Hey lick, what’s up? Man, last night was a blast. I hooked up with some Brujah Anarchs downtown and mixed it up with some Cammy bluebloods. Those rich boys with their fancy popguns couldn’t touch us. Tonight I’m supposed to rendezvous with this wackjob Malkavian who supposedly hacked into a Sabbat mainframe. Says he can tell us where the Giovanni goombahs are storing one of their pretty little ancient doodads. It’s supposed to make your Blood Buff twice as powerful, so I figure we deserve it more than those lousy diablerists. What do ya say, you up for eating Italian tonight?
If any of that made sense to you, I’m about to make you very, very happy. Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines lives up to its hype. Well, mostly. It has issues, but none of them are severe enough to warrant passing up on the game.
Let me back up a bit for those of you who don’t own 20-sided dice and wouldn’t know LARP from a carp.
Vampire: The Masquerade is one of the most popular traditional tabletop role-playing games in history. Part of White Wolf’s “World Of Darkness” mythos, V:TM is set in a world of modern vampires who live in the shadows of the real world. The mythos establishes the society that these modern-day bloodsuckers live in. First, there’s the Camarilla, a system of government and rules meant to keep the “masquerade” (keeping knowledge of vampires and their existence from human society) and to maintain order between the seven dominant clans. Opposing the Camarilla is the Sabbat, rogue vampire clans that make the Cam look like boy scouts. In the middle are the Anarchs, vampires who live in areas not dominated by Camarilla “Princes” and not bound by its laws.
Each vampire clan has it’s own unique traits and weaknesses. For example, the Brujahs are the rebels; violent, passionate vampires who tend to be bikers, metalheads, and other non-conformists. Toreadors are surprisingly human, with strong passion for the arts and powerful seductive skills. Ventrues are the leaders of the Camarilla, the royalty of vampires, excelling in business and domination of their opponents. I’ll leave the other clans for you to discover on your own.
The ancient feuds and competitive nature of the clans bring us the Jyhad, the overarching battle for dominance and control in the vampire world.
That Jyhad is the basis of the role-playing game and now, this amazing piece of work from Troika and Activision called Bloodlines.
To anyone who has ever played the traditional RPG, it’s all here. They actually managed to cram in almost all of the features of that original system, from feats to frenzy. The level of detail is amazing, and shows a clear devotion to the source material. The design is right, the look is right; it’s all there.
In Bloodlines you play a newly embraced (aka: turned) vamp who finds themselves caught in the middle of a massive power struggle for the fate of Los Angeles. The legendary Free Anarch Baronies of LA are in turmoil, as the Camarilla has moved in and set up a new Prince over the city. This new Prince doesn’t have a very firm grasp on the city, as the Anarchs, the Sabbat, and…other factions still hold large portions of town.
You start by doing errands for the Prince to earn your keep, but soon find yourself becoming the key player in a power struggle not just for the city of Los Angeles, but possibly for the future of kindred and kine (vampires and humans) as a ghost ship has arrived at the port carrying a very old box…a box that just might contain a harbinger of “Gehenna”, the vampire name for the apocalypse.
Let’s take it from the top. The character creation is fantastic. You can either make your own character from scratch or answer a series of questions and have the game create the basic character for you. You can play as any of the primary seven clans, and choose to be male or female. This is far more than a cosmetic choice, as the conversation choices throughout the game change based upon which gender and clan you choose to play. My female Toreador seductress was met with much different responses than my wacky Malkavian male.
This is really the game’s strength. By creating a game that fits all seven clans and both sexes, you are given the freedom to actually role-play within a video game. An example that comes to mind is a mission given early on that involves the destruction of several works of art. I was playing as a Toreador…and Toreadors worship art above all else. To actually destroy those paintings would have gone directly against my nature as a character, so I was given the choice to turn it down, with appropriate drama queen Toreador responses. Even though it showed that I “failed” the mission, I was REWARDED with experience for the response! In short, we now have an RPG that awards you for making decisions based on the role of your character, as opposed to your own personal choice. It adds a whole new depth to the experience.
Gender plays a role as well. Another early mission involved getting into a well-guarded house full of drug dealers and cult members (don’t ask). A male character or a character with low seduction would probably have to either storm the place or sneak in. As my steamy Toreador all I had to do was give some sweet talk to the guy guarding the front, then I was able to waltz in and do what I liked…including convincing the boss to send his guards away and leave us alone so I could suck him dry and leave with his goodies.
Console gamers may think this sounds a lot like Knights of the Old Republic, and they’d be right. There are many elements of Bloodlines that resemble that amazing X-Box RPG. For one, the game is huge. Very, very huge. You’ll meet literally dozens of characters, all fully realized with animations and voices. The ability to choose your path also exists, if to a lesser extent than KotOR. No matter what path you choose, you’re still going to be an undead monster that feasts on the living. The choices have less to do with good and evil and more to do with exactly what depth of evil and what separation from humanity you choose.
