Sunday, December 22, 2019

First Play Review - Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines [2004]

Note: This review is for the game using the Unofficial Patch v10.4 (31/5/2019)


This year marks the 15th Anniversary of Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, one of the most unique RPG experiences for the PC that is beloved by many and often spoken about when referencing the best RPGs of the '00's but also as one of the best bug-ridden games of all time. It's also the year in which a sequel - Bloodlines 2 was announced much to the surprise and delight of fans of the original. So now that it has received significant fan patch support and was recommended by a trustworthy source I thought it was was time to see what the fuss was about.

My first pen and paper role-playing situation was not with D&D but in fact with White Wolf's Vampire: The Masquerade. It wasn't a particularly long adventure but I learned the basics of role-playing through White Wolf's system and I found the World of Darkness setting itself to be most intriguing, later even sampling Mage: The Ascension. I recall in the late '90's / early 2000's that White Wolf was to bring elements of their world to video games. Having achieved some success in 2000 with Nihilistic Software's Vampire: The Masquerade - Redemption set in the dark ages, White Wolf later licenced V:TM to Troika Games who leveraged Valve's powerful new Source engine to craft an action RPG set in 21st Century Los Angeles.

The combination of melee or automatic weapons with vampiric powers made real by the engine for Half-Life 2 was certainly a winning combination in theory but sadly the execution fell just short of perfection. While it's fair to say Activision gave Troika many extended deadlines, they finally forced it's release in November 2004, creating a game that was "playable" (as deemed so by Activision, not Troika) as opposed to complete. The remaining bugs themselves weren't game breaking but excessive load times, apparently missing content and moronic A.I. were just some of the peeves that prevented the game from greatness. What didn't help the case was that Troika's previous game Dungeons and Dragons: Temple of Elemental Evil was also pushed out the door before completion as well, so people were already weary of another instance of that and Bloodlines' state upon release was enough to dilute enthusiasm. Despite very favourable reviews from the game press, Troika itself didn't survive the poor sales and financial failure and it shuttered in 2005.

In the meantime two enterprising individuals sought to open the game up and make valiant attempts at 'fixing' V:TM-B. Dan Upright first created an unofficial patch but it was taken over by Werner Spahl from version 1.2 and Spahl continues to update the patch to the time of writing. Not only are there substantial graphical improvements but all the content that was cut from the game was restored as well as a significant amount of character 'paths', dialogue trees and added features. A feature of the patch allows for a basic experience that simply fixes bugs but leaves the gameplay otherwise untouched from 2004 or the "Plus" version which includes the restored content and other tweaks that bring the game into a more modern way of playing. Spahl has received praise and creative assistance from former Troika developers and the GOG version of the game actually includes the unofficial patch today.

So how does the game play now? Well I can only tell you that as this was my first time with the game but it was an interesting experience. It's an FPS at heart but clearly an RPG in execution and scope. As a Kindred (vampire) you choose a clan, sort of like choosing an RPG race/class combo and this determines your powers. Based on a series of questions you answer at the start the game chose the Tremere (Blood mages), Brujah (anarchists), Malkavians (the insane), Toreador (the sexy ones), Gangrel (animalistic) or the Nosferatu (monstrous). For me it was Ventrue, Vampire nobility, destined for leadership. Your powers duration and intensity is determined by a blood pool - which can be refilled by feeding from people - but don't get caught by someone else as the whole point of Vampire: The Masquerade is not to reveal the existence of the Kindred to humanity. The rest is standard RPG faire: get quests from NPCs, complete quests, get loot, sell loot for money, get XP points, spend XP points on character sheet to increase power and ability, advance plot and repeat until end credits.

So one would have assumed that using an FPS engine like Source would have made the action element great and the developers would have only to worry about story, animation and RPG elements, but no, combat is bad! I get the idea that the pen and paper system itself is being emulated to some degree and one must spend points into say - firearms to improve accuracy, but I'll be honest, in a video game situation, where you are carrying around about seven of them at a time, it's not fun shooting at someone with a gun and hitting your enemy once in six shots before reloading, especially when they are all crack shots against you! This would be acceptable if there were ways to avoid combat completely, but other than areas you can use domination or charm (Jedi mind-tricks for vampires) or stealth - which despite the patch, is a broken or cheesy mechanic depending on how you look at it - combat is still inevitable. There are really too many combat sequence especially in the last 20% of the game for you not to put all the experience points you can into combat abilities just to stay alive. In fact I admit that I turned on "god mode" for much of the game because I was genuinely becoming bored by the combat itself.

But if the combat was boring, why continue? Well thankfully, the plot is well written, rich and nuanced and has a level of freedom that I did not expect for this era. It has consequences to your actions and has a range of possible endings to your storyline that Bioware should have taken a cue from it for the Mass Effect saga. The story drip feeds you V:TM lore through NPC dialogue which is much more satisfactory than the usual CRPG trope of reading a book you've looted. The lore as presented in the game itself is merely the skin on top of the soup that is the pen and paper sourcebooks but its plenty for the game purposes in which you are cast as a newly embraced fledgling Kindred who is completely clueless as to what they have become and not only must now navigate the game world but also the complex intricacies of vampire politics.

The design of the world itself is worth noting, it's naturally in perpetual darkness as it's taken as a given you don't wander around during the day for obvious reasons. The locations are mostly urban L.A. but there are distinctive differences between them, e.g. Santa Monica is by the seafront, Downtown is comprised with tall skyscrapers and Gothic architecture and Chinatown is filled with lights and eastern style signage. This isn't a sprawling open world, you're eventually blocked by a fence and inaccessible tunnels at the ends of each street which act as invisible walls, but there's no reason to explore beyond anyway because for the most part you're going to a specific building to advance whatever quest you're on. Exploration only occurs within a building, down a sewer, or other enclosed area, rarely topside in the streets of L.A. There was one particularly well crafted level that took place in an abandoned hotel that your character is sent to in order to get rid of a spirit that had chased away the renovation crew. It was filled with eerie sound effects, jump-scares and poltergeist-like shenanigans. Had the entire game used the investigation-style gameplay employed in this level in the rest of the game without instead such a heavy reliance on combat it would have been a much better game. 

Voice acting is 90% excellent but some was abysmal, and I expect I could tell when Spahl got a fellow fan to record a piece of missing dialogue for the cut-content, but not having played the unpatched-version I'm unsure. That said it's less than two-dozen lines of dialogue in several thousand so I wouldn't be too concerned. The score was produced by Rik Schaffer who composed the music for Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer and Activision licenced songs from contemporary minor artists at the time and they form part of the games nightlife atmosphere especially in the many bars and nightclubs you frequent which are littered with the posters of real-life bands.

Having now played the game myself I can say that the game is a product of it's time and hasn't aged as well as others from the mid 2000's. Sadly while the unofficial patches have made the game quite  playable, it suffers from often moronic A.I. or the lacklustre and at times, chronic combat. With that in mind however, the strength of RPGs like this lies in the story they weave and combat is just a means of navigating obstacles in the way of advancing the plot, of which this game certainly worth the €5 price tag.

Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines is available from Steam for €19.99 or GOG for €17.99. However the game is often on sale from either vendor for somewhere in the region of €5. However during the most recent sales I observed only a minor drop in sale price to €9.99 possibly due to a resurgence of interest in the game because of the imminent sequel in 2020. 
At time of publishing, the unofficial patch is v10.5 and available here.

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