The release of Half-Life 2 meant two things for gamers. The first is that one of the most anticipated games of the year was finally out and the second was that the developers at Troika would finally be able to release their Source based game Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines. If you believe what you read on the internet, the game has actually been done for quite some time but they were unable to release the game until Half-Life 2 was released. It was also nice to finally get my hands on the game that John and I had seen at the last two E3’s.
Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines is the latest installment in the Vampire series but it represents my first foray into the franchise. Originally based on a pen and paper role playing game, it has a huge back story for gamers to dive into. As you might have guessed from the title, you play a vampire in the game. Rather than the cheesy Count Dracula type vampires or the pop-culture spewing Buffy type vampires, the game goes with more of the Embrace of the Vampire/Ann Rice vampires. In this version, the vampires live as a secret society hidden away from humans. In order to keep their presence hidden (to avoid being hunted to extinction if ever found out), the vampires have a code (The Masquerade) which all vampires are supposed to follow. The Masquerade stipulates that a vampire can’t feed on people in a public place, use their vampiric powers in front of the kine (the vampire term for humans), or discuss any of the details of the lifestyle with anyone who doesn’t enjoy the occasional glass of O positive.
The politics of the vampire world are a little complication. There are seven different clans of vampires. Each clan represents a different bloodline and set of disciplines (vampire powers). You have your fancy pants Toreador, the mysterious Tremere who are shunned due to their mysterious blood magics, the horrific Nosferatu whose mere appearance is a masquerade violation, as well as four other clans to keep you busy.
Along with the clans, there are several sects of vampires that you will run across. The largest is the Camarilla who created the Masquerade and enforce its rules. The Anarchs, who are a little more free-thinking about their role in the world and reject the Camarilla and everything they represent, and the Sabbat who feel the vampire race should take over the world. There are some other sects but these three represent the biggest ones in the game and I wouldn’t want to ruin the fun of discovering some of the cooler parts of the game.
Once you’ve installed all three gigabytes of the game onto your hard drive, you have to pick the clan and gender of your vampire. You can either straight out pick what you want or you can have the game ask you a few questions about how you want to play the game and the game will make a recommendation for you (Old school Ultima style). It’s a fairly important decision as it determines the set of powers you have and how the other characters in the game will react to you. Once you’ve picked which clan to use, you have to setup the initial characteristics of your vampire. They are broken into three main categories of attributes (strength, charisma, appearance, dexterity, etc), abilities (melee combat, ranged combat, lock picking, stealth, finance…), and disciplines (your vampire powers). Your character also has feats which are derived from the attributes and abilities. For example, your dexterity will increase your defense and lock picking skills. The game does a good job of showing you how the skills impact the feats.
Once you’ve have your vampire setup, you go through a long cut-scene to kick off the game. You start out as a freshly made vampire who’s sire is immediately executed because you were made without the permission of the Camarilla. Thus begins your adventure in the game as you try to figure out the cause behind some of the disturbances in the vampire world. The game does take you through a small tutorial to get you acquainted with the controls, your vampire powers, and the rules of the vampire universe. Once you’ve completed the tutorial, you’re off to Santa Monica to begin your quest.
The folks at Troika did a great job of creating interesting quests and missions for you to pursue in the game. Sure you have a lot of your standard hunt and fetch missions but there are a lot of good missions in the game. The game gives you a chance to destroy an art museum to upset a rival, rid a haunted mansion its ghosts, and help maintain the masquerade by taking out some louse lipped associates. The missions are varied enough to keep you interested in the game and advance the plot of the game. Outside the main core missions, there are plenty of solid side quests that flesh out the story a little further. Troika did a great job of leveraging their source material into an engaging game.
