Reviewed: November 22, 2004
Released: November 16, 2004
Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is undoubtedly one of the year’s most anticipated games, partly because of the cult-like following of White Wolf’s vampiric source material and partly because this is the first third-party game built on Valve’s new Source engine that will be driving Half-Life 2, which just so happens to share the same release date.
Developed by Troika, known for RPG classics like Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura and The Temple of Elemental Evil, Bloodlines blends solid action gameplay with a rich RPG core all set in the dynamic universe of White Wolf’s pen and paper RPG. A sophisticated stats and skill system is in place to keep you increasingly engaged with your character as he or she develops throughout the game.
You are thrust into the sinister underworld of west coast vampires after being bitten (and turned) by another vampire during an intimate encounter. This act, known as the “embrace”, results in the death of your lover while your life is uncharacteristically spared. You must then undergo some tutelage as you learn the “rules” of the “Masquerade” and just what it takes to be a vampire in modern day California.
Being a vampire certainly has its perks, especially when you learn that all that stuff (crosses and garlic) you saw in movies is bogus. Eternal life, healing, supernatural powers and abilities, and all you have to do is drink some blood, avoid sunlight, and keep a low profile. Keeping a low profile is what the Masquerade is all about. If humans were to learn the existence of vampires, you would all be wiped out. Therefore, there are strict rules about what you can and cannot do in public, and multiple violations are dealt with harshly.
Bloodlines basically dumps you on the streets of Santa Monica leaving you to live out the rest of your life. Considering that could be an eternity you might expect to get bored, but the designers have crafted a rich world with a twisting plot to keep you glued to your PC for countless hours. And when you factor in the choice of playing as any of seven unique clans and either male or female, and when all these choices directly affect the gameplay, you might just end up playing this game for eternity.
Before the opening movie, before that very first bite, you need to create your character. What could have been a complicated process has been made simple and even fun if you choose the Morrowind-style of psychological profiling used to create your alter ego. If you don’t feel like answering a series of insightful (and often humorous) questions you can use the more traditional create-a-character mode where you just pick your options and assign skill points.
Followers of the White Wolf RPG will likely see through the questioning process and may inadvertently steer the character design, but those who answer truthfully might just be surprised to see the end results. Being male or female has certain advantages and directly influences conversations and even the gameplay to some extent.
Each of the clans also has their own pros and cons in the form of skill bonuses and gameplay restrictions. Playing as the Nosferatu is perhaps the most challenging since most people won’t even talk to you, but this does offer some great potential for humor. Hitting on a hot chick in the club will cause her to recoil in horror to which are you given classic response choices like, “It’s all about looks, isn’t it?” or “I like to cuddle and take long walks on the beach” or perhaps my favorite, “What? We’ll leave the lights out.” The best reaction is from the cashier at the diner.
Of course, much like the real world, things are easier if you are beautiful, and even though I took all seven clans and genders for a test spin for about an hour each, I ended up choosing a hot female Malkavian as the character to play out the game from start to finish. I may have had it easier than playing as a man and I certainly had it easier than playing as a Nosferatu, but those are options I look forward to exploring later.
Freedom of choice is the main advantage to Bloodlines and not just in the character creation process. You are free to develop your base character however you see fit, you can pick and choose your quests (for the most part), and you can usually steer conversations in positive and negative directions. You can even apologize and redirect some conversations if you get yourself in a bind.
Combat was a bit disappointing if for no other reason that I never got that involved with it. Sure, you have multiple moves you can pull off by moving in a direction while attacking or jumping, or using any of the numerous weapons (and there are a lot). There is a cool stealth-kill move unique for each weapon and you can combine your skills like Celerity to improve your odds when outnumbered.
Abilities are a huge part of the gameplay and include Talents, Skills, and Knowledge. While combat is unavoidable you will find feats like lock picking, hacking, intimidation, and seduction invaluable tools in the vampire lifestyle. As a sexy Malkavian I was usually presented with at least one special conversation topic. These can be used to your advantage to get things you might not otherwise have access to. You can even seduce some characters to the point where you can feed on them in public and not violate the Masquerade.
Your vampire abilities are fueled by the blood meter that can be filled by feeding on unsuspecting humans. You also have the ability to stop your feeding before draining your victim totally dry, thus preserving their life and what little humanity you have remaining. You’ll need to keep your feeding reserved to the back alleys away from prying eyes unless you have seduced your target in advance. Open feeding is a major Masquerade violation not to mention a criminal violation that will bring down the wrath of the local cops.
