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Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines (PC) artwork

Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines (PC) review

"The Vampire RPG mythology is applied flawlessly here, the politically charged 'vampire subculture' backdrop providing for one of the most fabulously realised videogame narratives we've had the pleasure of experiencing in years. It starts with a murder, as many good stories do, and it leads on a spectacular voyage of mystery, dark secrets, an enormous and seductively gritty underworld and a struggle for supremacy between a group of equally corrupt and equally power-hungry fiends. This is the first, and perhaps most interesting, way in which Bloodlines stands out from the crowd of interactive fiction. On the surface, it's a game about vampires. But it doesn't take long to realise that, really, this is a game about life, about people, and about the ways in which we behave based on our beliefs, our morals, our experiences and our social standings."

Oh, heavens. This is a really good game. Really, really good.

For the most part, anyway. But we'll save that for later because, for what it's worth, Bloodlines does the same thing. The stupid mistakes that stray dangerously close to ruining the magic are largely reserved for the final few hours, meaning there's plenty of gorgeous, intricate, multi-layered and almost always malleable interactive fiction to get utterly absorbed in for the meantime. The Vampire RPG mythology is applied flawlessly here, the politically charged 'vampire subculture' backdrop providing for one of the most fabulously realised videogame narratives we've had the pleasure of experiencing in years. It starts with a murder, as many good stories do, and it leads on a spectacular voyage of mystery, dark secrets, an enormous and seductively gritty underworld and a struggle for supremacy between a group of equally corrupt and equally power-hungry fiends. This is the first, and perhaps most interesting, way in which Bloodlines stands out from the crowd of interactive fiction. On the surface, it's a game about vampires. But it doesn't take long to realise that, really, this is a game about life, about people, and about the ways in which we behave based on our beliefs, our morals, our experiences and our social standings.

Deus Ex: Invisible War, probably Bloodlines' closest peer, experimented with this to plenty of success. But Bloodlines surpasses it by showing us the harsh reality of existing at the very bottom of the social hierarchy. Invisible War showed us oppression, prejudice, corruption and betrayal, but here we're living it, right from the very heart of the underworld, with everyday society turning its nose up at the supposedly filthy and subnormal life we have no choice but to lead. We're straight in at the deep end, and whilst a healthy number of people are offering their help, Bloodlines gets its main point across right from the get-go: who, if anyone, can really be trusted?

The twists and turns come thick and fast, and whilst the hub-based nature of the game means the story seems at times a little unfocused, it always folds neatly back together just as you're starting to wonder what happened to a particular theory or character. And what a fabulously weird set of characters they are, all rendered astonishingly and sometimes eerily well by the Source Engine, and voiced by a full and clearly experienced cast of acting talent. Early on there's the pair of maniac sisters, hell-bent on each other's destruction. Then there's the sassy anarchist girl at a bar in Downtown LA, who hates everyone and everything, but who shows that little ray of a bright side shining through if you rub her up the right way. And that's not mentioning the sinister fellow who seems to be watching your every move, arriving on the scene when you least expect it, never staying for too long but always long enough to imply he may know just a bit more than most about the whole situation. This might all sound a little vague, but to give any more away would be a crime. These are characters that need to be experienced and explored first-hand - whether for better or for worse, you'll build a few virtual relationships you're unlikely to forget in a hurry.

One of the best things about an 'immersive sim' like this is the ability to shape these relationships in the way you see fit, and the ways in which the game responds to your decisions. But even in addition to the dialogue trees and conversation options synonymous with the genre, Bloodlines weaves its RPG elements in sublimely to reward players levelling choices in one particular subtle yet well-defined way. Deciding to master in, for example, charisma allows for additional dialogue options, with the potential of charming the pants off the people you meet. Boost your skill in manipulation or intimidation instead, and find yourself able to twist and bully NPCs into compliance. It's not necessarily a new idea to the role-playing genre, but the way Bloodlines delivers it is streamlined and well integrated beyond any of its competitors.

If only there were more chances to use it. While a sizeable chunk of Los Angeles' virtual inhabitants will happily stop for a chat, a handful early on and a disappointing majority towards the end of the game don't have anything to say at all, instead preferring to wander mundanely from place to place in the otherwise strikingly alive environments. At least Deus Ex's non-essential characters went as far as uttering a greeting or two. There are also occasions where the system is simply not used to its potential. One quest during the first half of the game sees an acquaintance asking you to 'take care of' a gentleman who's been causing her some trouble. Upon paying him a visit, the conversation looks like it could go two ways: as he begs for his life, some of your own dialogue choices sway towards sympathy. But, after exhausting all the options, the end result is always a fight. I tried this three or four times, trying to spare his life on each occasion. It's simply not possible. In a game that, more often than not, so forwardly promotes the playerís freedom of choice, such moments break the illusion a little too starkly.

