumes various fighting stances, nonchalantly snapping kicks and throwing punches.
To meet its ambitious plans for Jade Empire, BioWare has faced many new challenges. In order to portray the more than 30 fighting styles in the game, the developers utilized motion-capture technology for the first time. Initial trials were conducted at—of all places—the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital in Edmonton, but Scanlan says, “Once we had an idea what the combat system would look like, we made a list of all the actions we’d need. Then we went down to Giant Studios in L.A., and they hired all these really good martial artists and stuntmen. It was grueling—we had these guys going all day, every day [for five days], and we had performers in from as far as mainland China.” In total, the team would come away with a staggering 700-plus animations. While most are still being fine-tuned (the team has found that speeding the captured animations by 30 percent makes them look far more dynamic), what’s been revealed looks impressive.
As he pauses to cycle through a staggeringly thorough collection of captured movie clips taken from “tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of reference materials and DVDs”—from the ubiquitous to the obscure—Perez explains that he recently hurt his back. Spending one’s days in front of a computer followed by nights of martial arts training has that effect, apparently. One can only assume that BioWare’s many successes have come in no small part from this sense of passion and dedication.
Flights Of Fancy
So how exactly does one get from the heights of the Imperial City to the depths of the Bandit Marshes? By airship, naturally. As it turns out, the gilded dragonfly seen in previous trailers won’t be the only means of transportation for players, although it will likely be the best. XBN sneaked a peek at a smaller, more rickety (and most likely faster) vehicle with a profile like that of a certain bloodsucking pest. Says Lead Producer Jim Bishop, “You can think of this as the Dragonfly Mark 1. It’s like a mosquito: It’s fast, it’s very dangerous, and it’s lightly armed. When you first start traveling around, this is the first vehicle you’ll be able to use to move around the world.” Whether they will be acquired linearly or be upgradeable has yet to be determined. But in any case, other airborne craft—using myriad mystical means of propulsion—are bound to appear.
It Takes An Empire
When asked to define just what makes BioWare so unique, not to mention successful, Muzyka responds: “We value humility. We value people who work hard, who are humble, who are really focused on making things great.” That might seem obvious enough, but here in this quiet office, those words sound especially sincere. Even the quality assurance department, frequently a bottom dweller of the development world, gets the respect it deserves. Says Muzyka, “QA testers are incredibly important here—it’s an honor to be a QA tester. They’re the thin red line that prevents bugs; they make the game polished.”
Even divisions of BioWare not directly associated with production appear to be equally in the loop. BioWare not only has its own in-house marketing and PR teams (unusual for independent developers), but also a deep familiarity with the games it pitches. Explains Muzyka, “Everyone here has to finish [our games] before they ship. They have to contribute bugs, think about why it’s fun, why it’s not fun; they have to be passionate about videogames.” Adds Zeschuk, “We really see ourselves to a certain degree as the little guy. I’m sure people see us as this big, successful developer, but we see ourselves as competing with everyone else.” Considering that the next closest developers are located in Vancouver—one province and 788 miles away—who can blame them?
Every Legend Has Its Beginning…
If the line above sounds familiar, recall that those words served as the tag line for the first prequel to one of cinema’s most cherished franchises, one spawned a long time ago in a cineplex far, far away. Though that movie became a blockbuster in the traditional sense of the word, it was ultimately crushed by the expectations of its rabid fans. Could Jade Empire—with its Force-fed pedigree all but ensuring success—fall victim to a similar fate? Muzyka doesn’t seem to think so. “We’re only as good as our next project,” he explains. “If our next product isn’t better than our previous games, then what are we doing this for? It’s not fun in that case—and it has to be. Audiences are more discerning now, so they’re demanding higher and higher quality games. They know what they want.” Whether “they” do or not, come fall, XBN expects “them” to start living their own legends, making their own myths, and—with any luck—telling their own tales.
Strategic combat gets a real-time kick in the pants
While there are many mysteries to be unearthed between now and Jade Empire’s release, the topic on most minds of Xbox owners is exactly how the combat system—oft discussed but not yet fully grasped—will work…
After some hands-on time putting Furious Ming, Wu, and Monk Zeng through their paces, it’s clear that it’s coming along quite nicely—the controls are suitably responsive and the camera up to snuff. More to the point, what becomes immediately apparent is that this game was and is clearly designed from the ground up as a console game.
Select your style…
Upon entering combat, you can select from one of four fighting-style slots with the D-pad—although you can feel free to swap styles on the fly. Some styles are better suited for getting up close and personal (Legendary Fist), while others are handy for keeping enemies at bay (Spear). Mixing and matching is a must—even the most frail of magic users will want at least one martial skill with which to beat back opponents while charging their chi energy (magic).
The bare basics of brawling…
The L and R triggers cycle through potential targets or relevant objects (say, some spindly pillars that support the roof of a cave); most moves are used relative to the selected foe. The A button punches, while X kicks; simple combinations unleash different combos for each selected style. “Clear” moves are evocative of arcade brawlers, while “slam” maneuvers give you that extra bit of oomph. Blocking, rolling away from, or leaping toward (or over) opponents is as simple as hitting the B button.
Mind your magic…
Furthermore, you will have to keep an eye on their chi (used to power magical attacks or the time-slowing focus mode) meters. Fortunately, chi can be filched from foes (both living and dead), and combat can be paused at any time by hitting the back button, enabling even the least dexterous to more deliberately plan out their next set of attacks.
Get ready to rumble…
So, a sample round of fisticuffs might entail keeping lesser foes at bay with a ranged weapon, casting a flame shield to ward off physical attacks, and stealing chi to restore health from a magic-savvy main opponent. To wrap things up, you might freeze the offending attacker with Paralyzing Palm before shattering him into pieces with a final, mighty blow.
If throwing punches, switching styles, slowing time, watching your chi, and jumping over errant fireballs sounds complex, know that it is—and it’s even more harrying in practice. Without the proper training, having even the most ample of abilities at hand can be a bit overwhelming. But you can expect to get thorough training in the ass-kicking arts along the way—they’ll need it.
Copyright © 2004 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in Xbox Nation.