Release Date: November 2004
Pre-order 'VAMPIRE: The Masquerade - Bloodlines': PC
One of the big draws of a tabletop RPG over one played on a console or computer is its relative flexibility. As long as the poor damn screen monkey who’s forced to react to your actions is willing to let you get away with it, you can do literally anything within that fictional mileau.
Until relatively recently, video games based on tabletop RPGs didn’t seem to understand that. It was enough that they were there, using terminology and concepts from those RPGs, and the freedom to act either wasn’t possible or wasn’t included.
Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines comes very close, however. It, like Deus Ex or Fable or the better parts of Knights of the Old Republic, is an open-ended, nonlinear action-RPG set in the nightlife of California, from Santa Monica to Chinatown.
In Bloodlines, you play the part of a new vampire. Your sire created you without permission, and for that offense, was put to death by the local vampiric ruler, the secret prince of Los Angeles. However, in a show of the prince’s infinite mercy, you were allowed to live. Now, you’re a participant in the giant chess game that lies right under the surface of the ordinary world, a pawn in a larger struggle that involves the entire city and points beyond.
(An aside for those who’re familiar with the tabletop game: Bloodlines is set in a pre-third edition Vampire setting with a couple of tweaks. The Gangrel are still part of the Camarilla here, but at the same time, Los Angeles actually has a prince; the last thing I knew, and I may be wrong on this, California was one of the independentAnarch Free States. Feel free to correct me on this, if I’m mistaken.
(You also can’t commit diablerie, the practice of drinking another vampire’s blood to gain his powers. According to Troika, this was deliberately left out, since diablerie opens up a serious can of worms. Not only could it easily break the game, but it carries a host of unfortunate social consequences, i.e. every other vampire wanting to kill you on sight.)
Bloodlines runs on the Half-Life 2 Source engine, with real-time combat in both first and third person. You start the game in a crappy walk-up apartment behind a pawn shop in Santa Monica, with a hundred bucks in your pocket and a simple errand to run.
As befits a game set in White Wolf’s World of Darkness, you’ll spend most of your time in dingy surroundings. Granted, everything looks like hell at four in the morning, but this is a decidedly darker Los Angeles than most. Everyone on the street is a bum, a hooker, or an angry-looking cop, and all the buildings are slowly falling down. The most cheerful people are hiding horrible secrets, there’s someone in the street screaming about apocalypse, and industrial music is coming from every speaker.
Bloodlines manages to convey an atmosphere of decay and desperation without redlining the angst-meter, simply by putting you into such a matter-of-factly dark world and making you an intrinsic part of it; it’s remarkably easy to become part of the problem or to do something about it.
As you explore the city, you’ll find that most people, whether they’re vampires or humans, have something to tell you; after a few conversations, you’ll start accruing quests at a rapid clip. You can dive into the world of vampire politics, earn some loose change by doing odd jobs for human employers, extort cash from local shop owners, start a running gun battle with the cops, or carry out smash-and-grab jobs around the various closed businesses in the neighborhood.
Before the game starts, you’ll create your character from the ground up. You can manually select your skills and vampiric powers, a.k.a. Disciplines, or you can have your abilities selected for you by means of a simple questionnaire. (“There are three arcade games here. Which one do you play?”)
Your character’s a member of one of the seven clans in the Camarilla, a faction of vampires who believe that their aims are best served by remaining secretive and unknown to the bulk of humanity, in a global game of manipulation known as the Masquerade. (Sadly, in Bloodlines, you can’t play as any of the nonaffiliated or Sabbat clans, though one or two of them will show up over the course of the game.) What clan you’re with determines what Disciplines that you have access to.
Your clan, Disciplines, and skills can all work together to create a wide variety of possible characters, from shrewd manipulators to snarling murderers. Want to make a vampire whose formidable social skills are backed up by mind-affecting Disciplines? Go with a Ventrue or Toreador and put points into Manipulation, Persuade, Dominate, and Presence. Feel like beating people with a tire iron? Pick a Brujah and put many, many dots in Potence. Vampire ninjas? Nosferatu with lots of Obfuscate will get the job done, but forget about social interaction, as Nosferatu were all backed over by the ugly truck.
My character, for example, was a Gangrel, gifted with the abilities of Protean (various degrees of shapeshifting), Fortitude (supernatural resilience), and Animalism (the control of, well, animals). The general theme was one of kicking the blue hell out of all who opposed me, but the character was also a talented hacker and burglar.
The powers themselves are a bit different than those found in the tabletop game; for instance, Animalism’s low-level powers are now geared towards direct offense and defense, such as the immobilizing Nightwisp Ravens, as opposed to the relatively useless benign abilities they give a character in the tabletop game.
Your powers, as well as your health, depend on how much blood you have in your system. To get that blood, you can seduce people in nightclubs, attack people on the street, munch on rats in the city sewers, or buy blood packs from unscrupulous hospital staffers.
At the same time, you have to be careful about when and where you feed and use your powers. If you violate the Masquerade, you run the risk of attracting the attention of the Society of Leopold, an order of mortal vampire hunters. If you manage to survive that and keep flaunting your vampirism in public, the prince of the city will get involved; game over.
Even if you’re very careful, you’ll also need to keep an eye on your character’s fading Humanity. You start the game with seven points of Humanity on a ten-point scale, indicating that you’re still mostly human. Acts of kindness, like bringing an injured contact some morphine, will earn Humanity points, while random brutality, like killing the people you’re feeding from, will take points away.
It’s all fairly common-sense stuff – don’t be an ass and you’ll stay human – but it also serves as a balance. If you get too close to the low end of the Humanity scale, your character will find it easier and easier to go into a manic frenzy, where the inner Beast inside all vampires takes over. As your character starts to forget what it means to be a human, you’ll find it harder to hold conversations with people, and in fact, harder to do anything but hunt and kill.
Some parts of the city are known as Elysium, where you’re prohibited by vampiric custom from using your powers or starting a fight; other areas are combat zones, where you can use your powers as you see fit and everyone’s fair game. All points in between are grey areas, where you can do what you want as long as you don’t get caught.
Bloodlines, due to the flexibility of its character creation and the sheer amount of missions crammed into its cities, is fairly addictive and immersive. The controls will be familiar to anyone who’s mastered an FPS, and there are enough differences between it and the tabletop RPG to set it apart from its source material. No two players will get through the game in exactly the same way. With the right Disciplines, skills, and decisions, Bloodlines can be used to tell whatever story you damn well feel like. You can be anything from a self-loathing vampire who refuses to feed on humans, to a cheerfully monstrous serial killer.
I’m not a big fan of Vampire (remember what I said about redlining the angst-meter? There you go), but from what I played of it, Bloodlines is actually pretty cool. Each run through the game could easily take you sixty hours, and once you finish, you can try again as a totally different kind of character. If you’re looking for a good way to use up a few weeks at a time, Bloodlines has you covered.
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