Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines Review
2004 hasn't been that great of a year for RPGs. There hasn't been a single one for the PC for months now that really stands out as being a great game, and the consoles haven't seen much better. Many RPG fans have been holding out hope for Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, the pen-and-paper-licensed title from veteran developers Troika Games. Bloodlines promises a gothic atmosphere and action/RPG gameplay combined with a huge host of excellent characters and a well-written story.
Bloodlines is the first third-party game to use Valve Software's Source game engine. Source has gotten plenty of press recently, as it's also powering the visually breathtaking Half-Life 2. Despite the same use of the engine, I think it's folly to try and compare this game to HL2 in an overall perspective. Graphics, physics, and technical issues are fair game in my opinion, but gameplay? Not really.
Because the engine is so well-known thanks to HL2, I should probably mention that many of the features seen there are in Bloodlines; but in this case, they're used much more sparingly. Troika enabled the physics code for ragdoll-style dead bodies and various items in the world, but few items can be actually manipulated. The ragdoll physics also work, but they're rather exaggerated (especially in the case of melee combat) and not too realistic. Finally, the many special effects and other reflections seen in HL2 can be seen here in smaller doses. It seems that Troika wanted to just get the basics down and spend the rest of the time working on quests and gameplay, and I can respect that.
From a gameplay perspective, I'd much rather compare this to other action/RPG titles in recent years: namely, Thief: Deadly Shadows, Knights of the Old Republic, and Deus Ex. When considered against these games, Vampire: Bloodlines fares very well; its involving quests, unique atmosphere, solid action, and great graphics (for the genre) make up for the many technical and miscellaneous mishaps I found with the game.
Yes, Bloodlines was unfortunately shipped in a pretty buggy state - my guess is that Activision, the publisher, wanted to get it out in time for the holiday shopping season, and considered the number of bugs to be an acceptable risk. The same "stuttering" issues that are present in Half-Life 2 have made it into this game, and there are also quite a few well-documented graphics issues. Controls are also a bit wonky if you use any keyboard drivers other than what comes with Windows; disabling these programs will fix it, but of course that means temporarily disabling any special functionality on today's more complex keyboards.
There are also "holes" in some of the quests where the developers have required the player to do something in a specific way, but the level designers seemed to want to give the player more freedom. The result is that certain triggers for continuing the quest will not be met, and in the case of plot-advancing quests, one can be left stuck with a load as the only option. Those of us used to harder RPGs have no problem with this idea, but many times it's hard for the player to know that they did something wrong to screw the quest up. For this reason, I think that Troika should have spent more time tightening up various game events in order to ensure the player can move along. Fortunately, Bloodlines does auto-save and also keeps several of your quicksaves, so finding an earlier save isn't so bad. Still, this game needed another few weeks worth of bugfixes. I'm sure a patch will be released pretty soon, but finding a game-breaking bug is never very fun.
From a graphics perspective, it's hard not to compare Vampire: Bloodlines to this year's best-looking titles. For the most part, this game holds up very well, with detailed character models, an immersive look at a dark urban California, and nice animations for the many attacks and spells you can conjure up. Overall, some aspects of the game seriously lack the polish that some would expect nowadays - this is most evident in the cutscenes. While the characters' voice acting is solid and the dialogue is top notch, the animations are odd during some cutscenes and can really jar you out of what's otherwise a very immersive experience.
Clearly you can't have a game that takes place solely at night - with a ton of vampires - without some heavy gothic atmosphere. While I'm no expert on goth culture, Bloodlines sure seems like the real thing with its music, characters, and dingy atmosphere. It feels new, as well, as there aren't really a lot of game developers out there exploring this kind of setting.
