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Previews

Jade Empire

One game, two continents, one enormous preview...

Can you employ too many ways of dealing martial arts style death to a variety of Oriental foes both natural and supernatural? Absolutely not would seem to be BioWare's answer if our latest encounter with the potential work of genius that is Jade Empire is anything to go by.

Picture the scene: a giant elephant demon has just fallen with a shudder which rocks the ground, finally succumbing to a coup de gras of iron-fisted blows after being successively pummelled by spell fire, hacked into smaller cubes by closer quarters combat rings and then given a toe-to-toe booting by our own ugly mutha of a demon form.

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It's certainly been a battle of epic proportions: his toad demon bodyguards hacked into small portions, two weirdly ethereal teleporting cardinals defrocked and now our rather saucy female Chinese warrior stands triumphant on an apparently empty battlefield, looking for the next challenge - and then suddenly, dropping like a stone the credits begin to roll.

Denied! Yup it's rapidly revealed to be only a short two-level preview build and for a second all the toys threaten to be come out of the pram, as we cast around preparing to exact some terrible and hideous revenge on the nearest Microsoft rep for snatching away our favourite new plaything "Calm down," they entirely reasonably opine, in the voice of someone who's seen this kind of reaction before, "or we won't give you the full preview build which is due in a couple of weeks." Gruntle most definitely dissed, we mutter darkly and retreat to a nearby corner to lick our wounds.

Now a quick rewind. It's quite a surreal feeling, being transported to the mystical, fictional world of the East when you're half way up a mountain in Val D'Isere on a Microsoft Big Day Out. However we have to admit we'd cross half the world and a few borders more to get our hands on Jade Empire, the Oriental-themed epic from Canadian masters BioWare. With just a month or two to go now until the game high kicks its way into release, Microsoft is finally letting us get our hands dirty with some actual Jade code and after following the game through shots, movies and limited demos for what seems like all eternity, it's a glorious and beautiful thing indeed.

Outside white flakes gently fall by the bucket load, but even our normally keenly tuned snow senses have stopped twitching as we hit start and prepare to launch our very fists of fury. But even before you get this far the title screen betrays BioWare's trademark attention to detail with some haunting ambient music which thoroughly sets the mood confirming this is a game full of Eastern promise (boom, boom).

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Of course it's written somewhere in the great gospel of RPG that every game must begin with character creation and there's a intriguing variety of about eight to ten male and female characters to choose from in Jade. Each boasts a mix of three main Body, Spirit and Mind attributes as well as their own beginning armed and unarmed fighting styles. Carefully weighing up the pros and cons of each of the characters on offer, we opt for a strapping flame-haired lad called Furious Ming, who seems quick on his feet with a decent mix of magic and armed combat.

Only we don't because this being a limited preview build you can only play one character, the admittedly rather delectable Wu the Lotus Blossom. Still, we're not going to let that disappoint us because we're immediately plunged onto the top floor of an oriental tea house and down below amongst the boiling kettles and tea chests awaits our first challenge.

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