In the World of Darkness some one is always watching…

2004 is remembered by the PC community as the year that Valve’s Half-Life 2 and Id Software’s Doom 3 battled it out at retailers and review publications.  Those who went to purchase Half-Life 2 on its release day might have noticed a vampire themed game sitting on the new releases shelf besides the legendary Half-Life 2 – unfortunately most did not. This poor error in marketing along with severely underfunding developer Troika games in the last few weeks before release resulted in – what is perhaps one of the best PC role playing games of the decade – being released prematurely and without proper marketing.  Fortunately Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines has since overcome some of these issues, and lives up to its promise of a tour-de-force experience of one night in the (un)-life of a vampire.  The game is certainly worth a look even to those who were disappointed by its issues at release.  Thanks to a few community patches, it now stands as being one of the definitive, although not perfect, role playing games on the PC.

Tooth, Claw, and a .45

Story and interaction is undeniably what  defines an RPG; Vampire: Bloodlines is based off of the popular White Wolf pen and paper role playing game Vampire the Masquerade.  Set in the World of Darkness, a Gothic modern day America, the back story focuses on the interaction between vampires and the humans they prey on; particularly in major metropolitan cities.

Different sects, or clans, of vampires struggle for power and dominance while simultaneously protecting the secrecy of their race: hence the games subtitle, the Masquerade.  As a vampire you must protect this secrecy through both stealth and subterfuge, evading human law enforcement, witch hunters, and vampires belonging to other clans.  The society – or political party if you will – that enforces this masquerade is dubbed the ‘Camarilla’. Other factions have different ideas about how vampire society should run.  None of them are whole-heatedly black and white.

Unfortunately there's no physical customization of your character.

The backdrop translates very well to the game; the differing clans all offer different unique play styles and NPC interaction.  Clans such as the charismatic Ventrue make up the upper echelons of the camarilla while Nosferatu – based off of the famous silent film of the same name – are hideously deformed vampires whose mere presence in public sets off panicking civilians and trigger happy law enforcement.  Between these two opposite castes in vampire society exist the animalistic Brujah, the magically inclined Tremere, the seductive Toreador, and perhaps the most interesting to play – the utterly insane Malkavians.

The main story begins with you, a newly embraced (bitten) vampire falling into servitude to the head honcho of the the Camarilla.  As with many other RPGs you begin the game running small tasks for the powers that be. Rival factions opposed to the Camarilla reveal themselves to the player who is given choices about who to cooperate with and when to.  As the story progresses it is discovered that an ancient vampire sarcophagus is found and the player is tasked with retrieving it. What posses a conundrum to the player is what to do with the sarcophagus and how to deal with the various factions all seemingly trying to use you as a pawn to further their own agendas. The answer is not always so clear.

Dialogue with the various NPC’s is done in a first person perspective where various choices are presented; normal responses allow for colorful responses and special choices for seduction, intimidation, and manipulation allow the player to dwell deeper into a conversation to achieve some goal or gain some insight- the dialogue choices available are determined by the player’s skill in different areas.

The interaction between the player and NPCs is rewarding and well written.  Plenty of plot choices and twists allow the game to be replayed to achieve one of the several different endings.  The strength of the main story is that it’s largely linear thus remains focused and rewarding to follow.  Unfortunately side-quests aren’t as fleshed out as the main quest resulting in comparatively less game-play than newer open ended RPGs like Oblivion and Fallout 3 but should still last well over 30 hours.

Not your Typical RPG

Similarly to Bethesda’s Elder’s Scrolls series, Vampire: Bloodlines uses both a first person and third person viewpoints completely in real time.  Being set in a modern city allows for easy access to fire arms which are utilized exclusively in the first person mode.  This is certainly no first person shooter and players can’t simply pop off head shots from the get go.  Close combat is viewed in the third person allowing the player to view themselves chopping up and dicing their foes with the several melee weapons available. Being a vampire requires you to feed on humans (and sometimes rats!) every so often to preserve your un-life.  As with melee combat this is viscerally done in the third person. Unfortunately some of these third person animations are somewhat limited in variety and the detection system can be hit or miss depending on the weapon.

