Developer: Troika Games
Release Date: November 16, 2004
Buy 'VAMPIRE: The Masquerade - Bloodlines': PC
On November 16th, there were actually two games that were released using the phenomenal Source engine, the inarguably large title being that of Half-Life 2 and the lesser known one being that of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. Bloodlines is the newest adaptation of White Wolf's pen-and-paper game into the video game universe and while it is notably better than its predecessor, and is powered by the brand new Source engine, it has more than its fair share of rough edges to be found within. That's not to say that Bloodlines isn't fun to play as it has plenty of entertaining gameplay to be found but rather that there are many aspects that will significantly lessen the experience.
In Bloodlines you play as a human being who, in a night of lust with the opposite sex, gets bitten by a vampire. Soon after the act is performed, the room is stormed by other vampires who grab both you and your "sire," the vampire who bit you, and bring them to a sort of Vampiric court. There are a set of laws that govern all vampires, the Masquerade, and one of them is that vampires cannot just go and sire anybody, the infraction of which is punishable by death. Without further ado, your sire has his head lopped off, and you are left as a vampire orphan, and just as quickly, you are taken into service by the very same vampire who gave the execution order so that you may avoid the chopping block yourself and learn the ways of the vampires.
The character you create in Bloodlines can pretty much be anything you can think of in terms of style and abilities. There are seven major vampire clans in Bloodlines: the anarchistic Brujah, the beast-like Gangrel, the slightly-insane Malkavian, the hideous Nosferatu, the refined Toreador, the magical Tremere, or the upper-class likes of the Ventrue. Each clan has its own overall appearance, but more importantly, its own set of three unique abilities ranging from invisibility to magic attacks, strength boosts to speed gains. From there, you can pick to be a male or female, and though it doesn't alter your stats, it does affect how people react to you and some dialog options.
At the onset of the game and acquired throughout, you have the ability to spend experience points on skills that you want to learn and refine. There is a huge amount of skills that can be learned, meaning that one character simply cannot learn them all, preventing the pitfall of one character being a jack-of-all trades. For instance, there are physical attributes such as strength, agility, and stamina, there are combat skills such as unarmed, melee, and ranged weaponry, and then there are useful skills such as lock picking, computer hacking, and inspection. Even still, there are skills to learn how to affect conversations such as intimidation and seduction. In essence, you could make a character that is skilled in all arts of combat, a character who avoids combat and uses a bit of subtlety to get by, or anything in between.
The world of Bloodlines takes place in a fictional Los Angeles in which the seven clans of vampires are just about on the brink of open warfare. Additionally, a legend foretelling the end of all things is slowly meeting its prophetic requirements. All of this goes on with the humans totally unaware, who continue to live their lives normally; going to clubs, hiring prostitutes, and milling about in the street, as they are blissfully ignorant of even the very existence of vampires. That is the reason that all vampires strive to adhere to the rules and laws that make up the Masquerade; breaking them means that humans know about the existence of vampires, and that in turn means vampire hunters bear down on the vampires.
In Bloodlines, the player can make no more than five Masquerade infractions, though points can be regained in certain quests. If the Masquerade is broken so that the player no longer has any Masquerade points left, the game's over. Masquerade points are fairly difficult to lose, as you pretty much have to intentionally lose one, since the game is broken up into three zones. The zone most often encountered is the Masquerade zone, in which attacking anybody in plain sight is forbidden, and killing a human reduces the player's humanity. Combat zones do away with those worries and make it so you can pretty much do anything without fear of breaking the Masquerade, and you can kill anybody, innocent or not, without repercussion. Finally, there are zones, such as those that contain important characters, in which you cannot even draw a weapon.
As mentioned before, humanity is a significant part of the gameplay in Bloodlines. When a vampire feeds on a person for blood, you don't want to drain them dry and kill them, but rather leave them with just enough blood to stay living. Helping people sometimes yields humanity points, and killing them takes away humanity points; lose enough of them, and your character enters a frenzied state where the vampiric side of your character takes over and leaves any shred of your humanity by the wayside.
Combat in Bloodlines is reminiscent of that found in Dues Ex, which was a stellar example of how well an RPG can work from a first-person perspective, much like System Shock 2 before it. For instance, aiming a gun with low ranged weapon skill will result in your aim being widely off, even when crouched in a standstill. For some, this will make or break the gameplay experience, mainly those who are used to the instantaneous precision aiming found in most FPS titles, while those familiar with how Dues Ex handled things will feel right at home.
