Under The Wire: Vampire The Masquerade - Bloodlines
Neil Kewn - OnRPG Journalist
Vampires have enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence in recent years, thanks in part to the Twilight saga and its controversial portrayal of the bloodsucking mutants. Whilst Robert Pattinson isn't for everyone, those who wish to sink their teeth into a more interactive vampiric tale have a nice selection of games to choose from. BloodRayne, the Dracula saga, Vampire Rain and even The Elder Scrolls IV Oblivion all have their own take on our freaky friends. Yet possibly the most notable vampire title comes in the form of 2004s Vampire The Masquerade - Bloodlines, developed by Troika Games. It's an immersive PC role-playing game that gives players the chance to satisfy their bloodthirst in the safety of their own home.
Bloodlines is very much driven by a narrative, based on the pen and paper role-playing series Vampire: The Masquerade. You can expect a very detailed and atmospheric tale. But there is also a lot of freedom to be had, and you often find yourself branching off to take part in many of the games intriguing side quests. You take on the role of a fang-wielding shadow dweller, and it is perfectly possible to play like one - lurking in the shadows and feeding on unsuspecting members of the public never gets old.
Similar to many of today's RPGs, Bloodlines lets you approach quests in any way you see fit. You don't necessarily have to enter combat to get things done (although it usually helps) and progress can be made through choices made in conversation. Want to avoid a fight with a thug? Try and seduce him. You can be as aggressive as you want to be, with a multitude of different outcomes in each given scenario.
The characters that populate the streets can also usually be of serious use to you, helping you keep your blood level topped up or providing useful information or quests. Persuading a lost businessman to wander down a dark alleyway for a little midnight feast is an effective way to avoid a "frenzy" - a ferocious state where players lose all control over their character. It really adds to the dark and dangerous atmosphere the game sets out to create.
Bloodlines was one of the first games to utilize Valve's infamous Source engine, and seven years later it still looks good. Textures are crisp, lighting is great and character models are detailed. It may not have the physics the Source engine became famous for, but the game is stable and runs at a nice frame rate even with maximum settings and a few mods attached. The musical score is excellent, with dark ambient tracks contrasting the thumping club beats found in the rougher parts of town. Voice work is also a highlight.
The game begins with a character creation process. This can be done one of two ways. For those wishing to take a more narrative route, a series of questions assigns points into various abilities for you. This of course can be done manually, and a short tutorial introduces you to many of the games mechanics. From there, you branch from quest to quest solving puzzles and satisfying the needs of non-player characters, earning you experience to level up and improve your skills.
Feeding on mortals is an important activity in Bloodlines. Like all good vampires, you require regular fixes of fresh human blood to stay effective. When your blood bar is empty, you can no longer use many of the skills and abilities you have harnessed. Feeding is assigned to the F key, but draining the poor victim's neck for too long can kill them and performing the deed in front of other mortals is a punishable offence. Masquerade points are lost for exposing your true self to humans, and once your reserve is depleted the game ends.
In terms of interface, combat and abilities are assigned to the left and right mouse buttons. Left executes your primary attack while right click performs any buff, skill or curse you have currently selected. There are a variety of weapons at your disposal ranging from melee equipment like baseball bats and police batons, to pistols and other forms of firepower. The game can be played from both a first and third person perspective, switching automatically depending on what weapon you are wielding when you begin an attack. Unfortunately, combat itself is lacking. Many of the melee attacks fail to register at times and weapons can sometimes be drastically underpowered. This improves as you make your way through the game, but it never really excites. I found myself trying to avoid confrontations with my silver tongue more often than not.
Clans make up a substantial part of Bloodline's narrative and gameplay, and there are seven for you to choose from. Each offers their own distinct way of playing, and depending on which you choose it can drastically alter the way you progress through the game. The bloodline you side with more or less acts like your class and you gain perks in specific skills to compliment this. The skills, or disciplines, on offer range from movement enhancements, better strength and increased ferocity to more effective curses, sorcery and even invisibility.
In addition to heeding to the Masquerade, Humanity signifies how close you are to losing your being. Doing bad deeds such as killing mortals or attacking police is met with loss of humanity and the potential to lose yourself completely when blood levels run low. Sadly one of the game's main drawbacks is its dreadful artificial intelligence, and coupled with some subpar combat, making use of your abilities can be a very frustrating experience. Often you can feed on humans whilst others look on bemused, leading to no repercussions for your vamp.
Despite its drawbacks, Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines is a stellar vampire title and extremely enjoyable role-playing game. There is plenty of content here to keep occupied with for hours, and a loyal community is still developing high quality mods to add to the experience. With its engrossing story and great vampire mechanics, coupled with excellent sound and a ridiculously high level of replay value, Bloodlines is a cult title that any fan of the genre should check out.