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`Jade Empire' leaps to PC, with decent results

"Jade Empire: Special Edition"

Publisher: BioWare

Console: PC (previously released on the Xbox)

Rating: M (mature)

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Don't tell Microsoft, but one of the reasons some (like myself) never considered getting an Xbox was the knowledge that, sooner or later, its best games were likely to show up on the Windows platform.

Now, "Jade Empire" has joined the "Elder Scrolls" and "Halo" series in the list of games that non-console gamers can get their hands on. Originally released in 2005, the martial arts-themed RPG (role-playing game) has been updated for the PC in a new special edition.

The developers at BioWare, who have been behind more standard fare like "Neverwinter Nights" and "Baldur's Gate," really tried something different with "Jade Empire." Besides setting the game in the Far East, the title transcends a number of RPG conventions by jettisoning character classes, eschewing turn-based fighting in favor of real-time combat and replacing the standard set of player stats.

In differentiating itself from the pack, however, it ends up trying to resemble another iconic RPG title -- "The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time." Not that similarities with what's widely considered one of the best games of all time are a bad thing, but how does "Jade Empire" stand up on its own?

HARDWARE DEMANDS

For starters, you should know that the hardware requirements are steep. Even with a top-of-the-line PC purchased a few months ago, I had to install new graphics drivers. Despite vibrant background scenery and greatly reduced loading times (a problem in the original game), "Jade Empire" doesn't make full use of the new resources, as the characters themselves look and act somewhat wooden.

By far, the game's strongest points are its plot and dialogue. Drawing heavily on Wuxia tradition, the title combines classic elements like the martial arts school in an isolated village, the hero with an unknown past, and the jealous rival to create a story line that is at once familiar and gripping.

Unlike other games, where the decisions you make within dialogues ultimately lead you to the same point, every choice you make has the potential to greatly impact your quest. A player's words and actions will gradually guide him toward one of two philosophies, Open Palm or Closed Fist. That, in turn, will determine how other characters interact with you, what quests you can go on and which items you can use.

Because these do not directly correspond to simple good or evil, your choices are often ambiguous and may have unintended results. Thus, you must rely as much on your own skills and intuition as you do on improving your character's charisma.

The game play itself is a mixed bag. The PC setup affords players more buttons and control, which is useful for switching between your many fighting styles. But the awkwardness of the keyboard-mouse controls for a game of this sort will make you want to use a gamepad.

UNDESIRABLE COMBAT

One thing to be thankful for is that -- unlike "Final Fantasy" quests that make you endure endless walks just to talk to a character who directs you elsewhere -- most of the side quests in "Jade Empire" take place within a single town.

Partly because of the cumbersome graphics, the real-time combat is not nearly as smooth or intuitive as that of pure action games. Players in "Jade Empire" will have to rely mostly on dodging, finding time to heal or quickly changing fighting styles mid-combat.

It may be that this aspect becomes enjoyable once you master it, but for the most part, the combat sections between cut scenes feel too much like the vegetables that must be eaten before dessert.

Overall, "Jade Empire" makes a fine debut on the PC, offering substantial bang for the buck, given the title can take upward of 25 hours to complete. If the hinted-at sequel keeps the intricate plot and character development while smoothing out combat and game play, Microsoft just may have another flagship franchise on its hands.

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