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Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page F08

JADE EMPIRE, Microsoft/BioWare

Jade Empire has the same basic story line as any good martial-arts adventure -- you take on the role of a gifted student who must pursue a series of quests to restore peace and harmony to the land -- but its action has little in common with most games of this type.

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Instead of painstaking character creation, then an ongoing fuss with collecting the right items, the game features a much simpler role-playing setup. When creating your character from one of six basic types, three male and three female, you need to figure out only three main attributes -- body; mind, which is your magic, or "chi" ability; and spirit, or your ability to focus on a task. The complexity here is reserved for a deep, involved combat system that offers dozens of martial arts, magic and weapons styles.

As you progress through Jade Empire's landscapes, meeting human and supernatural foes and forming alliances, your growing experience allows you to enhance and expand your martial arts skills.

The graphics look sharp from background to foreground. There's a beautiful world here for players to get lost in, full of true-to-life details like tall grasses swaying as you run through them, while each battle pulses with arresting animations -- flips, rolls, fireballs, smoke trails and more.

As in BioWare's earlier release, the "Star Wars" tie-in Knights of the Old Republic, you can align your character with good or evil. The choices you make at certain junctions in the game tilt you one way or another, with some unexpected results -- we knew we were pointing our character toward a darker route, but we didn't realize just how vile he would wind up becoming.

-- Tom Ham

Xbox, $50

DARWINIA, Introversion Software

Darwinia is at once a sophisticated real-time strategy game and an homage to the simple, highly addictive video games of the 1980s. Its premise is that a computer universe, teeming with evolving life forms, called Darwins, has come under attack from a deadly virus. It's your job to eradicate the virus -- which takes the form of simple two-dimensional strings of triangles and more dangerous, three-dimensional bugs -- using heavily armored tanks and teams of laser-firing, grenade-launching soldiers. As you jump from world to world, you're guided along by Darwinia's creator, Dr. Sepulveda.

The game relies heavily on mouse controls to issue instructions to your units and scroll across the beautifully rendered geography of the playing fields.

Fans of early computer games should instantly recognize the Darwins, who look like sprites drawn on an old Apple II. The centipedes resemble the many-legged arthropods from the arcade game of the same name, while the blocklike engineers could have come right out of Disney's computer-themed movie "Tron." Even the catchy soundtrack evokes the bleeping synthesizers of old arcade games -- the only thing missing from this retro-cool title is a slot to feed fistfuls of quarters into.

-- Anthony Zurcher

Win 98 or newer, Mac OS X 10.2 or newer, Linux, $30, www.darwinia.co.uk


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