Vampire: the Masquerade: Bloodlines – Staff Review

One part tabletop RPG, one part multiple strains of vampire fiction, and three parts of that special Troika blend of high-ambition but low-stability programming; that’s Vampire: the Masquerade: Bloodlines in a nutshell.  A serviceable first-person RPG, Bloodlines is also a newbie’s field guide to the World of Darkness and its modern-day undead secret societies.  How well the game works depends largely on how well you can tolerate subpar coding and questionable design choices, yet buried under the usual PC RPG mess is a versatile story and a cast of memorable, well-acted characters.

The story places you as a freshly-turned vampire circa late 2004, blissfully unaware that vampires exist until a hot date turns out to be one.  One unlicensed neck-bite later, you and your creator are on trial for breaking the Masquerade; vampire laws meant to hide the supernatural from humanity.  Your sire is executed, presumably for not filing papers in triplicate before turning you, but an argument in the crowd allows you to be spared.  Still grappling with the basics, you’re dumped out onto the Los Angeles streets and put to work for the Camarilla, the organization that enforces these laws.  As a chaotic but helpful vampire teaches you to cope with your new existence, two things are made abundantly clear: various groups of bloodsuckers are trying to control you, and they do not get along.

Speaking of coping, Bloodlines plays as an odd hybrid of first-and-third-person action with RPG-style mechanics and character building, leaning heavily to the role-playing side most of the time.  Controls for shooting and brawling are as expected – standard WASD+mouselook controls apply – and it’s always fun to smack someone around with a sledgehammer.  However, gunplay is awkward, making precision attacks in combat a chore.  Enemies display only basic intelligence and have no sense of self-preservation; a thug with a tire iron will attack almost identically to a feral vampire.  Stealth is also quite broken, only occasionally factoring in the light level and how much noise you’re making.  In one scripted encounter, a concealed attacker actually hit me with a sword yet did not engage me.

A vampire in a suit running around with an axe is one thing, but LA with no traffic?  Come on, that's just crazy.
A vampire in a suit running around with an axe is one thing, but LA with no traffic? Come on, that’s just crazy.

Getting around and dealing with people is more interesting, as your nocturnal adventure takes you throughout LA.  Apart from your main objectives, you’ll rack up the usual assortment of sidequests.  Some offer simple cash or item rewards, while others open up choices or net you a reputation down the line.  Your social stats and abilities govern conversation options, and you’re able to charm, intimidate, or seduce your way past a surprising number of obstacles.  Quests often have different outcomes depending on who you tell to go jump in a lake, and how fast and loose you play with the Masquerade.  In spite of how it appears at first glance, Bloodlines has the soul of a classic Fallout-style RPG; fitting, as many Troika people worked on the Fallout series.

Visually, the game makes an odd first impression, with a jarring mix of good and bad.  Characters look great up close, showing a ton of nuance in facial expression and idle animation.  Despite a few repetitive sections, most mission areas are well designed and atmospheric, with a respectable gothic touch to modern-day urban locales.  That said, models lack the detail given to faces, and overall animation ranges from tolerable to laughably bad.  Long hair and loose articles of clothing randomly glitch and jump around.  Every human and most vampires have the exact same set of animations for movement and combat, and it’s not uncommon to see street thugs and random pedestrians suddenly start kung-fu fighting.  Worse, the game is a notorious resource hog, and the game can occasionally slideshow if you fall below recommended specs.

Fortunately, audio comes through a lot stronger, with the exception of random mooks all sounding alike and poor cutscene timing.  Every character in the game is well acted, and plenty of familiar voices throw their weight behind the game’s excellent script.  John DiMaggio stands out as Jack, your tutorial pal and a likeably anarchic recurring figure, and Andy Milder nails the aristocratic vampire LaCroix, but the rest of the cast all deliver fantastic performances.  Sound effects fit the bill for the most part, and it’s never less than satisfying to stealth-kill a target with melee weapons.  As for the music, it’s a well-paced mix of moody ambient and combat pieces, with a handful of licensed rock, techno, and industrial tracks for clubs and other locations.

Character building is integral to the game, and from the choice of seven vampire clans it’s clear you can build yourself to fit a variety of playstyles.  Stats and skills are upgraded by points earned through quest completion, and they run the usual stealth-speech-combat gamut: melee, firearms, sneaking, lockpicking, various flavors of persuasion, and so on.  Clans have upgradeable powers, some of which have dialogue applications; Ventrue, for instance, can sometimes use mind control in conversation.  Some skills are slanted in terms of usefulness – early-game firearms aren’t effective against supernaturals – but the breadth of options invites favorable comparisons to other FPS/RPG hybrids.

Pictured here: the undead in their native environment, being stalked by the shotgun, their natural predator.
Pictured here: the undead in their native environment, being stalked by the shotgun, their natural predator.

Building a character is just the beginning; you also have to keep yourself fed while maintaining your humanity.  Feeding on humans boosts your regeneration and restores your blood, which fuels vampiric disciplines. Running on empty makes you more likely to frenzy if injured, causing you to lose control and mindlessly strike at the nearest target.  However, killing an innocent, even by accident, costs a piece of your humanity.  Behave too much like a monster, and you’ll go berserk at the first sign of trouble.  What’s remarkable is the degree to which others react to your personality.  Many NPCs will comment on both what you do and who you are.  This is especially true with the terminally insane Malkavian clan, where you will intuitively know things but speak to others in riddles that often only make sense in hindsight.  As you might imagine, this affects the entire game in ways only people who’ve played a complete idiot in Fallout or Arcanum can understand.