Some skills are overtly supernatural in nature. Celerity is one such skill that allows my character to speed up (bullet-time) and public use is allowed at level one, but once you reach level two you are no longer allowed to use the skill in public without a violation. Five violations and the game is over, but there are also ample opportunities for redemption, so you’re not going to lose unless you are really trying to.
Skills and attributes play an important part of everything you do in Bloodlines. Sometimes your skills might not be up to the task, but Blood Buff will temporarily increase your stats allowing you to move silently, pick that lock, or hack a computer that would otherwise be beyond your abilities.
Gender isn’t a huge issue in the game but it does factor into the gameplay slightly. The opening movie cleverly uses gender-neutral pronouns so it works for whomever you are playing. Girls have no problem flirting with other girls, you can even get a $10 discount from the local hooker outside your apartment, and guys in the game are just as easily manipulated as they are in real life.
Gameplay is pretty standard adventure game fare with a laundry list of quests that starts off slow and linear then quickly expands as you make new contacts and accept new missions. You’ll even take on new missions while working on existing ones. You’ll never be at a loss for something to do in Bloodlines.
Without giving away too much, you start the game in your apartment. The first thing you’ll notice (or should notice) is the radio broadcast. I literally sat and listened to the radio for 10 minutes the first time I played and was laughing hysterically. This is better than the talk radio in Grand Theft Auto, and there is a surprising amount of content. I’ve only heard a few repeat segments.
You explore your apartment for some obvious inventory items and check out your PC for some email. Computers play an ingenious part of Bloodlines’ gameplay. When you access a computer you zoom in to a text-based interface where you actually have to type in commands (gasp!) I haven’t seen an adventure game that allowed you to type in commands since the old 80’s Sierra games. You can read email, hack passwords, dig up info on patients and staff at the clinic, and even get the local surf report.
Outside you spot a man, bloodied, and crawling into his apartment. You follow and talk with him for your first assignment, which takes you to the beach, where you get your first taste of combat. Successful completion of this mission leads to the Asylum club where you meet a twisted pair of twin sisters who task you with new and more challenging assignments including vandalizing a local art gallery and exploring a haunted hotel.
The missions are varied, unique, and always challenging. Some rely on stealth, others combat, and there is even a bit of puzzle solving required at times. The various styles of gameplay blend together so well you’ll be lucky to make the connection. The art gallery mission requires you to gain access, either by picking the lock or acquiring the key by sweet-talking the security guard. Once inside you have to solve a small logic puzzle to actually destroy the paintings, which in turn triggers a minor boss fight.
Experience points are handled a bit differently than your normal RPG. Rather than amassing thousands of points and moving up levels, you are simply awarded one or two points here and there for completing various tasks. You can then spend these points on new feats or improve your existing stats. Naturally, the higher you take a skill, the more each increment costs, and by design you can never excel in all abilities so you will need to choose and develop your abilities carefully from the onset.
Bloodlines does offer an “auto-upgrade” option that will handle this aspect of the game for you, but I highly discourage its use. You’ll just lose all connection with your character. Of course, if you simply want to play this as an action game then the auto-upgrade might just be the ticket, as it pretty much removes the RPG flavor of the game.
You have the ability to play from either a first or third person perspective, which should make the game accessible to both action and adventure fans. The game does force a few camera angles on you. Melee is always handled from a chase camera; an absolute must when you factor in all the amazing special effects of using your vampire abilities. One annoying quirk is that the camera would often get left in first-person mode after a conversation, even though I had been playing in third-person.
You have full control over command configuration, but for the most part the game follows the play style of your typical action game. You move with the WADS cluster and look with the mouse. I had my mouse buttons configured for combat, jumping, and skill activation. Rotating the wheel on the mouse selected my skills and the function keys are configured to select weapons, inventory items, and toggle skills.
The Source engine brings the L.A. cityscape to life with an uncanny and sinister quality that blends realism with a bit of surreal watercolor design. Rather than going for an ultra-realistic texture quality, any given screen could easily be a painting, yet there are a lot of sophisticated special effects going on like reflections, volumetric, and particle effects to create some very special moments. It would have been very easy for Troika to exploit the powerful Source engine, but they have kept the game very stylish and very moody.
