Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines
Finishing Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines (V:TM-B) brought back some old memories. At one point in my college years I worked as a security guard, and while on the job I met a woman who was arguably the sexiest woman I have ever dated. Her voluptuous figure, her cascading blonde hair, deep blue eyes, and other such physical assets all made her very desirable. Figuring I had nothing to lose, and seemingly everything to gain, I struck up a conversation with her and eventually asked her out. I couldn't believe my good fortune when she agreed.
When an older, wiser friend of mine heard about this, he told me I was playing with fire, that I should cancel my date and avoid her like the plague. I didn't know what he was talking about at the time and, absent the specifics he declined to provide, I wasn't about to break a date with a woman that sultry without some pretty substantive reasons. So I went ahead with it, blinded completely by her obvious charms.
My evening with her was positively surreal. Things seemingly got off to a good enough start over dinner, when she confided in me that she had recently lost her best friend/lover and was looking for someone new to fill that role in her life. The heart of a young, foolish man leaps when a woman that hot says such things so enthusiastically. When I discovered he had died of AIDS, however, I was quite taken aback. Things only went downhill when I drove by her workplace later so she could "pick up a few things", because it turned out she was the owner of a seedy strip club on the edge of town! I won't provide any further details, but suffice it to say that I felt like I needed to bathe for about a week, body and mind, just from the things I discovered about her in the course of that one evening.
Why do I relate that story at the beginning of a game review? Because Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines (V:TM-B) had a similar effect. On the one hand, it's a game I've watched for a long time. My first exposure to it came during the E3 conference in 2003 and, although I was pretty skeptical then, I was quite impressed at what I saw during the E3 conference in 2004. From that point on, I followed the game's development pretty closely and picked up a relatively cheap copy shortly after it was released. I was delayed in playing it for a while, largely because of a trip around the holidays, but it ultimately proved to be fabulous in several respects. Yet on the other hand, it's definitely an adult game and obviously so.
The visuals are a blend of the great, the acceptable, and the ugly. The game is powered by the Half-Life 2 (HL2) Source engine, so that might come as something of a surprise, but there's simply no denying it. The environments look beautiful, sometimes even breathtaking. The modeling is wonderfully detailed, the texture work is very high quality, and the lighting and shadow strike a perfect mood. Some of the shader effects seem a little overdone—the view through glass distorts a bit unrealistically, I think—but they're still impressive to say the least. So when it comes to looking at the game's buildings, alleys, and other locations, it's a feast for the eyes.
But much of that praise melts away when it comes to the game's characters. Whereas HL2 was a masterpiece of highly detailed and lifelike characters, the walking zombies of V:TM-B are more creepy than lifelike. The very first guy I spoke with at length, Jack, had obvious and distracting texture seams here and there. All the hookers in Santa Monica have the same model, roughly the same textures, and what one can assume is only some sort of acid damage to their legs and feet because they look blurry and indistinct to put it charitably. Even the faces look blocky and animate strangely, compared to HL2's astonishing level of verisimilitude. There are some characters that fulfill the promise of the HL2 engine, but too many have the obvious flaws I've mentioned.
I also have to say that the special effects are a bit weaker than I expected in some cases. Some of the vampiric powers are very impressive, but others have artwork that looks angular if not downright blocky. The turning-to-ash effect of a vampire's death is pretty impressive, but it's one of the few big standouts. Fortunately, the game does have the same spectacular water as in HL2 and some other surprises that provide tasty bits of eye candy.
In short, graphics whores are going to be somewhat underwhelmed by V:TM-B. It falls short of HL2, DOOM 3, Far Cry (FC), and all the other über-gorgeous games of late in several respects. Nevertheless, it looks more than good enough to get the job done, and is arguably the best looking role-playing game (RPG) of its kind made to date. Seriously, I'm hard pressed to think of a first/third-person perspective RPG that looks as good as V:TM-B does, and I never found the defects I've mentioned too distracting to enjoy the game. In point of fact, I rather liked the overall look, but I must acknowledge that the game doesn't redefine state of the art.
