Summary: White Wolf's Vampire: The Masquerade setting hasn't had the kindest treatment in digital gaming, but renowned "diamond in the rough" RPG developers Troika Games have given it a shot. Do they pull it off? Read Jakub's review to find out.
Bloodlines is a Source-engine based first-person RPG, though it's quite unlike what you might expect. Bloodlines has more in common with Deus Ex and its sequel than with Morrowind or Gothic. In fact, the parallels to Deus Ex (more specifically Invisible War) extend across the board.
As with all roleplaying games, Bloodlines starts the player at the bottom of the totem pole - in this case, as a fledgling vampire. What's different is that unlike most titles which start slow and quicken the pace later, Vampire immediately throws the player into the thick of the plot. There's a clear sense of having come in the middle of great events that were set in motion, but of course the player still has time to sway the outcome.
Considering that many of the developers worked on Fallout, it should come as a surprise to learn that Bloodlines is actually rather linear. Areas of Los Angeles open up in a precise order, as they're needed. Many of these stay open and often quests take you back, but it's impossible to get ahead of the game, as you might with the Fallout titles.
Despite the variety of side-quests, the main plot is also fairly rigid. There are conversation trees that can be taken in different and, on occasion, mutually exclusive paths, but with only two possible conclusions - and even then the distinction between the two is rather slim - it's not as if the player is any sort of decisive factor in the story. And yet, this is hinted at all along in various conversations - that you are merely being driven by an outside force to do a specific job, an unwitting cog in a machine.
Vampire: Bloodlines also has an excellent tutorial and a very comprehensive manual, both features which are often sorely lacking these days. Even better, the tutorial is integrated into the story and yet completely optional. The player can choose to do the whole thing (which we'd recommend even for veteran players), a quick overview, or to skip it completely.
In fact, it even shows glimpses of the same kind of sense of humor. These are generally few and far between, but their discreet use adds a warm flavor to the game. At one point, the player's character finds himself in a conversation where a demand conflicting with his quest is being placed upon him. One of the dialogue options that opens up is along the lines of "Nobody tells me what to do. No... wait, a lot of people do, but here's my chance for payback." It's the kind of meta-humor that pokes fun at the game mechanics which, oddly enough, makes them more tolerable. In fact, the developers went to a fair bit of effort to make the linearity make sense. All factions involved want the player to, well, play along. Should the player seek to shirk his duty, his Ventrue prince will use the Dominate discipline to get him back in line.
The dialogue adapts itself at times to the player's clan. Often, this is merely a cosmetic difference, like the addition of a line or two ("Oh man, you're a Malkavian? You're really f*cked hahaha!"), but at certain segments it can make a real gameplay difference. A Tremere can get access to a different hidey-hole, Malkavians and Ventrue will have the ability to use Dementation and Domination in certain conversations, and so on.
The early parts of the game also show off some great scripted sequences. Though this is hardly the first review to harp about it, the haunted mansion (a mandatory quest) is remarkably tense for a scenario where it's almost impossible to die. Never, not even during the sewers or the endgame, did my quicksave see so much use. I'll miss that F9 key.
Later on though, even as the plot tightens up and things begin to come together, the gameplay unravels. The trick scripted sequences and interesting level layouts are abandoned in favor of some really mindless, and at times frustrating, combat. Despite the usefulness of high hacking and lockpicking skills, or of high social abilities, dare not neglect your combat stats. A Brujah character is really the easiest way to finish the game, despite the extra frustrations of some puzzles.
Although nothing that follows is quite as bad as the sewer run, there increasingly more levels in that vein as the game progresses. This is in rather stark contrast to the nice mix of social interaction and combat that pervades the early parts of the game.
Obviously the game design issues are the most serious problem with Bloodlines, though they're not the only thing wrong with it. In fact, while it's possible to forgive the game design drawbacks (if not tolerate them), we can't forgive the bugs. We've heard numerous times that Vampire has been done for a while and it was only waiting for Half-Life 2's release due to contractual obligations. Although no software is bug-free, a game that's been "finished" for 6 months should run a lot better than it does.
For starters, Vampire's performance is awful compared to Half-Life 2, a game it shares an engine with. My Pentium 4 3.0C with 1GB of RAM and a GeForce 6800 Ultra Extreme would have more than the occasional hiccup at 1024x768 and no AA/AF, while Half-Life 2, a game with higher-resolution textures and more visual fidelity, runs almost flawlessly at 1280x1024 with 4X anti-aliasing and 8X anisotropic filtering. A lot of this is likely due to memory issues - both in terms of the extra roleplaying info the game has to carry, and a persistent memory leak that degrades performance as gameplay goes on - but it's not excusable considering the review system runs a gig of RAM.
For all this poor performance, Vampire doesn't really look that good. Animations are... wacky. We wonder if they were even motion captured, rather than animated by hand. The way male characters run and walk is rather disturbingly feminine. Facial movements, a highlight of Half-Life 2, are odd in Vampire as well. In Half-Life 2, the entire face would move. In Bloodlines, only the mouth and eyes are animated, it gives a rather stiff look to the face, though generally far superior to almost any other game.
Troika also was obviously unable to replicate the movement physics from Half-Life 2. Your character has this nasty tendency to slide forward after being stopped, making the obnoxiously loud footstep sounds the whole time. Also, physical interaction with the world is on a far lesser scale than HL2, and buggy when it exists. Just try picking up a piece of plywood or other flat material, laying it on the floor and then walking across it to see what we mean.
In general, Vampire: Bloodlines is a lot like Deus Ex: Invisible War. You unlock various levels and are able to access some of them later on, you start in the middle of a story with competing factions involved, there are multiple solutions to most puzzles, side-quests galore, plenty of NPCs to talk to on multiple occasions ... and performance is disappointing with both games.
They both have interesting settings, but Vampire does have the better, tighter story, along with more humor. Unfortunately, Vampire comes to rely on combat a lot more than Invisible War, and gives the player much less freedom of action as the game progresses.
Poor design choices
Where the developers chose to, they pulled off a great first-person RPG complete with sneaking, combat, dialogue, an interesting story and of course role-playing elements. Vampire: Bloodlines also features some creative levels like the haunted mansion and the abandoned hospital. On the other hand, its combat is not that strong and yet for some reason someone at Troika or Activision saw fit to include multiple prolonged sequences of it. Furthermore, the balance of the game is really thrown off by those fights - it swings it in favor of a Brujah or Gangrel than Ventrue or Malkavian. There are also times where some side-quests seem impossible without the proper stats, and a few of the main quests make me wonder if the "wrong" kind of character could ever get past it - and I mean the puzzles, not the combat.
At least though, there's Jack. Gotta love him.
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