The gameplay's always where it really counts, though, and Bloodlines delivers here. You'll play as a newly "embraced" vampire who usually would have been killed by the other established vampires under the circumstances, but the Prince in Los Angeles has decided to let you go and see how well you do in the vampire underworld. Quickly you are sent to Santa Monica to clear up some disputes and better learn your powers as a vampire; Santa Monica isn't massive in this game, as you really only have access to a few major streets, but these areas are detailed and full of stuff to do. Bloodlines allows you to accomplish your goals in many different ways: you can be an all-out brawler, firearms specialist, stealth killer, or social engineer, and all of these "builds" have plenty of merit. By the end, you'll be a killing machine; it's pure bliss going into a VTM version of bullet time while slicing your enemies up with a katana.
Not all of the melee combat is so great, though. Some of the later enemies are very frustrating to fight, as they have immensely powerful melee attacks and can spin around instantly; getting behind them is of almost no use at all. For this reason, anyone who picks from firearms or melee should still put some points into the other one, because some enemies are just way too frustrating to fight with just one style.
You can choose from a pretty wide range of characters, and their social status makes a huge difference here in how you will be doing quests. Play as the decrepit Nosferatu, and you'll find that your social abilities are just plain abysmal. On top of that, you can't walk the streets; you'll have to lurk in the sewers in order to go from one place to the next.
Some unique quests are based on your "clan" - essentially, your race - and your skills of seduction, intimidation, persuasion, and haggling will add new dialogue options to your conversations. These skills are also more useful in this game than in any other RPG I've played; in most games, social skills are rarely worth putting hard-earned points into, but here they're definitely worth it. Ok, so you can't go through the whole game without a good amount of fighting, but you can gain so many perks from social stats and skills that they're worth investing in on almost any character you make.
While you can't really customize the look of your character much, it's his or her abilities that will be much more finely tuned. During character creation you can choose your clan and gender, but you're stuck with whatever face you've got. At least gender makes a real difference in this game, especially considering the "seduction" skill. Anyway, then it's on to the character sheet where you can apply gained points to stats, skills, or unique vampire disciplines. Vampire rewards you with experience points for completing quests and advancing the plot, but there is no levelling system; instead, you apply experience points directly into various things on your character sheet. Some stats and abilities will affect multiple skills, and some skills are affected by multiple stats and abilities; for the most part, it's an intuitive system that lets you specialize in a few things before you get to the end of the game.
The plot starts right off with the Sabbat, a mystical group of renegade vampires, raiding the gathering where your own fate has been decided. From there, a scruffy-but-likable guy named Jack will show you the basics in a fun, laid back tutorial system - then it's off to Santa Monica. You'll pick up quests from both high-up vampires as well as the various humans around, and your rewards will come in the way of items, money, books that allow you to build up your abilities, and more (on top of experience, of course). The best part about all of this is that the plot is pretty engaging, and the voice acting backs it up perfectly.
Bloodlines is a disturbing game. The horror elements included here are only a part of it; there's plenty of gore and other more disgusting creations that some players will probably feel nauseus after seeing. Then we have a full range of cuss words along with some mostly-naked women in some of the clubs; this game by all means earns its "M" rating. Some people will argue that this game even pushes that rating, although it's not really for the blood, cussing, or violence - this game is just incredibly creepy in some places.
Bloodlines includes a very wide variety of missions, and I was not expecting to see so many different types in one game together. Some are decidedly linear, while some are very open-ended; some are pure action, some are scary as hell. Combine this with the choice to approach this game from action, stealth, or social perspectives, then kick on the many different ways you can play based on your starting clan, and this game has plenty of replayability. Even the stealth missions can be completed with pure action, and sadly they're difficult enough that even those characters who have strong stealth skills will likely shed some blood rather than do these missions "right".
When it comes to replay value, Troika's got you covered. The game's got multiple endings, and playing as certain races will alter your gameplay experience considerably. The Nosferatu must operate much more secretly, while the Malkavians literally hear voices - some of the things they here are absolutely correct, while others are pure lies. Most are complete madness either way. The Tremere get unique access to Thaumaturgy, or Blood Magic, which is very powerful but comes at a cost of reduced physical attributes.
