Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Gamegaddon: Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines

Breakfastman's Gamegaddon: Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines

Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines is an action-RPG published by Activision and released in 2004. The game was developed by Troika Games, one of 2 studios (the other being Obsidian) that was formed by former Black Isle employees (more specifically, the people responsible for the first 2 Fallout games) during and after the company's tragic downfall. Troika only developed 3 games before it closed in 2005 due to lack of funding, the other two being Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, which remains both there best selling and highest rated game to date, and Temple of Elemental Evil, a game based on the famous D&D campaign, both of which are considered cult classics by the PC gaming crowd. Vampire is the last game the studio developed, and like Temple, it was based on a pen and paper RPG from White Wolf Inc. It also has a bit of a troubled history surrounding it's development. The entire writing team was replaced halfway through development, a second team was brought in to just get it content complete... From what I understand, it was a complete mess. It didn't help matters that the game had to compete with Half Life 2 when it was released, which is the most likely cause of the games abysmal sale numbers (72,000 in the first few weeks of release). So, was Vampire the companies swan song or death rattle? Let's find out. This is Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines.

These guys should have known that messing with a vampire will just get you... burned! *Puts on sunglasses* YEAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!

Vampire starts out with your character waking up after having sex with a mysterious stranger (well, I assume it was a stranger. Your relationship with them is never quite explained), only to find out OMG I AM A VAMPIRE!!1! You and the other vampire then get staked through the heart by people who suddenly burst into the room, almost immediately after you wake up. The scene then changes to a theater with a scattering of people in the audience. You and the vampire who turned you are brought out. The apparent leader of the vampires, a man named LaCroix, has the other vampire executed for turning you without first coming to him (because that is how they do it among vampires, apparently). He looks like he is going to kill you before a man named Isaac cries out in protest. LaCroix then appears to change his mind, and lets you live, but with the understanding that you will do a little job for him in return. He then sends you out to Santa Monica to meet a man named Mercurio, who you are supposed to do a job for. When you meet up with Mercurio, you are informed that you are supposed blow up a factory full of Sabbat (basically, the vampire equivalent of Al-Qaeda). After jumping through some hoops than involve getting the explosives back, going to a haunted house (which is definitely one of the better levels in the game), and stopping a feud between two powerful vampires, you finally blow the heck out of warehouse and get to visit LaCroix. There he informs you that everyone aboard a ship transporting a potentially very dangerous vampire artifact called the Ankaran Sarcophagus has been killed, and you have to investigate. I would rather not give away more of the plot than that, considering the many twists and turns it takes. Let me just say that the sarcophagus could end the world and you (yes, you) have to stop that from happening, whilst engaging in a bit of political intrigue and fighting a variety of vampires.

Unfortunately, hooking is not a very profitable job for a vampire. People tend to look down on those who want to drink their blood, especially during sex.

Let me just get the elephant out of the room now: yes, Vampire is an obscenely buggy game. Technically, nearly everything is a horrible mess. Even with the fully updated version from Steam, I still had to download a patch that rewrote or changed a 6th of the games data in order to get it to even play on my computer (note to people running the game with a 64-bit OS or over 4 gigs of ram: You will need to do this in order to play the game. You can't run it otherwise) and even then, the game is still probably the buggiest gane I have ever played (and I have played vanilla KOTOR 2, vanilla Oblivion, vanilla Fallout 3, vanilla Morrowind and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Seriously, those games have nothing on this). The camera goes insane when your character uses stairs in 3rd person, the camera phases through the environment all the dang time, the environmental collision feels unfinished and poorly done, the dialogues skips sometimes for some unknown reason, there places where you can literally see through the unfinished environment, there are multiple spelling errors throughout the game (ex: an abandoned hotel is called Hallowbrook in your questlog. It is called Hollowbrook on the sign outside), quests not unlocking even if the requirements are met, the AI is terrible and routinely gets stuck on the environment and in doors... I could just go and on. It isn't even like these are hard to find bugs. These are things that should have been caught in QA almost immediately, if the company actually did any (which I highly doubt they did). I found a major one where I could see through the environment within the first hour of just playing the game (hint: behind on the side of the diner that faces the pawnbroker, there are some dumpsters. Jump on these dumpsters. Now jump again and look at the roof of the diner). That type of stuff should never, ever happen. It takes you out of the game and breaks immersion, in addition to just being dang annoying. It really harms the game, and probably remains one of the games biggest weaknesses.

                                                  OH GOD, I CAN SEE INTO FOREVER!!!