Much has been said about the fact that Bloodlines makes use of the Source engine. For those of you who have been under a rock for the last year, that’s the Half-Life 2 engine. Needless to say, the game is gorgeous. There are several moments where you just freeze in your tracks and admire the view. Even with a relatively mid-range system, you can run at a surprisingly high resolution and with most effects active. One major problem I did have was an apparent bug that kept me from disabling combat effects. Late in the game, as more enemies swarm around you and frequently fire automatic weapons (so the game has to paint muzzle flashes and bullet hits in a hurry) there are major instances of “stuttering” and near-slideshow frame rates. You’re supposed to be able to disable those in the options, but even unchecked, the effects continued along with the crappy frame rates and stuttering sound.
Technical glitches in general are a bit of a negative point when looking at the game as a whole. The usual First Person Shooter glitches are present. You’re often stuck trying to get an NPC to move out of a door or pathway, or you’re stuck trying to clear a waist-high pile of debris that just seems “sticky”. I suffered a few seemingly random crashes to the desktop and a couple of lockups as well. As nifty as the Source engine is, it comes with a bit of technical baggage that affects the overall enjoyment of the game.
Unfortunately, the Source engine also causes the other big negative to the game: combat. The 1st-Person combat is, admittedly, great. This is what Source was built to do, and it does it well. The problem is, you only engage in 1st-Person combat when you’re using firearms. If you’re engaging in melee or unarmed combat, you jump into 3rd-Person mode. I’ll come right out and say it: Source just wasn’t built for this, and it shows.
All too often, your view is jerked around while the camera tries to fit inside environments while also keeping focus on your character. Because you still have to aim your attacks, you find yourself spinning around wildly all too often while trying to get a bead on a moving target. Unlike the intuitive point-and-click nature of firearm combat, you’re really using your mouse to pivot and aim a cursor…even in 3rd-Person view. Because both you and your opponents have similar physical responses to both attacking and being hit, melee and unarmed combat usually wind up being wild clicking sessions, madly trying to stay on target and cut the widest path of destruction possible. This shouldn’t be the case, considering the very detailed combat system that follows the rules of the original RPG, but it’s the only way one frequently has a chance of defeating a target close up.
Here’s the kicker: because of the way the game is balanced, you will find yourself sticking to melee or unarmed combat 99% of the time. Except for the rare boss or swarm of human characters, your firearms won’t be of much use until late in the game when you get the really awesome firepower. Vampires shrug off all but the biggest firearms, and there are some truly powerful melee weapons available early on without the need for expensive ammo. Because of the nature of the Vampire character creation system, you generally need to choose a path fairly early on if you want to have any luck at finishing the game, so you’re often locked into melee or unarmed combat for MUCH of the game, until you have the skills you need maxed out and can drop some into firearms. If you drop enough points into ranged combat to really be proficient with firearms early on, you’ll wind up terribly short in your disciplines or the lock picking/hacking skills you so desperately need throughout the game.
Beyond the sketchy combat system, I have a very, very unique complaint, something I’ve never complained about before.
The game is too damn long.
This actually ties back into the combat problems. While early on, you’re frequently given different non-violent routes to solve quests, the end of the game turns into a dugeon hacker with the last two big combat sections lasting, seemingly, forever. Enemies respawn, and due to some design limitation or another, tend to be identical. After awhile, you start to know how Neo felt during the big Mr. Smith fight scene from Matrix Reloaded; oh joy, it’s another anonymous tunnel or office building level and another wave of identical security guards/SWAT guys/Chinese henchmen to slash through so I can get to the next door or stairwell. Unlike the similarly-massive KotOR, you aren’t left with the desire to go back through it all again immediately. Like many early cuts of feature films, I wish they would have sacrificed some of the lengthy action sequences in order to make it a tighter experience and less tedious in those final areas.
While those are all valid complaints, that’s about it. Everything else is simply delightful. The voice acting is, without a doubt, the best I’ve ever heard in a game. The storyline is taut and full of wonderful twists and turns. The role-playing experience is amazing, giving the player unrivaled ability to choose their own solutions to the problems set before them. Fans of the traditional RPG will find many love letters dropped by Troika, from famous characters out of the “WoD” mythos to non-vamp critters that will be very, very familiar. Oh, and it’s really pretty to look at, too.
If you’re a fan of V:TM, this is a must-have. If you love RPG’s, this is a must-have. If you’re a horror fan who loves survival horror, well, you may want to think about expanding your horizons and taking a walk through Los Angeles by night. If you’re an action-fan looking for some mayhem…err, try Half-Life 2 or wait for Call of Cthulhu.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go meet a guy at an Internet café. Says he has some interesting new gaming technology to show me and he’d like to take me out for a bite to eat. Sounded a little weird, say his name is Schreck…probably a foreigner or something. Wish me luck!
4 out of 5
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