The one truly serious complaint I have in the graphics department is that the game is a serious performance hog. Even playing it on a system with an Athlon XP 3200+, 2 GB of physical RAM, a Gigabyte X800 XT 256 MB video card, and a Creative Labs Audigy 2 Platinum sound card, it still ran pretty slow at times. Granted, I was running it at 1600 x 1200 x 32 bpp with 4x anti-aliasing (AA) and 16x anisotropic filtering (AF), but the performance stayed about the same at any resolution and settings. Seriously, the frame rate was just as jerky at 1024 x 768 x 32 bpp without any image-quality features enabled as it was at the much higher resolution at which I played. Perhaps the game is badly CPU limited and not video-card limited at all, but it strikes me as odd that it would have such consistent frame rate issues on so powerful a machine. Perhaps future patches will smooth things out, or perhaps I can find some tweaks. Just be aware that the game wants a lot of hardware and still doesn't run all that well.
The audio department is somewhat more consistent than the visuals. The music is great, setting exactly the right mood in every case. In what I think is a particularly nice touch, the soundtrack comes with the game right from the start, giving the player all that nifty music without having to buy it separately. I know I'll be listening to some of the tracks for years to come, regardless of how long the game remains on my hard drive. To be clear, not all of the tracks are winners, or even music I would normally listen to, but I can't argue with them being entirely appropriate to the game material.
The sound effects are also quite good, though their implementation is a bit spotty. I don't know about the rest of you, but I found it disconcerting watching LaCroix's Sheriff take on a bunch of gang bangers without any sound effects at all. It was particularly odd watching a spectral, white wolf tearing some jerk's head apart in perfect silence. I didn't notice too many problems once I got beyond the game's opening, but said sequences are badly in need of some further polish.
Finally, I'm happy to say that the game's voice work is generally quite good. There are maybe one or two poorly performed lines, but for the most part it's all very professional work. The voices help bring the characters to life, particularly in the case of Jeanette/Therese. The resolution of that quest had me on the edge of my seat, wondering which dialogue options I should select. Things ended badly for me the first time I played the game, but I know I'll be going through it again, about which more later.
The one glaring exception in the audio is Yukie's dialogue, which is poorly recorded to put it charitably. She's the young woman at the counter of the Chiki Mei-Mei noodle shop in Chinatown, who gives the player the "Gone Fishin'" quest to slay the Hengeyokai demon. Her dialogue has a poor signal-to-noise ratio, buzzing obviously even without headphones, and I was deeply disappointed that I could actually hear the voice of some guy in the recording studio background at one point. That's an unforgivable defect in my view.
The interface is generally pretty good. I noticed a few misspelled words and/or non-words here and there, but these were few and far between. More importantly, the various information pages are well laid out and nicely functional. I did long for the ability to bind specific powers to keys, as that would really help; the mouse-wheel disciplines selection interface is problematic at best in combat. It would also help to have some visual indicator as to which powers break the masquerade right on the HUD. But aside from these minor defects the interface works as well as one could hope.
First, my main complaint against the game mechanics: the constant map loading was maddening. It made completing even the most trivial quests a serious pain in the rear. One can spend literally minutes of load time during any given quest, because of the irritating fact that entering/existing every building requires a long pause to load the area. Come on, developers. The game takes forever to load as it is at startup; is it really impossible to let the player walk in/out of buildings without hitting them with yet more long load times? HL2 wasn't nearly so bad, despite having far larger areas with more entities and objects in them.
A second complaint is that the game's physics engine often prevents the character from basic walking, which is just silly. Facing the gargoyle in the Chinese theatre was greatly complicated, for example, by the fact that my character kept getting stuck on even the tiniest bits of debris on the ground. It's not merely idiotic that things like tin cans, bricks, etc. should prevent someone from stepping onto or over them; it gets one killed rather quickly when facing such a powerful enemy.
Aside from these complaints, there may also be a question of balance. I played the game through the first time as a Gangrel, one devoted almost exclusively to brawling. By the end of the game, my character had maxed out the Fortitude and Protean disciplines, maxed out his unarmed brawling skill, and almost maxed out all of the relevant physical attributes as well. The result was pretty impressive. My character could shrug off entire clips being dumped into his chest from automatic weapons with barely a scratch. When I went toe to toe with LaCroix's Sheriff, I beat his sorry rear to the ground without sustaining hardly any damage at all. In fact, the only hard part of the game was bringing down said sheriff in his chiropteran form. I'm not complaining, mind you, for I had to work pretty hard to reach that fighting prowess, but it was still pretty surprising how powerful my character became.
