Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines reviewed by Ryuken

Vampires here, vampires there. The past years many of these nightcreatures showed up as main characters in several game series. Unfortunately not in a true roleplaying game (RPG). Troika Games thought it was time to change that.Just like the way Michael Crawford decided to change the binary options trading way by introducing his powerful automated trading system called the Quantum Code that eliminated every complexity associated with this trading practice successfully, and, at the same time offers pleasing profits to all of its pursuers, all the time! Well, let’s go back to know how this gaming company brought a change. With the aid of the advanced Valve Source-engine they have now created a game situated in the renowned ‘World of Darkness’-universe (used mainly for pen and paper RPG’s). It’s a setting which gives more nuances to the existence of vampires and it’s a place where you can also find the likes of werewolves, demons and other occult beings. After the character creation Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines already kicks off with a poor in-game sequence. The graphical mistakes shown here are just so remarkable that one could ask him-/herself if they were put in with purpose as some weird form of kitsch. But rest assured, you’ll forget things like these soon enough once you enter the streets of nightly Los Angeles as a newborn vampire.

Earlier in the evening your bleak one-night-stand decided to put her teeth into your neck before she made you drink her own blood. By doing that she made a serious violation against the Masquerade, a rule of conduct amongst most bloodsuckers which obliges them not to reveal their powerful abilities and the existence of vampire society to ‘normal’ people. Your love gets a death penalty and you are left dazzled, just in the right spot to become the new waterboy for prince LaCroix, a somewhat idle chap trying to rule L.A.. Later on it’ll be clear that he’s not the only one asking for your help, there are more factions than just the omnipresent Camarilla. The storyline is told in a decent but for a long time pretty straightforward way. Finally, there’ll be some choices near the endpart which will lead to one of the different endings of the game.

Choices will have to be made in the beginning of the game too. Which clan do you want to choose? Did you just escape from a psychiatric institution then the Malkavians will suit you best. Always have been the rebellious, brawling bad boy/girl? Then the Brujah definitely are your thing. Magic-lovers will most likely prefer the Tremere while the Toreador are the more seducing type. Then there are still the beastly Gangrel, the influensive Ventrue and the ugly, sneaky Nosferatu. Every clan has his own combination of three special powers (called Disciplines) plus the common power Blood Buff. Disciplines are sometimes clan specific. Only the Tremere can use Thaumaturgy which allows them wreak havoc on opponents from a distance so these start to vomit or even… yeah, explode (lot of wallpapers don’t keep clean of blood in this game by the way). And Gangrel can transform into beasts when their Protean Discipline is high enough.

All Disciplines can be used as long as you have enough bloodpoints left. So the bloodmeter on the right side of the screen will remain on a constant level if you don’t use Disciplines but sooner or later you’re gonna need them anyway. The vertical, blue bar on the left side shows your lifestatus. Vampires are immortal but can only take that much damage before they go up in ashes. Both indicators can be raised once you get a taste of that sweet, reddish lifejuice. Supernatural powers alone won’t save you, your Attributes (basestatistics like Strength, Charisma, Intelligence and Appearance) and Abilities (e.g. Firearms, Computer, Finance and Stealth) will need improvement too. They influence your Feats, the scores which are checked during most gamesituations. If you spent a lot of experience to f.e. the Attribute Charisma and/or the Ability Scholarship then the higher Persuasion-Feat will allow you to convince NPC’s through extra dialoguelines.

In order to raise stats you can study with one of the few teachers or more often read some books. But it’s mainly a case of spending experience points which you gain by completing a shitload of quests. There is enough variation in the (sub-)quests. Pure stealth assignments, pure combat missions or a mix of both to keep you interested. Also, for a merely municipal environment, the locations differ enough; you’ll explore sewers, bloody mansions, frigthening catacombs, an old car dump, a ghost house, a museum, grubby hotels and groovy clubs. Convince people, threaten or seduce them, pick those locks, hack some PC’s and discover gradually the more darker (and perverse:) ) sides of L.A.. The navigation doens’t really require a map since most areas are relatively small and easily recognisable. In the districts (also called hubs) there is always a mini-map of the area at the busstops. You’ll only see the big map of L.A. when going to another hub or special location via taxi or the sewers.

On the whole, the leveldesign is well executed and often you can choose your own approach. Less pleasant are the combat levels. You even get to deal with endless respawning enemies from time to time. The real-time combatsystem is, for an RPG, (too) simple: fireweapons are used in 1st person mode, fighting with daggers/katana’s or with your fists happens in the third person view. Factors like possible damage and the chance to hit are calculated through your stats. Close combat almost resembles a beat’em up game with a couple of combo moves and some useful Disciplines. You’re hacking, slashing or punching like hell against adversaries which only form a threat if they attack you with many or when they try to surround you. More challenge is to be found during bossfights but even then it doesn’t really gets that tough, a few exceptions aside (Octopussy… *shivers*). Ranged weaponry like guns, revolvers etc. are useless for a long time. Although near the end of your trip through L.A. you’ll start to appreciate the punch of a Magnum or a (Spaz) shotgun, especially if you play as either Toreador or Brujah since these both clans have acces to the bullet-time Discipline Celerity. A flamethrower is even the über-weapon(/-vampirekiller) but consumes precious ammo at a very fast rate. Items on the overall are limited to realistisc things, quest-items, blood packs (the ‘health potions’), only three kinds of outfits and some rare, handy, occult artifacts. This never gets a ‘phat lewt’-game, it’s your character which determines your power. A sober design choice which never gets disturbing.