General experience points for both conversation-manipulation and the more action-based skills are awarded for the completion of tasks, instead of being automatically added to the skill areas you are using the most (although an auto-levelling option is available). It means those wishing to excel in melee combat won't feel the need to brandish a knife at every available opportunity, instead allowing for careful planning and reanalysis of your gaming style each time more points are awarded. In theory each option is equally viable, and for the first half of the game this is largely true. Sneaking your way around a building with just a lock-pick and a knowledge of security systems is a perfect setup for a mission in the second of four hubs that involves stealing a sarcophagus from the local museum; but equally, a sawn-off shotgun and a level seven in firearms does the job just fine. Some of the weapons feel a little weedy, and the fact that, even with perfectly balanced skill levels, a knife does more damage than a 9mm pistol is somewhat suspect Ė but it's forgivable. Lower-skilled fighters will find themselves also utilising their vampiric powers, slowing down time or striking fear into the hearts of enemies, though this costs blood points which have to be replenished through feeding. However, by the time the unfortunate and somewhat monotonous later missions arrived, I was glad I'd tuned my character well to combat. Bloodlines' huge weakness is its final third, a large portion of which involves trudging around endless sewers, navigating Half-Life style obstacles and shooting at the annoying human/vamp/robot hybrids which seem to reside in every single tunnel and crevice beneath the city of Los Angeles. There's a nice treat in the form of the visually breathtaking underground-society segment that follows, but this is still a game that makes you spend an unforgivable three straight hours underground, doing practically nothing but killing things that, frankly, shouldn't have been given anywhere near as much airtime as they have. Granted, the buggers are fast and deadly, shovelling a truckload more tension into an already gloriously spooky game, but once you figure out the routine - one of them around the corner, another jumping out of a hole behind you - the suspense nosedives, and the tedium sets in. Earlier missions that stray away from the main hubs are quick, pacey and directed. The sewers are a remorseless maze: slow, overly long, and far too easy to get lost in. By the time they finished, I had entirely run out of ammunition and, not willing to risk getting too close to the increasingly brutal (though worryingly erratic) enemies, took to simply running away.

It's around this time that the more noticeable of Bloodlines' stupid glitches start to appear. Like getting stuck in a pipe, finally managing to get out, then realising youíve gone the wrong way but you canít get back into the darned thing again. Like the big signage in the sewage system that disappears into the wall if you move more than a few metres away from it. Like the phone you've got to answer in the second half of the game that wouldn't bloody answer for a good ten minutes, even though I was standing in front of it hammering the use key. Chinatown, the final hub of the game, is particularly error-ridden, with ridiculous character animation faults and subtitle typos littering the otherwise expertly crafted district. There's a whole host of these silly flaws, and they really should have been picked up on during play testing, because the generally astounding atmosphere is totally destroyed during these moments. The Source Engine's physics seem to have spectacularly decreased in accuracy since Half-Life 2 as well, meaning that although it's great to be able to pick things up and throw them about the place, they often end up getting in the way after that giant metal barrel flies back across the room at fifty miles an hour, blocking the path you were trying to create. At least it's easy on the eyes and ears: although some of the textures are a little flat, the character models and facial animations are nothing short of spectacular, and ambient sounds drip out of every corner of the game, haunting, confusing and terrifying.

'At least.' What am I saying? All considered, using such a phrase seems so horrifically unfair that I feel genuinely stupid for uttering it. It's depressing how fundamentally broken Bloodlines is, considering the outstanding quality of what it's set out to achieve; but that it remains so spectacularly enjoyable is wonderfully telling.

It's in sitting back and remembering the little moments of genius on offer that you really begin to appreciate just how good this is. Moments like chasing a serial killer through a junkyard as he hurls scraps of metal and even entire stacks of vehicles into your path. Moments like edging your way through the fantastic haunted house level, daring yourself to enter an essential room, despite the blood seeping from beneath the door and the ghoulish whispers emanating from beyond it. Moments like, after a lengthy search, your eventual encounter with the Nosferatu head-honcho Gary, who despite his unassuming name is in fact one of the most unsettling and brilliantly scripted videogame characters since System Shock's Shodan. Bloodlines may not be polished and it may end with a sigh instead of a shout, but for its ambition alone it deserves stream after stream of compliments. Because, above and beyond everything else, this game is important.

Put it this way. If Troika had decided to write a game about society's flaws; about gruesome murders; about sex and drugs and gun crime and political corruption; about evil, tyrannical forces you can openly side with and support; and made it as unnervingly gritty, chillingly in-depth, brutally honest and painfully realistic as Bloodlines, it would never have made it past the initial censors.

They wrote it anyway. And then instead of people they made it about vampires, so you could play it. Don't let the opportunity go to waste.


Lewis's avatar
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (July 18, 2008)

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EmP posted July 19, 2008:

Great. Now I must play this game. Something I have no time for right now.

Thanks a lot!
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Lewis posted July 19, 2008:

It's the sort of game you make time for.

In all honesty I think I enjoyed this more than - dare I say it? - Deus Ex at times. The narrative lacks the depth of Deus Ex and even Invisible War, but it's more intelligent, carefully crafted, and beautifully scripted.