Aside from these comments, however, I found the rest of the game mechanics to work very nicely. Combat was fun, though I would have liked a larger selection of hand-to-hand fighting moves. Stealth worked as well or better than in any other game I've seen, seemingly taking its general approach from FC and providing numeric quantifiers for more precise information. The quest mechanics were generally very well thought out and enjoyable. There's very little not to like here in terms of game mechanics.
With most games, even a fair number of supposedly story-driven games, the background story and plot simply aren't that good. I think it's fair to say that most games have weak stories, insofar as they have one at all, but this is absolutely not the case with V:TM-B. Quite the contrary, V:TM-B has the best, most cunningly plotted story I've ever seen in a video game. While making my way through the game I came to a number of conclusions about where things were headed and, although I was right in several respects, I missed completely the Machiavellian treachery of some major players.
Seriously, the story in V:TM-B is arguably the game's strongest element. It's one of those rare games in which the player actually cares about the dialogue enough to listen to as much of it as possible. Perhaps this isn't surprising, given that the game inherits its overall milieu from an established fictional world, but even still it's no small praise. No matter how one approaches it, the story of the protagonist in this game is going to involve some wrenching twists and turns. I must also point out that the complexity of the game's story really makes me want to play again, just to see if I can avoid certain things.
I don't want to give too much away, but my heart fell practically into my feet near the end of the game when I discovered my supposedly-independent Gangrel had been a patsy all along. That was a rare, precious, and wonderful gaming moment, even if it was heart-breaking. Thus, I have only the highest praise for the plot, characters, etc. that make up the story of V:TM-B; it really is that good.
First, the good stuff. Most of the content is as well crafted as it is engaging. The quests are well thought out and interesting, despite so many of them being of the FedEx and/or kill-the-foozle variety. The different areas of the game definitely have their own look and feel, each providing a unique area in which to adventure and explore, while still conforming to a single consistent style. There are plenty of places to go and plenty of things to do.
There are also quite a few different ways to approach each situation. My Gangrel tended to go in with claws bared, killing them all and letting God sort it out, but even he found times when sneaking into places made more sense. He even completed some quests by using his persuasion skills to say all the right things. While the number of vampiric disciplines is relatively limited, I can easily see how playing the game as a different clan will provide a very different sort of experience.
The plethora of skills also provide a similar degree of flexibility in fleshing out one's character. Want to play a brawler like I did? That's easy. Start with the Gangrel or Brujah clan and be sure to stuff your experience points into combat and damage avoidance. Want to play a more suave, elegant vampire who can talk or seduce his way into anything (or anyone)? Start with the Toreador or Ventrue clan and develop accordingly. Want to play more of a vampire "mage", one who uses dark powers to get his way? Then try the Tremere. Or maybe you're up for a serious challenge; if so, try playing a crazy Malkavian or a hideous Nosferatu. Even though I managed to play most of the quests in the game, I truly feel like I've barely scratched the surface.
It's also worth noting that some of the environments and their associated quests are pure brilliance in their implementation. The trip to the haunted house, for example, had the hairs on my neck all standing at attention. It was masterfully done, to say the least, because I wasn't afraid of what I saw but rather what I didn't see. It brought all the best fear and foreboding of Undying into a well-written quest. It was a blast. Having the stairs collapse under me at a strategic moment and then hearing footsteps echo on wood planking above my head made my skin crawl. Grout's mansion, the sewers down to see Gary the Nosferatu, and a number of other special locations were equally memorable.
The game also packs a lot of value for the money. It took me a solid 37 hours to complete the game the first time. In an age when too many games barely break the double-digit barrier, V:TM-B gives the player a pretty meaty experience. Given what I paid for it, I spent barely more than one dollar for each hour of entertainment, and that's only my first trip through the game. This game is going to be on my hard drive for some time to come, and I know I'm going to complete it at least once more before I'm finished.
Yet on the other hand, the game isn't perfect. For example, it remains quite buggy. V:TM-B often crashed back to the desktop, accompanied by awful audio stuttering, and it even managed to reboot my computer completely on a few occasions. That's not even supposed to be possible when running Windows XP Professional. Such problems really make me wonder whether the Source engine fixes released for HL2 were ever migrated into the V:TM-B code base; I really doubt it.