Gamers will want to go through all of the side quests as experience points are not plentiful. Rather than “leveling” up as you do in most RPG’s, you gain experience points which you then spend on increasing your attributes and abilities. As you increase a characteristic, the number of experience points required to advance that characteristic to the next level goes up. This forces you to make interesting decisions like “Do I want to get that stealth skill so I can sneak around or do I want to save it up for a strength point so I can deal more damage in combat”. It’s a nice system and it really forces you to think about how you want to play the game as creating a generic multi-skilled vampire is going to make your life a little more difficult.
There are usually multiple ways to solve any of the missions in the game based on how you’ve set your vampire up and how you want to attack the game. Your alternatives are usually combat based, sneak based, or domination based. There are some missions that can only be resolved by combat and there is a nice mix of weapons. You have a combination of melee weapons and ranged weapons. The most amusing weapon is the amputated arm you pick up early on in the game. It’s a surprisingly effective weapon and kind of entertaining to wield in battle.
You can’t just go around killing and feeding, though, as that kind of thing violates the Masquerade. You are permitted five violations before the Camarilla step in and terminate you. Some missions will allow you to get Masquerade redemptions in case you get careless or just decide to have a little fun. You also have to maintain your humanity. Why? Because if you lose all of your humanity points, you become a feral, uncivilized beast (kind of like Charlie). You can earn humanity points back or you can purchase them with experience points.
The vampire powers are also nice and provide a good addition to your combat arsenal. There are basic blood buff which increases all of your abilities as well as other fun things that allow you to dominate the wills of others or even drive them insane. Again, the game does a good job of providing you different ways to solve the multiple problems within the game.
Since the game is running the Source engine, you’d expect it to look good and for the most part the game doesn’t disappoint. Some of the character models don’t look quite as good as their counterparts in Half-Life 2
but they are still outstanding. You know they are good when you say to yourself “That’s the best looking chest hair I’ve ever seen in a game”. The cool eye rendering technology is used well and taken to a cool level later on in the game. I don’t think the quality of the face mapping and syncing is as good as Half-Life 2
but it’s still solid. The only problem I really had is that there aren’t a lot of unique models in the game so you see quite a few duplicate characters which include doppelgangers of your own character.
Troika did an excellent job of rendering the city environments. The buildings are really well designed and add a lot of ambiance to the game. In one section of the game, you can look out onto the city and actually see traffic moving back and forth in the game. It’s these kinds of details that add to the feel of the game.
Good visuals aren’t much without good sound to go along with them and for the most part Bloodlines
delivers the goods. Sounds are fairly well done and things sound like you would expect them. There are a couple of nice touches though. Get near a pack of yuppies in front of one of the clubs and you’re likely to hear a cell phone go off (although it’s a Masquerade violation to feed on the idiots who should have their phones on vibrate).
Troika did a great job with the in-game music. Like Half-Life 2
, there isn’t a lot of music during the game but it’s well used when it’s in the game. As a bonus, the MP3’s are included in the directory structure so if you like the music as much as I did you can listen to the music outside the game.
The good looks come at a price though. The game is a resource hog, more so than Half-Life 2
. If you have problems with Half-Life 2
, then you’re going to have even bigger problems with Bloodlines
. It’s a huge resource hog and you’re going see a bit of choppiness unless you have a high end system and one of the latest cards from ATI or Nvidia. For the most part, you’ll be OK but there are certain combat situations and crowded situations where the game entered slide show mode.
To put it bluntly, the game is also riddled with bugs. This is particularly disturbing given how long that game was rumored to be completed before it was released. I ran into lots of weird animation bugs, weird inconsistencies with the auto save system, and some quirks with some of the character interaction. A casual glance at some of the message boards indicates lots of people were running into problems that prevented them from completing certain quests. Load times are a bit on the long side as well. You’ll want to keep a book nearby so you have something to read or do while the different levels load.
At the end of the day, it’s a solid but flawed game. All of the bugs and hefty system resources hold the game back. Activision recently released a patch that fixed some but not all of the bugs. There’s still a lot of fun built into the game and with seven different races to play there’s a great deal of replay built into the game. I just wish that a little more time had been spent ironing out all of the bugs in the game.