Conversations take place from a fixed first-person view. Some of the dialogue trees can take several minutes to get through, and even with the amazing lip-synch and animated facial muscles that show true emotion I have to admit to getting impatient and wanting to look around while the other characters were talking. This minor annoyance also spills over into specific action animations like lock picking. Not being able to look around while breaking and entering got me in trouble with the cops several times, and these cops shoot first and read you your rights later.
There are some really nice touches to the interface. Perhaps my favorite is the unique fonts associated with the various clans, plus the color-coding of seduction and intimidation lines of dialogue to let you know you have options outside the normal flow of the conversation. Even the character sheet features an intuitive design that highlights and cross-references skills and attributes, so you instantly know what stats to increase to enhance a skill.
Special effects are in abundance thanks to the powerful Source engine. Want to see some of the best dynamic cloth in a game? Pick a female character wearing a dress or skirt and twirl her with the mouse in the character sheet and watch the fabric flow like a figure skater. Long hair even has bounce and flips around during movement.
Lighting is simply amazing to the point where individual surfaces will reflect a certain color of light based on direction and angle. This is most obvious in the street areas that are lit with colorful neon. Particle effects and volumetric fogging are handled nicely and used to create some of the most suspenseful supernatural scares in gaming history. Just visit the hotel for proof, and if you are looking for the best reflective rippling water just take a trip through the sewers.
Character models are good but not the best I’ve seen and their animation can be a bit stilted at times. Things get infinitely better during conversations when you zoom in close for unparalleled detail on skin and clothing textures. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the glint for the eyes. At first I thought this was a supernatural effect to help me identify other vampires, but everyone has a sparkle in their eye that is simply too cool for words.
The powerful narrative is backed up with an amazing voice cast that turns out an award-winning performance. Considering that each conversation topic has multiple responses, each with their own mood, I can’t imagine the work that went into recording the thousands of lines of dialogue and keep it flowing with this type of cinematic excellence. Just the radio broadcast alone puts this game in a league of its own.
The environmental sound effects are subtle and eerily accurate, and when the disembodied voices start kicking in at the hotel you’re guaranteed a spinal shiver. It was a bit odd to hear traffic with nary a moving car in sight, although cop cars did surround the diner when I went on a feeding frenzy and killed all the occupants. My trip to the pier with the gentle crashing waves and the occasional cry of a seagull was amazing.
Going to heavily occupied locations like the diner, club, or clinic all offered great opportunities to hear a diverse selection of conversations and background noises. Even the sickly green sewers delivered a hollow soundscape rich with reverb. The game makes the most out of EAX and surround sound speakers for a spatial experience unlike anything else in the genre.
In addition to some eerie ambient background music there are plenty of industrial tunes that fit perfectly with the gothic atmosphere this game demands. One trip to the nightclub with its thumping beats and wonderfully animated dancers will send you on your own personal quest for the Bloodlines soundtrack.
Despite the complexity of the game design, the gameplay is fairly straightforward. The guise of “another action game with RPG elements” is quickly swept away when you explore the sophisticated stat system and wonderful vampire special abilities (skills) that will quickly become your favorite tools of the game. Of course you have your standard adventure elements like level exploration and object collection, all mixed with intense combat.
There are so many subtle and not-so-subtle directions this game can go there is untold potential for replayability, and Bloodlines will be living on your system long after your first trip into the seedy underworld of L.A. There are enough substantial differences in the clans and genders that you will at least play the game two or three times despite the linear nature of the story and mission structure. The final quest allows for numerous paths with very different endings, even though these can all be explored from a save point.
Of course the best aspect of replayability is how dynamic your character becomes as you play the game and improve your stats and skills. Unless you write down your choices and consciously make those same choices again it would be impossible for any two characters (and games) to unfold the exact same way. Bloodlines is all about choices and there is certainly no shortage of those.
With a comprehensive RPG structure, exciting action elements, and an engrossing story rich with gothic flavor, Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines is one of the best PC games of 2004. You’re going to love the original characters and the quality dialogue and how it all comes together in one of the best narratives of our time.
If you are looking for an action game, RPG game, or even a solid adventure game, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see just how well Bloodlines blends all three genres together in sinister and exquisite perfection. This is one game you don’t want to miss, even if it means putting Half-Life 2 on the backburner.