The Masquerade complicates things, as doing obvious vampire stuff in public draws unneeded attention from police, vampire hunters, and your increasingly hostile kindred.  Five strikes and you’re beheaded as an example to the others.  That said, keeping human and hiding your true nature aren’t hard to do.  Humanity boosts and Masquerade redemptions are often tied to quests, and you rarely need to unleash a murder of crows or run at mach five out in the open.  Anyone in designated combat areas is fair game, and there’s a bit of a loophole in that you can freely kill an innocent that wanders into one.  This is most glaring in an otherwise cool Chinatown nightclub shootout, where you’re free to respond with the full range of your abilities in public view.  It sticks out even more when it’s mentioned on the news at no penalty to you.

Mission progression is linear, handled via taxi service through four city hubs.  Your options in the endgame depend a great deal on who you made nice with along the way, and plot twists, whether expected or truly clever, are all skillfully executed.  A bizarre and disturbing confrontation with twin sisters turned nightclub owners can end in a couple very different ways; actress Grey DeLisle utterly bullseyes the scene no matter how it goes down.  A healthy variety of sidequests keep the hubs interesting: investigating a blood-borne plague outbreak, discreetly pinching a briefcase during a gang meeting, dealing with a feuding pair of retired hitmen, and such.  Some are simple but intriguing one-offs, though quests occasionally intersect with others along the way, such as a search for a bail jumper that parallels a series of obviously supernatural murders.

Similar depth can be found in the story, centering as it does around competing factions of vampire secret societies.  Everyone with fangs is abuzz over an ancient sarcophagus allegedly tied to vampire lore, and you’re flung into increasingly suicidal missions in search of it.  Along the way, you can expect conflicting interests to threaten you, make you an offer, send cryptic but helpful emails, stab you in the back, or any combination of the above.  Much effort was made to stay true to the source material, and while Bloodlines takes periodic liberties – like going from fledgling to powerful veteran in a few nights – overall it serves as a fine primer to the setting.  Jack explains early on that a vampire has to keep up with modern society, aptly illustrated when a menacing boss lunges at you and runs smack into the waiting vwoosh of a flamethrower.

Let's see those Twilight punks glitter their way past this guy.
Let’s see those Twilight punks glitter their way past this guy.

Aiding the story is a strong cast of characters, many with detailed histories and all with distinctive personalities.  For example, Nines Rodriguez, who grew up during the Great Depression, rejects the authority of the Camarilla and has open contempt for politicians and other elites.  Ming Xiao, a leader of a sect of Asian vampires, speaks politely but is condescending towards local Kindred, while LaCroix drops his cultured poise and trembles in fury the second something doesn’t go his way.   The script smoothly shifts gears depending on the subject matter and handles fairly dark, mature topics with surprising ease.  As powerful as you get, the world excels at reminding you you’re still just one small fish in a very big pond.  Put simply, this is one of the best written games to date.

Would that stability and balance were also among Bloodlines‘ positive traits.  Crash bugs and resource chokepoints won’t be new to PC gamers, and patches do trim the worst of it.  More likely to stick out are game-breaking abilities and forced combat sections, meaning the difficulty will either skyrocket or plummet based on what you pick.  Tremere blood magic, for instance, is cheap to use, fills your blood, regenerates your health, and does heavy damage to almost anything in the game.  Characters with meager melee skills can be stomped hard, particularly in an overlong sewer section filled with fast-moving enemies that deal aggravated (slow-healing) damage.  You can’t talk your way out of every fight, so if you’re not ready for trouble early, on you can easily get rolled by thugs with tire irons, to say nothing of a shotgun-toting boss vampire with super speed.

It’s a shame, really.  The game is just bursting with character, and it’s clear the team had a lot of fun putting it together.  Subtle jokes and shout-outs are all over the place, from snarky political jabs and over-the-top radio commercials to sly references to Troika themselves.  Your own conversation options are quite broad, from goody-two-shoes to complete monster to someone that refuses to take this vampire thing seriously: “Nobody tells me what to do!  Well, actually everybody does, but here’s where I get even!”  But the gameplay and technical issues are going to be dealbreakers for people, and even fan patches can’t completely take the sting out of a sudden curbstomping.  Both shooting and melee feel sluggish and unresponsive, and there’s a nonzero chance the game will bring a midrange computer to its knees.

However, if you’re prepared to deal with a subpar engine, Bloodlines has a unique spark to it that can easily hook a player.  The superb writing and acting make the unfolding plot a reward unto itself, and the character building system offers substantial differences between playthroughs.  The FPS/RPG look might scream Deus Ex With Fangs, but the RPG half more closely resembles the Fallout series and other Black Isle classics.  Despite the grim atmosphere, Bloodlines is never less than entertaining, and it’s a brilliant example of how to introduce newcomers to an established world.  If you haven’t yet been soured on vampires in fiction, then by all means stick your neck out and see how the other half lives.

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