Well, with Halloween approaching, I thought that I’d review a classic computer game from 2004 called “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines” that I only played for the first time this year.
I bought a digital copy of this game when it was on special offer on GOG earlier this year and, although it seemed to be slightly on the pricier side of things for a game of that age (even when it was on offer), it was money well spent 🙂
Interestingly, the version of this game available on GOG comes with an unofficial patch pre-installed. From what I can gather, this patch fixes many bugs and problems with the original version of the game. I’m not sure if this patch is included in versions of the game sold on other sites (eg: Steam), but it’s probably fairly easy to find on the internet if it isn’t.
One other thing that I should probably point out is that at least some of the minimum system requirements listed for the game on GOG (eg: a 2.4 ghz processor) seem to be somewhat over-inflated, especially considering that this game uses an early version of the Source Engine! I was able to get this game to run on a 1.8 ghz single core processor (with the graphics settings on low). Although, if you’re obsessed with framerates, you’ll probably be dismayed to hear that I only got about 20-30 FPS – but the game was still very playable.
Finally, I should probably warn you that this review may contain some minor SPOILERS.
Anyway, let’s take a look at “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines”:
“Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines” is an action role-playing game which takes place in Los Angeles.
You play as a freshly-created vampire who is due to be executed because the person responsible for turning you into a vampire didn’t get permission from the city’s vampiric elders. However, the aristocratic Prince LaCroix is feeling unusually merciful, and spares your life on the condition that you serve him.
Soon, you find yourself thrown into a web of conspiracies, politics and crime. To say too much more would be to spoil the game’s brilliantly complex story, but – like in any role-playing game – you get to have a certain degree of influence over how the events of the game play out.
The character creation options in this game are slightly strange. In addition to choosing your character’s gender and stats, you also have to choose from one of seven “clans” – each one has different specialities and abilities. However, each clan only has two character models – but your character can find alternate outfits (which also serve as a type of armour) throughout the game.
From everything that I’d read before playing this game, it’s apparently best to avoid the “Malkavian” and “Nosferatu” clans on your first playthrough since these choices cause quite significant gameplay changes.
Although there is also a quiz that you can take which will help you choose your clan, I ended up going for the Tremere clan for the simple reason that I got to play as a cool goth character who wears shades at night and can use magic spells.
One of the first things that I will say about this game is that it is atmospheric. Seriously, it’s been a long time since a game has made this much of an impression on me! The style and atmosphere of the whole game is vaguely reminiscent of a brilliant TV show called “Angel“, albeit with a gloomier and more cynical atmosphere.
Although “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines” isn’t the kind of horror game that will literally make you jump out of your chair with fright, this isn’t to say that it doesn’t contain any horror.
Although there are small amounts of many different types of horror (eg: psychological horror, supernatural horror, startling horror, body horror, gory horror, implied horror, gothic horror, Lovecraftian horror etc…) sprinkled throughout the game, most of the horror is almost subliminally subtle and it comes from the bleak and amoral hidden world that your character lives in and the hard choices that you are forced to make.
Often, the “evil” choice in any situation is presented as being the easier and/or more rewarding of the two. So, expect to feel disgusted/disturbed/creeped out at yourself at least once or twice after you finish playing.
But, a lot of this gloom is offset with some truly brilliant moments of dark comedy, which help to prevent the game from becoming too depressing. Most of the time, the humour is kept fairly subtle, but it’s great to see a game that doesn’t take itself entirely seriously….
As for the location design, there are gothic areas that look like something from “American Mc Gee’s Alice”, there are nightclubs you can dance in, there are “film noir”-style city streets, there’s a creepy haunted house, there are… so many cool places.
The gameplay in “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines” is a really interesting mixture of things. You can switch between a first-person and third-person perspective at will, and this allows the game to include a dazzling variety of gameplay types like melee combat, first-person shooting, exploration, stealth segments, puzzles, moral choices etc…
In addition to this, the game includes some vampire-specific gameplay features. For example, you need blood in order to use your character’s special abilities. But, you have to be careful how you drink blood – if a passer-by sees you drinking someone’s blood, then you lose a “masquerade” point and, if you drink literally all of someone’s blood, then you lose a “humanity” point. These are two scores that you have to be very careful about preserving, since bad things tend to happen if either score gets too low.
Of course, you can avoid this risk by either buying blood from a rather dodgy guy who lives in the hospital basement, by consuming any rats that happen to be scurrying through the sewers or by either seducing or paying another character (and pretending to kiss them, whilst secretly drinking their blood). As I said earlier, it’s a game which will sometimes leave you feeling slightly disgusted at yourself after you play it.