One memorable mission involved checking out an old, run-down hotel for an item so that the ghost haunting it could be exorcised. Being early on in the game and expecting this to be somewhat like Deus Ex, I waltzed right in and anticipated a slightly spooky atmosphere with lots of action and maybe a couple of puzzles. I was so terribly wrong. The first scare made me jump right out of my chair, and from then on every other scare made me jump just as high. It's the fact that I didn't expect it that really did it for me, and I have to say that this was one of the most effective bits of horror I've seen in a game yet. It was an excellent quest that really had some substance as far as the plot goes while scaring the hell out of me at the same time.
Being a vampire has many privileges; first, you can take a ton of damage without dying, and most of the damage you can take will automatically heal up pretty quickly. On top of that, though, you can also use various special abilities, like the ability to speed up to superhuman speeds, boost your base stats temporarily, or increase your damage potential for a short while. These abilities and others are fueled with blood points, which most people know of as mana in other games. Like you might expect, though, blood points must be restored not with rest or with mana potions, but with fresh human blood.
Restoring your health and blood points is not as simple as walking up to any NPC and just draining of them of their life force, however. Vampires must adhere to The Masquerade, which is their guideline for staying secret amongst the humans. Feasting on humans in front of others is a clear violation, as well as performing any of the more powerful vampire feats in plain sight of innocent humans. Build up five masquerade violations, and it's game over. You can finish quests to remove these violations, however, so not all is lost if you pick up a couple of infractions.
Then there's the humanity issue. The game makes sure to remind you early on that that vampires are still partly human. Killing an innocent person or doing generally cruel things throughout the game will drop your Humanity statistic, while performing good deeds will raise it. Unlike with the Masquerade, though, becoming "the beast" will not necessarily end the game, but you do lose control of your character sometimes, and that can (and probably will) lead to multiple Masquerade violations. While you certainly can be plenty evil in Bloodlines, you won't get a free ticket to do the most despicable things imaginable all of the time.
The game spans over four areas of Los Angeles as well as many separate areas to go with them; you'll find plenty of very unique quests here, given out by a wide range of NPCs who all have their own agendas. Just like in most RPGs, your goals consist of a few simple objectives - deliver an item, find an item, kill everyone in this area, etc. - but they're presented here in a fresh new way that really put a smile on my face. You'll also have to solve the odd puzzle or search for a way to get into that next room; some of the solutions for these are fairly obscure, but I was never stuck for more than ten minutes.
Your progress throughout Bloodlines is held together by a quest log, and while the game makes a valiant effort to keep up on everything you get, it still misses things. Various steps in some quests result in nothing written to the log, and keycodes and passwords aren't stored in any way at all. I suggest you keep your own notes when playing this game, as the in-game log just isn't enough in my opinion.
I wasn't expecting much out of the soundtrack for Bloodlines, but I was pleasantly surprised to get a good mix of moody music, action rock songs, and goth club tracks that go together with the overall atmosphere beautifully. The weapon and combat effects leave quite a bit to be desired, but the haunting ambience and the hours of top-notch voice acting easily redeem those shortfalls.
Troika has decided to go without multiplayer of any kind in Bloodlines, which is a pretty big departure from VTM: Redemption. In the previous game, players could join a game and work together while another player - in the role of game master - would be able to "run" the campaign from the opposite side. It was a very fun idea which was implemented with some success, but it seems that Troika wanted to focus on single player for this game. I'm glad they did, because I feel that the best parts of Bloodlines wouldn't have worked well in multiplayer.
Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines comes with more than its fair share of flaws, issues, and even showstopper bugs that might possibly be found, but it's still an excellent game. This is one of those few titles that desperately needs a patch, and since Troika as of this writing has committed to making one, I'll let the game's many bugs slide for the purposes of this review. Yes, Troika has delivered an action-RPG that's on par with System Shock or Deus Ex while delving into a unique and compelling setting.