Melee combat is much easier to hit with, but starts off weak and uses skill points to strengthen your attacks. In melee combat, you can attack or block, though simply mashing the attack button yields far better results than to even think about blocking. Melee weapons tend to overshadow any ranged weapon in terms of their effectiveness for two reasons, firstly vampires don't exactly have to care about bullets, unless we're talking about a short range shotgun blast (leaving guns only truly effective against humans), and secondly, guns are pretty much useless against humans as well. Call me crazy, but somehow, I doubt a punk wearing a wife-beater could get up after being shot pointblank in the center of the torso with a 12 gauge.
Bloodlines does have an excellent thing going for it in terms of its plot, making it probably the most coherent and original RPG storyline this reviewer has seen all year. Every clan has its own back story, which relates to the other clans in a few key areas here and there; all of the characters have branching lines of dialog that is actually interesting, and every one of them backed by a voiceover.
The mood of the title is established very well as a sort of creepy nightlife where the bad sides of both human beings and the supernatural come out and play. Throughout the game, other events are occurring as both side stories and parts of the main plot, though they happen in a transparent manner. Early on, you can watch TV newscasts detailing the discovery of a cargo ship full of its mutilated crew, only to later on visit the ship as the police are investigating the matter after the fact. The characters in Bloodlines often have their own bit of sensuality and sexuality to add to the mix, though it's there to set a tone rather than having sexual overtones for the sex of overtones (the exception being a topless strip club which, let's face it, pretty much has to be gratuitous to be realistic). The "quests" you can undertake range from the fairly normal (stealing something from someplace) to the incredibly bizarre (getting attacked by a guy who is wielding someone else's severed arm as a club), all of which are entertaining and add a bit of variety to the game.
Though the game is powered by the Source engine, the same engine used to incredible effect in HL2, Bloodlines doesn't look nearly as good in comparison. Some character models such as the main plot characters look really good, while others such as random passersby look like something out of a video game that was cutting-edge a year and a half ago. Still, it's the characters that look good that are the ones the game focuses around the most, and all of them not only look unique and incredibly detailed but also have their own mannerisms.
The weapons, items and special effects are hit and miss, mainly in that there is no animation between an enemy laying down on the ground and standing up, weapons never really convey a sense of power or true deadliness, and for the most part, the physics engine almost detracts from the immersion more so than it adds. Small things such as characters floating away rather than walking and the beheading scene making your sire's head magically disappear add up to make a significant amount of rough edges in an engine that has proven to be more than capable. Bloodlines was completed a while back, and Activision was contractually forbidden from publishing it before Valve's HL2 came out. This gave Troika plenty of time and opportunity to add the necessary polish to their RPG, which makes all of the hiccups and glitches even more surprising, since most of them can be addressed with a patch. Attacking tends to yield the same small number of animations over and over again, which is a normal occurrence for a RPG but looks repetitive, especially since so much care has been taken to construct a believable game world.
The audio side of the title, however, is something in which Bloodlines shines. The biggest aspect of what Bloodlines has for your ears is the voiceovers that accompany every line of dialog in the game. With few exceptions, Bloodlines has excellent voice acting through the game that not only brings the characters to life but separates them from one another, giving them each their own personality. Music doesn't play a large role in Bloodlines, yielding instead to ambient themes such as sounds you would hear in a metropolis during the wee hours, which makes the experience feel a bit more genuine. Most of the sound effects are pretty good, with only a small handful that sound a bit too canned, mainly those of the ranged weapons, which tend to see less usage anyway.
Basically, if you are approaching Bloodlines expecting a FPS with vampires in it, you won't like the title. The rest of the gaming populace, especially those who loved Dues Ex and its style of gameplay, will find Bloodlines to be an intriguing RPG based on the established pen-and-paper game and containing some of the more original aspects seen in an RPG this year. In either case, there are still plenty of flaws to be found, some large (there is literally a game-breaking bug at a point in the game that requires console-level load commands to overcome) and some small, to detract from the overall experience, both intermittently and as a whole. Essentially, if you are a fan of the series, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is a much better game than its predecessor Redemption, but still not nearly as polished or refined as any of the other titles released this year. If you absolutely need a vampire-themed RPG or are a fan of the series, Bloodlines will likely appeal to you, while anyone else might find that all of the great gameplay features and deep RPG elements are struck a hard balance by the variety of bugs, sudden game crashes, and plain old rough edges found within.
Score: 7.7 / 10
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