People who write about videogames love to talk about two things: How videogames are art, and how increasingly great the games are. In a lot of ways, both are true: The current level of artistic expression in games is higher than anything we've seen yet, and it's stunning how far games have come--not only in terms of graphics, but also with regard to depth--since the clunky days of Atari.
But rarely are artistic expression and technology married as seamlessly as in Bioware's Jade Empire. What Jade Empire is can be easily summed up: An action role-playing game set in a mystical, mythical empire in the Far East. Jade Empire's player takes on the role of a young martial arts student; when the student's mentor is kidnapped, the player ventures into the vast Jade Empire, teaming up with characters that range from a demure fellow student to a powerful demon.
What can't be summed up so neatly is the cohesion, beauty, scope, and detail of Bioware's world: The Jade Empire lives and breathes, from its densely populated cities to its countrysides of softly swaying grass, and scattered throughout the Empire are hints of an immense history.
A lot of this isn't new, of course--hell, the game's examination of ethical quandaries is swiped from Bioware's previous game, the Star Wars-themed Knights of the Old Republic--but Jade Empire's extraordinary in how beautifully its elements come together. The setting and characters feel real; the plot lets you explore but keeps you propelled forward, the chop-socky combat is challenging and fun. Across the board, Jade Empire is riveting.
After all that praise, I have to confess: I haven't finished the game yet. I'm 19 hours in, and while other gamers are finishing after 20 or 25, I find myself delaying the conclusion. It'll have to end soon, I guess, but until then, I'm happy exploring the Empire, talking with my companions, and kicking some ass with my near-invincible kung fu. I'm content, for the moment, with being just one more of the Jade Empire's denizens. ERIK HENRIKSEN