The opponents’ AI varies from mediocre to good. They follow you if you retreat for a while, hide to get cover or even run away if they received a lot of damage. But more than once they also get stuck on some objects. Difficult moments are more determined by the amount of enemies you get to handle at once or by those that spawned behind you. Combat is fun but it gets irritating if you only encounter the same kind of mobs over and over again if you know that fighting the ‘normal scum’ is never really rewarding.

At all times you need to maintain the Masquerade. You aren’t allowed to activate Disciplines in non-combat areas if people can notice. Sucking someone dry in the middle of the street also won’t help to create the illusion that vampires don’t exist. It’s a free choice of course, if you want to behave like a vampire at all times and in all places then be my guest but each time you’ll lose one of the five Masquerade-points which were given to you at the start of the game. When they are all lost it’s game over. Don’t underestimate the hungry beast inside you too. Sucking innocents dry from head to toe will decrease your Humanity-score, which makes for a higher risk that that inner monster will come out in a short, uncontrollable rage of wild anger (aka Frenzy). This event usually happens when you already took quite a beating and/or when your bloodmeter is on low. Statistics get a boost during Frenzy and anything you can grab then will most definitely not have any drop of blood left whether you want it or not. Frenzy can come in handy when you’re losing a battle so you can make a serious comeback, but if it happens to fall on you when walking on the streets it has disastrous consequences for both your Masquerade- and Humanity-scores. Because of several quests in which you can gain higher Humanity- and Masquerade-status the developers clearly left a margin to experiment in though.

The strongest point of this RPG is without any doubt the amazing charm of the non-playing characters (NPC’s). By using the Source facial animation the developers have surpassed themselves by providing such lively expressions for each meaningful NPC with as an extra surplus the perfect voicecasting. What characters say is impressive too, you’re gonna laugh with guys like Jack or Fat Larry or you just feel that a person is trying to win you over (what doesn’t necessarily needs to be done with speech, Jeanette’s and VV’s ‘attributes’ on their own may be enough… for some of you:p ). Rest assured that these dialogues will keep you busy for a long time without getting boring. The commoners on the streets and in buildings aren’t worked extensively and usually don’t do much more than walking around, you can’t even talk with them. They’re just dumb, moving, potential sources of blood.

The background music in unexplored areas supports the mysterious horror atmorsphere in a great way. In public places (hubs) you can also hear nicely fitting tracks (especially in Chinatown). The clubs on their turn offer enough pleasant, dreamy and nifty beats through the music from artists/groups like Ministry, Tiamat, Chiasm and Lacuna Coil. Vampire’s undergroundmood only gets stronger by these excellent licensed tracks. It all gets a secretly tempting, yes even an erotic appetite to it. You just want to keep playing and hanging out as the new, bleak kid in town. So it’s a bit of a pity that the game is played out in about 30 hours. Even one playthrough like that is worth the money though and playing it again is advised if you want to see what fun the other clans can be and how different NPC’s will react to them and their abilities.

Shouldn’t we say something about the pure graphical/technical side? Sure we do, first of all Troika is doing quite well with the V-Source engine for their first 1st/3rd person game. There are some really marvelous locations, interiors and dito models. You’ll admire the nicely done magical effects. On the other side there are the already mentioned commoners which move like they have a pitchfork in their pants. And like most ennemies they also suffer a lot from the clone-syndrome. Physics are present but mostly at times when you really need them and thus not every object can be moved or thrown away. Not so realistic of course but hell, if you don’t buy an RPG for only these reasons then it’s pathetic. The game has a shitload of loading times because of the rather small locations. Disturbing but you’ll get used to it. Stuttering issues are more irritating. In certain levels when many enemies at once jumped to my throat it all became an ordinary slideshow. There is a patch (v1.2) out which fixes most crashbugs (also the infamous boat-bug which actually forced you to load the next level through the console or you couldn’t advance the storyline). But far from everything has been solved and a (late) patch still isn’t an excuse for a title which has clearly been released too soon. Hopefully Activsion and Troika realise that Vampire still has more big and little problems. I saw several typo’s in the subtitles, a few times a script wouldn’t trigger or once a savegame wouldn’t load, voices starting to sound more loudly all of a sudden… annoying and surely not a thing to be forgotten for the endscore.

This game could have scored higher if it didn’t lack a thorough finishing touch. Still, don’t let that fact keep you from buying this title if you like RPG’s and don’t reject non-isometric points of view. Bloodlines will intrigue you despite the not so well worked out combat and some annoyances here and there. Memorable NPC’s, superb dialogues and kickass music complement the attractive setting very well. Vampire makes you wonder why there are so few games around which utilise the World of Darkness universe. If you ask me then Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is the best RPG of the past year on PC, without too much effort even because of the rather poor competition.

– Decent RPG-system
– Addictive
– Beautiful, expressive dialogues
– World of Darkness-setting
– Superb soundtrack and voiceacting
– Remarkable graphical mistakes
– Lots of loading times and a few (crash-)bugs
– Longer playtime wouldn’t have hurt
– Boring combat(-levels)