The health system in this game is kind of interesting too. Although it includes the dreaded regenerating health, this game handles it in a fairly sensible way that actually helps to add some challenge to the game (rather than just turning it into a toned down “god mode” cheat).
Although your health regenerates, it does this very slowly – giving the player an incentive to avoid damage. Although health regeneration can be accelerated by drinking blood, there aren’t really any “health items” in the game (except possibly the “elder vitae” item). So, combat in the game can end up being more challenging than you might expect.
Although this game is a fairly non-linear thing, it also includes some truly brilliant set-pieces too – which also help to keep the gameplay interesting. For example, at one point in the game, there’s a “Timesplitters”-style area where you have to defend the gates of a cemetary against hordes of zombies for five minutes. This is so cool!
Surprisingly, the huge variety of gameplay types here all work fairly well. Even though I normally loathe and despise stealth mechanics in games, this one isn’t too frustrating. Not only is there a meter that clearly tells you how much attention nearby henchmen are paying to you but, if you increase the right stats, then you can be right next to an adversary and they still won’t notice you as long as you are crouching.
Seriously, the only flaws I found with the gameplay is that a few of the game’s puzzles confused me enough to make me check a walkthrough and that some of the quests involve a bit too much “back and forth”, which is especially annoying given the loading screens that appear whenever you enter or leave a defined area in the game.
Likewise, at two points, the game randomly froze up and demanded that I inserted a disc. Thankfully, closing the program and starting it again solved the problem on both occasions. But, since games sold on GOG are meant to be DRM free, this sudden intrusion from the malingering ghost of the game’s original DRM wasn’t exactly welcome.
The game itself is split into four outdoor “hub” areas, various buildings and a fair number of mission-specific areas. The hub areas are large enough to be interesting to explore, but small enough that you won’t get lost for too long either. You can also travel at will between any hub areas you’ve unlocked by finding a taxi (which is a New York-style yellow taxi, despite the game being set in California).
Although there are some missions that you have to complete in order to progress, there are also optional missions that you can accept in order to gain more money or experience points. Some of these are interesting, some required me to use a walkthrough, some I completely missed altogether and some of them can be repetitive and dull.
Interestingly, the later parts of the game switch to a much more action/stealth-based style of gameplay. Amongst other things, the level before the final boss battle bears a strong resemblance to something from “Deus Ex” or “Half Life”. Like in “Deus Ex”, this is a level that you can complete using either stealth or mindless violence. Or both.
In terms of the dialogue and voice-acting, this game is absolutely stellar. Not only is the dialogue realistic, witty and filled with fascinating background information, but it’s accompanied by the kind of voice-acting that seems so natural that you usually won’t even think of it as “voice-acting” (the only exception is a character called Brother Kanker, whose voice acting is unintentionally hilarious). This allows the game to carry off some truly spectacular dramatic moments that might leave you shocked and some moments that will make you laugh out loud:
The game’s story is the kind of deep, complex compelling thing that will keep you playing even during some of the more boring missions. Although I won’t spoil any major plot points, it seems to be one of those games which – like the film “Blade Runner” – makes you feel like you’ve only scratched the surface of something much greater. As you would expect, this is also one of those games that contains multiple endings depending on the choices you make during the game.
In terms of length, this is a full-length game… and then some! Seriously, this is the kind of game that pretty much demands to be binge-played in 2-4 hour sessions. Not only that, you’ll probably have quite a few of these sessions before you eventually finish the game. Whilst the game does a good job with holding the player’s interest throughout it’s marathon-like length, there are a few parts (especially near the end) that feel like unnecessary padding.
The music in this game is, in a word, amazing. Although most of it is the kind of ominous instrumental music that you’d expect in a horror game, it also includes a really brilliant licenced soundtrack too. One of the most amazing moments in the game was near the beginning, when I entered a nightclub (whose lobby was plastered with Bella Morte and Ghoultown posters!) and was given the opportunity to dance to a really cool gothic rock song called “Isolated” by Chiasm.
Likewise, another outstanding musical moment is when you are standing on the beach with an assortment of other characters and, over the rain and the crashing of the waves, Darling Violetta’s “A Smaller God” plays on a radio in the background. This moment is both relaxing and bleak, mundane and breathtakingly sublime.
All in all, this is probably the closest thing to a “perfect” game that I’ve played in a while. Even though it has a few small flaws, it contains a brilliant mixture of exploration, atmospheric storytelling, dark humour, gothic horror, subtle horror and thrilling combat. It’s a complex, fascinating game that is more than worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as classic games like “Deus Ex”.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.