When I first began playing Vampire: The Masquerade-Bloodlines, I was thrilled at the idea of playing a truly vampiric vampire–a vampire that sucks blood relentlessly, not a vampire with a soul or regrets. At first, I thought I was going to have this experience, but then I realized I wasn’t allowed to kill any kine; I could only feed enough to quench my thirst. Kine are what the Kindred, the modern Max Schrecks of Bloodlines, call humans with pure blood. The world that Troika has created for these fated characters is dark, drenched with conflict and deeply engaging despite its shortcomings.
Vampire: The Masquerade-Bloodlines, based on White Wolf’s pen and paper game, allows you to choose from the same seven clans as the original. Bloodlines is set, ironically, in a modern day City of Angels. There are four main city zones, each full of dodgy bums and prostitutes, and the occasional blue blood.
Your character’s progression is based on a point system. After completing errands, missions and other quests, you receive a varying amount of experience points you can then use to raise any number of abilities, feats and disciplines. Any vampiric discipline requires blood, which you typically get through feeding.
Some of the best aspects of Bloodlines are the NPCs’ incredible facial expressions. You can assume from a glare that the NPC has something to hide or knows more than he or she thinks you should. The graphics are wonderfully creepy and adhere to a hip, urban-gothic aesthetic. One of the quests leads you to a haunted inn, where ghosts appear briefly to guide the way and lamp fixtures explode as you walk by. This place is truly fearful. During another mission, you find a decapitated body. If you don’t look where you’re going, you can accidentally kick the guy’s head across the room. When you walk into chairs and other items, they’ll move or tip over. Another interesting graphical feature is the action your character performs as he or she grapples their prey. A female vampire might even wrap her legs around her victim as she drinks. There is some graphic flickering, however, and all the homeless people look alike. The city can feel somewhat empty at times, and although you can talk to lively prostitutes, quest NPCs, and the occasional bartender; most of the city’s occupants cannot be spoken to.
Bloodlines takes place in a world of perpetual darkness, so there are moments where you’ll find yourself someplace where you can’t see your surroundings at all. This can be a refreshing challenge or it can be an annoyance. Because it’s always dark, the world doesn’t take as much advantage as it could have with the light and shadowing possibilities the Source engine provides.
Bloodlines has a decent overarching story, but the meta-stories are just as interesting, giving much more dimension to the RPG element. The world has many complex characters. You have the opportunity to interact with, among others, a pseudo-communist, an insatiable blood junky, and a crime mistress with Dissociative Personality Disorder.
As a vampire, you have to feed to stay healthy, but there are consequences to killing innocent people. In order to maintain some degree of humanity, you’ll need to abstain from crime. If you decide to take the more blood lusty path, you have a chance of falling into afrenzy. In this state, you’re unable to control yourself and might do something that your fellow Kindred will look down upon. In this respect, you’re neither good nor evil – Bloodlines’ plot is rooted in a gray area between virtue and sin, a moral complexity that many RPGs unfortunately lack.
Bloodlines’ dialogue is one of its most creative aspects. Not only do the quest NPCs each have a distinct voice and tone due to the well-performed voice acting, but also the content of the interactions is engaging. The conversations are often humorous, seductive or threatening, depending on whom you’re speaking with and which faction you support. Your gender directly affects how some of the city’s inhabitants respond to you. If you’re a vampiress, you might get sorely rejected trying to seduce a straight girl in a club. On the other hand, you can use your gender prowess to persuade some unsuspecting cad to walk into a dark alley with you, where you can treat yourself to a meal of vintage platelets. Bloodlines is rated mature because it contains plenty of profanity, but this only helps to enrich the characters and dialogue. The stories also contain mature themes, from serial killing to incest and child molestation.
There are quite a few bugs in Bloodlines. There is often what is best described as an echo at the end of some dialogue sound clips. This mars otherwise engrossing NPC interaction. More importantly, there are glitches that affect game play such as the occasional broken quest. After you play for a few hours, the frame rate slows down dramatically, indicating a possible memory leak. This is disappointing for a game with such impressive writing and atmospheric graphics.
Such bugs and stability issues might be acceptable if Bloodlines didn’t have more annoying and detrimental problems. First, you spend way too much of your playing time zoning from one area to the next, not only because of the long loading times, but also because of the amount of times you have to load to complete any given quest. This engenders more frustration than a game should. It’s sometimes difficult to use items in the world when you’re in first person mode. For example, I had the use icon available for an elevator. I tried multiple times to open the elevator in first person with luck only at a certain angle. When I shifted to third person, I had no trouble.
In combat, you have a choice to use either a melee or a ranged weapon. If you decide to go with a ranged weapon, you’ll get to experience the first person shooter elements of Bloodlines. Melee combat is in third person. Vampires and other supernatural creatures take more damage from melee attacks, however, so the combat choices are a bit unbalanced. The more points you allocate to combat skills help, of course, but this can be a problem for non-combat oriented vampires. Since you can’t hire a gun and have to do it all yourself; it can be tempting to put more of your experience points into a combat skill even though this may not be the type of persona you wanted to develop.
The combat system is clunky and awkward, and the HUD doesn’t help. To cycle through your vampiric disciplines, you use the mouse wheel or the bracket keys. After you find the discipline, you then need to activate it. This is a clumsy design for combat, because it’s easy to cycle past the discipline you might need and it also takes at least two actions to use any discipline you don’t already have targeted. If you are a more non-combat oriented vampire, your health dissolves quickly, so there really is no time to spend thinking about the interface. The hotkeys alleviate this to a degree, but if you choose to use them you have to use the same hand to move and operate the hotkeys, while the other presses the attack button. (And you still have to make at least two actions to activate a vampiric power.) Ultimately, though fine during the non-combat portions of the game, the interface intrudes on the player’s gaming experience.
Bloodlines’ A.I. isn’t impressive. As I mentioned before, many of the NPCs are nothing more than moving scenery and walking blood banks. More importantly, if you get in a fatal combat situation, all you need to do is run into another room. The aggressors don’t even follow you. Exploiting poor A.I. should not pass for strategy.
Although Vampire: The Masquerade-Bloodlines has some disappointing features, I found myself enjoying Troika’s adaptation of Vlad Tepes’ descendants and their shady, steamy L.A. Bloodlines offers us a world with many shades of black – a world infested with vampire politics and seduction. The meta-stories are original and uncensored. The city’s appearance absorbs you and the citizen’s facial expressions say “be my victim.” The game is definitely worth experiencing. Vampire: The Masquerade-Bloodlines is a fine RPG with many positive qualities, but it could’ve been a much better game. Despite the bugs, stability issues and at times clumsy game play, Bloodlines’ World of Darkness is one of intriguing plot and atmospheric intensity that you’ll enjoy being sucked into.