Both gun-play and melee combat, along with other non violent skills, are governed by the various stats ranging from one to five that can be increased by the player with xp points received for completing quests.  Accuracy, melee, stealth, computer hacking, lock-picking, along with a multitude of other skills, can be used to customize your play style.

Players aren’t rewarded for individual kills of monsters, but rather the completion of a particular task.  Head on and all out bloodshed is not always the best answer – certain quests can be completed using stealth or dialog skills without the need to kill anyone. This approach to game-play really sets Vampire:Bloodlines apart from many other PC RPGs; It’s a breath of fresh air and in most cases work’s admirably.  The one exception is a sewer segment in the second half of the game that requires the player to trudge through a multitude of monsters to get to the end.  The segment is long, tedious, and is not very fun for a non-combat focused character. The level is perhaps the low point in the game but by no means a game-breaker.

So many choices…

Game-play progresses through four main hubs located in different parts of the fictional Los Angeles area.  Santa Monica Harbor, Downtown, Hollywood, and Chinatown are the main areas for players to explore, each run by a different powerful vampire.  Combat areas both inside and outside of these hubs are the game’s ‘dungeon’ equivalents.  Some combat areas take place in abandoned buildings, others in skyscrapers. A particularly memorable one is a very atmospheric haunted mansion full of creepy noises and scares, another is a history museum patrolled by human security guards.  Some of the combat areas offer alternate means of completion such as stealth while others require you to bring along some firepower.  Nearly all are incredibly fun albeit somewhat linear.

The Source of all Evil

Vampire Bloodlines had more in common with Half-Life 2 than just its release date.  Troika Games licensed Valve’s Source engine to power Vampire:Bloodlines.  Visually striking in art, style and execution, the game was quite gorgeous at its release – although not to the level of Hal-Life 2.  The art style is Gothic yet colorful; neon lights can be found abundantly in Hollywood, rain and fog particles are very atmospheric in Santa Monica, gargoyles overlook the skyscraper – the list of artistic nuances can go on and on.  The trouble comes with the various glitches and performance bugs Troika was not able to address because of underfunding at the time of the game’s release.

NPCs are stiff in their animations both while performing actions and while speaking.  The lip syncing is done well but certainly not on par with Half-Life 2.  The original system requirements called for a 1.2ghz cpu and 256MB ram.  These requirements were completely in line with valve’s own Source Engine offering, yet as gamers found out, they were certainly not realistic. In certain situations, the game can struggle even on modern machines with dual and quad core cpus in certain situations, particularly when rendering many of the rain and fog particles found in the Santa Monica hub.  The minimum requirements should really be core 2 duo at 2.0ghz, (or equivalent) 1GB ram, and Geforce 6800/ Radeon x1600 or higher.

Dying to Hear

The game’s audio department received more polish than the visuals and it really shows.  All of the NPCs are fully voiced by good voice actors.  One of the stand outs would certainly have to be John DiMaggio, the voice actor for Bender in the cartoon series Futurama and the voice of Marcus Fenix in the Gears of War series.

The game has great original music and a great licensed soundtrack with bands such as Ministry and Lacuna Coil.  The music is always appropriate to context of the situation.  For instance, Lacuna Coil playing in a night club.  Radio and TV broadcast voice over’s are additional little details that go a long way to help the player’s suspension of disbelief and take cues in the humor from the Grand Theft Auto series. The mock advertisements and news reports always are entertaining to listen to, especially since they often describe and event or quest you just completed.

When the game was released in 2004 many discovered that despite the excellent game-play, glitches and bugs really hampered the experience.  Troika Games released a patch to address a few of these issues before going out of business yet still left many others in place.  Had the game remained so it would have still been a solid, albeit largely flawed, role playing game.  Thanks to the community of fans, the game has received a steady stream of patches to correct most, if not all of these bugs in an effort to allow gamers to play the game as was intended by Troika.  As of March 2011 the game is nearly bug free and is able to be played as originally intended – provided you install the latest community patch.

It’s a linear yet focused adventure that contains enough varied game-play elements which allow it to be enjoyed by both fans of traditional PC role playing games and those of FPS and action adventure games.  Just remember to patch it with the latest community update before playing.

The dialogue is particularly witty and satisfying.

Final rating: 9.3/10 – The caveat being that the game is played with the community patch, otherwise the score is somewhat lower.