There are also a number of non-crashing bugs that remain. For example, even after I'd seen the sarcophagus on the video link aboard the Elizabeth Dane, the quest didn't end. I couldn't return to Prince La Croix. I had to reload and do it again. I don't know why it didn't work right the first time, but something that was supposed to trigger clearly didn't. Similarly, once I tracked the serial killer to the salvage business in Santa Monica, I had a similar bug; he got "trapped" in the wrong place and the quest wouldn't complete without a reload.
Some kind of nasty input overflow bug also made combat really difficult at times. It seemed to happen most frequently when enemies would appear and start moving toward me. I would move to engage them, but then my PC would start beeping from its speaker, as it does when the keystroke buffer overflows. My character would then be totally out of control until the beeping stopped, which sometimes took long enough that he would get killed in the meantime from not being able to fight back.
There are also a number of more minor bugs. I've heard characters stupidly repeat their lines to the player over and over, I've seen them have their dialogue trigger at the strangest of moments, etc. I also found a few instances in which sound effects triggered and repeated when they shouldn't have done so; e.g., I always heard a scream and and death "thump" near Pisha any time I went to visit her, even though the human who originally made the sounds was long since dead.
There are also some design flaws with some of the quests. For example, it's very hard to play certain styles. I didn't want to kill Patty in the "Attention Whore" quest, but I had no choice. Perhaps if I had a higher persuasion feat I could have avoided it. I don't know. I didn't want to kill Julius either after he blabbed to that Hollywood writer, but I really didn't have much choice. It seemed to me like I should have had a high enough persuasion value, but I didn't. So I really felt bad in both cases about having to kill two people whom I really didn't want to kill.
Or if those aren't genuine flaws, consider the problem I ran into with "The Epic of the Ankaran Sarcophagus" quest. At one point I reached a room in the sewers where I had to throw some barrels into the water to stop some rotating fly-wheel machinery things. But the creatures who were in the room when I showed up destroyed all the barrels while trying to get to me. Thus, there was no way for me to move on without reloading. Similarly, during the "Fu Syndicate" quest, the spinning metal blades got stuck in place; as such, I couldn't get to their electrical control boxes to turn them off. During the same quest, destroying the flamethrowers too soon will also make sure the player is stuck permanently. These are the kind of stupid problems that really take the player out of the world.
Finally, I should point out that some of the game's content is seriously adult in nature. I'm not just talking about the adult language; some of the game's quests involved things like an awful snuff film, nearly nude strippers at a peep show, etc. While I do like the game, V:TM-B really pushes the envelope in terms of what I'm ethically prepared to accept. I still enjoyed it, and I'm still glad I bought it, but knowing what I know now I wouldn't have taken certain quests in the game. Admittedly, the game's focus is on the life of a vampire in contemporary LA, so it would be foolish to expect a bright, happy world. But still, some of the game's seedier bits seemed pretty gratuitous to me.
The game has no multi-player component, which is a real pity. I say that because I can only imagine how much fun it would be to play a vampires versus humans mode or even straight up deathmatch with all the great vampiric disciplines. Perhaps the mod community will address the omission. If not, people who live for multi-player gaming should simply look elsewhere.
For any fan of the whole vampire thing—you people know who you are—who also has even the slightest interest in RPG games, V:TM-B is unquestionably a must-buy. For the rest of us the picture isn't so clear. This definitely isn't a game for children at all; its themes, language, and situations are simply too adult. Parents, do not buy this for your kids, and do not let them buy it for themselves. Period.
Beyond that concern, the game's bugs and some of the racier content make it hard to give V:TM-B a sweeping recommendation. Instead, I'd have to say that only those who can see a digital strip club for what it is (i.e., not the real thing) should even consider buying it. And even among those persons, I also suggest a strong tolerance for game bugs. Still, if deeply sophisticated vampire politics coupled to an engaging storyline are what you crave, you won't lose with V:TM-B. It's the best game I've played at what it attempts; it's just that what it attempts clearly isn't for everyone.
By the end of the game, I felt like I'd been used by some of the major players, and I wasn't at all happy with a couple of my choices in the game. It reminded me a great deal of the way I felt coming home from the date I mentioned in the introduction. Nevertheless, I am glad I played it, for I had a heck of a lot more fun with the game than I did the girl, and I'm confident I'll be getting more than my money's worth during a second pass through the game. I just won't be picking up some of the racier side-quests along the way, that's for sure.
Reviewed by Phileosophos