Unfortunately, the games problems do not end with the massive amounts of bugs and technical flubs. The game's combat is clunky and oftentimes annoying. Ranged weapons are nearly useless in the beginning, with all except the shotgun doing pitiful amounts of damage, all are useless at long range or when moving since the targeting reticule expands to massive sizes when you move. Things get better later in the game when you get some of the more powerful and accurate guns, like the magnum, but nearly all of the fully automatic weapons remain nearly useless at long range due to the absurd kickback each has. Things are better on the melee side of things. These weapons are generally more powerful and easier to use, especially in the beginning, they still have there share of problems. There is no way to lock on to the enemies while fighting, there is no dodge-roll/evade function (at least from what I played) beyond jumping, melee combat never gets more interesting than "mass LMB until all enemies are dead"... It just doesn't work like it should. It doesn't help that there are multiple very poorly designed levels that stretch out sections of combat way too long, have little available ammo, and the delightful addition enemies that appear to constantly respawn from nowhere. It also doesn't help that some powers are incredibly unbalanced. I could go through almost the entire endgame only using 2 powers (a stun power and an instant kill power) without breaking a sweat until the boss battle. This doesn't mean that combat can't be fun and when everything clicks it does work, effortlessly switching between melee, ranged, and powers to wipe out dozens of enemies at once. It is just that it doesn't click that often, and feels like an annoyance often than not.

                             The police's new vagrancy policy was seen by many to be a bit too harsh.

That doesn't mean that the game is all bad. The game's story is very complicated, well told. There are many twists and turns, and has some pretty creative and fun missions (how does tracking down a mysterious snuff film sound? How about sneaking into mansion disguised as one of the party goers? Fighting your way through a mansion of lunatics, before barely escaping it burning to the ground?). It also has some really great characterization. There are many great characters you can meet throughout the game, from a stripper vampire who refuses to talk about her past, to a mysterious vampire/werewolf historian. All have great voice actors who make the characters sound believable, and all are great fun to talk too. While you don't really get to know anyone very intimately (this ain't Persona 4 here) all behave realistically and are surprisingly deep. They actually feel like real people and have little things that flesh out their character. It might be a hint to something in the character's past here, a reference to a character there, or an unexpected and surprising flash of emotion while talking about a particular subject, but all seem interesting and contribute not only to the story, but to your sense of immersion. Great characterization is key to great immersion, and this game nails it on both accounts.

In an effort to cash in on the vampire craze, Rockstar's next GTA game was given the sub-title "Vampire city" and involved vampire street gangs and illegal blood underground trading. It was the best thing that happened to the series since 3.

The game is also very unique in almost every regard. It uses a unique level system that treats experience more as currency than a means to achieve a preset level. It works, and works really well. You don't get to select a class when creating a character, just a race. Each of these races (called "clans") play pretty differently, and while some just seem to be stand ins for your typical RPG classes( like the Tremere or the Brujah) some are very unique and drastically change you view events or play the game (like the Malkavians or the Nosferatu). Another item worth mentioning is that the game takes more than a few pages from Deus Ex's book, in a good way. You can approach nearly every situation differently. You can sneak your way past enemies, trick them with your powers, fight them, or persuade your way out. It really helps add to the replayability and immersion factor of the game. Of course, this system is not without it's faults (just so long as you concentrate on skills that will improve your hacking and lockpicking, you can sneak past any situation with only minimal sneaking skill), but it works, and it works well.

            Unfortunately, the sequel to Cowboys & Aliens, Cowboys & Vampires, didn't do so hot at the box office.

Of final note is the games interesting morality system. You are basically required to forget your old notions of morality when stepping into the game, because they do not really apply. Good and evil are outdated concepts, replaced by the concept of "humanity" and "the Masquerade". You see, vampires don't want to be found out by humans. If they were, it would spell bad news for everyone. So, the Masquerade was created as a way of vampire policing their own, before things get out of hand. Actions that violate the Masquerade are prohibited (a.k.a. anything that reveals vampires to the world). If you violate the Masquerade 5 times the game is over. Humanity is a personal measure of how close you are to acting like either a human or a beast. If you have little humanity, you can loose control of your character and the will go into a frenzy, possibly violating the Masquerade. You will often be asked to perform actions that make you less human (like killing a human who has witnessed a vampire attack), but help the Masquerade. If you go with your human side, you violate the Masquerade and risk vampire getting killed. You often have to decide which you value more: human life or vampire life (?). It results in a number of interesting conundrums, and is one of the few truly ambiguous morality systems in any game I have yet played.

                                                                                  Seems legit.

The rest of the game holds up well. The environments look good for the time when they aren't bugging out and are aesthetically pleasing, the music is pretty good all 'round, the character models look decent and have good lip-synching, the animations are fine, and it all controls pretty well (even though it does feel like an X-Box port at times). The sidequests are all exceptionally well designed, with unique missions and great moments in nearly each and every one. Some of the best moments in the entire game come from the sidequests. These sidequests rank right up there with the companion missions in ME2 or the fortress quests in Baldur's gate 2 as some of my favorite sidequests of all time.

                                                 The only time someone should ever say that they "sucked a bum".


Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines is a very flawed, but very memorable game. It has one of the best stories in a PC RPG, loads of memorable characters, has a great morality and leveling system, and fantastic sidequests. It also has clunky combat, some truly terrible leveling design, and is filled to the rim with bugs after bugs after bugs. If you like unique games with deep stories that defy the norm, and don't mind some clunky combat or piles of bugs, pick this one up right away. Everyone else, I would recomend that you try this game at least once. It really is unlike anything else you have ever played. If you have to go out, at least go out with a bang, which is what Troika did here.

-Breakfastman out.

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