Getting stuck in a wall and then falling out of the game is a ridiculous thing to happen, but listen to Gary the Nosferatu croak "Is this what your fear would sound like... given a voice...?" just the once and you'll forget those flaws even exist.

Oh, I love this. I really hope you can tolerate its horrible brokenness. Download the latest patch, just to be sure.
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bluberry posted July 19, 2008:

hey Lewis, did you try either of the fan patches that are out there? I hear they both do an admirable job of cleaning the game up, though there's tons of nerds the 'net over flinging shit over which one is better and more kvlt.

cool review, I've been meaning to check this game out for a while and now I really want to. maybe once I get broadband and can nab it off Steam.
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Lewis posted July 20, 2008:

I'm patched up, baby, but the review is of what's in the box.

The latest patch does a respectable job of tidying up the dialogue, and some of the bigger, 'game-ending' crashes are gone as well. But the little niggles remain.

It also fails to get rid of the horrible sewer levels, which is a shame. ;)
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wolfqueen001 posted September 01, 2008:

Well, I'd say this is one of your better reviews, though I'll admit I've only read a few. It still reads dryly, like you're writing for school or work or something. You seem to be fond of lengthy paragraphs with technical or formal writing scattered within them. And this tends to make it a bit difficult to read, sometimes. However, it is informative, and that's good. You just need to refine it more so that it's more entertaining and interesting.

But this one has a lot of the elements to make a great review. I like how your glitches paragraph - the first half, anyway, with the examples. That's the kind of change-up in writing style we need to see more often. It's entertaining.

Also, you did describe some things pretty well, and they would've resonated better if not for the way you structure your sentences around them. I think something you described about combat may fit that role... but I can't remember. Even though I just read the review. That's probably a bad thing.

I did like your conclusion. That was interesting. Makes me remember something I heard about that probably happened like a decade ago. Did you know there was some cult group or something who got a bit crazy with the tabletop version of this game and started acting the stuff out even more realistically than normal role-playing is meant to be? I can't remember if there was one person in the group doing it or the whole group themselves, but I think they either attacked people to drink their blood, or voluntarily drank each other's blood, or killed people. I don't remember. It was ages since I heard about it.

Anyway, this does seem like I game worth checking out some times. Seems kind of like Morrowind almost, with how you describe charisma.

Hm... Charisma. That'd fit that one example I was looking for earlier.
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Lewis posted September 01, 2008:

I think I tend to be overly analytical in my writing style sometimes because I'm very interested in videogame theory in a semi-academic sort of way. I try to avoid being checklisty, though, and I do try to avoid just describing the game - hopefully that's something that shines through in most of my work.

If you're expecting Morrowind... well, don't. Seriously: Invisible War with vampires, but more intelligent, and less well-crafted. It sounds like a big cliche but it honestly describes Bloodlines perfectly. The charisma / intimidation / persuasion feats are far more fantastically done than Morrowind. This isn't a matter of clicking a button to change someone's opinion of you. This is about extra conversational options that go as far as altering major plot developments, depending on your skill level in these feats.

Thanks, as usual, for reading.
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zippdementia posted December 17, 2008:

I agree with EMP... I now feel more than ever the need to play this, though without a working PC, I probably won't get the chance.

I also agree with WQ... for a game you're so emphatic about, it sure is a dry review. I generally find in your reviews that you start off with a strong central argument, and very quickly provide your reasons for having that argument. This, while a bit academic, actually works quite well. What I don't like is when you start picking at details. As fun as it can be to get into details in a conversation or forum posts, they have less of a place in reviews than you'd think (I've made the same mistake and been called on it numerous times in the past). A review is about the grander picture, and when you're focused on that, you do an admirable job.

You have a talent for using comparison and description to really get across what a game is about and what it's like to play. For instance, your last comment to WQ. Your reviews are at their best when they use this talent.

Your reviews have a lot of intelligence. They lack charisma, though. Which sounds harsher than I mean it.
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Lewis posted December 17, 2008:

This is a bloody awful review in places. One of those I'd go back and change if it made sense to.

It's also something I'd probably amend to an 8 with a note that it really, really feels like a better game than it is at times.
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EmP posted December 17, 2008:

If you even need edits, drop me the revisions in my HG mail and I'll do them for you.
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Halon posted December 17, 2008:

It's a really good game, loses steam later on and contains bugs galore but probably a solid 8 or so. I thought it would be dumb but actually turned out great. Not quite Deus Ex but the next best thing (or maybe the next best thing to the next best thing, dunno).

I'm hoping to see Deus Ex 3 next year although it'll probably drop 2010 the earliest.
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Lewis posted December 18, 2008:

I'm deeply concerned about Deus Ex 3. The project leader is most famous for the Myst games, for a start.

They seem to be really confused about why people liked Deus Ex. In one sense, they've nailed it: they're talking about the wealth of different approaches, the size of the maps, the involving plot, the amount of people to talk to etc. But then they seem to be ignoring this, claiming to be making it as "more of a straightforward action game than an RPG" - which surely is half the point. Hopefully they mean 'less stats but more things to do', which would be right up my alley, and not 'mindless gunplay', which would not.

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