Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is a truly fantastic game that was sadly hindered by little to no support post release. Before I get into all the reasons why this game is…THE BEST! I’ll give you all the bare facts about the game.
VTMB is an action role-playing game that was released in November 2004 by Activision and was developed by Troika games shortly before the company shut down. The game itself is based on White Wolf’s tabletop role-playing game Vampire: The Masquerade which is set in their “World of Darkness”. Bloodlines is also an indirect sequel to Vampire: The Masquerade – Redemptions, a video game released in 2000 by Activision that was developed by Nihilistic Software.
What I like most about this game is that despite being set in a world where vampires, werewolves, ghosts and various other undead abominations are guaranteed fact this game still feels realistic. Everyone that you talk to has their own personality and you feel like you’re having a real conversation when you engage with them. Your dialogue choices equally don’t just elicit some unemotional response and if you’re an ass then they’ll let you know about it. Additionally to build on the world around you they have radio and TV broadcasts, that not only references your actions in game but are also entertaining and I regularly stopped off at my Haven to just have a listen.
It’s hard to sum up why this game is so good, all i can say is that even playing it in 2017 it’s still impressive and not many games from 2004 hold up that well. What’s even more impressive is how well they transferred this game from its tabletop, pen and paper origins. It doesn’t seem to struggle to utilise those aspects, in fact being able to upgrade your character like that is an important point of the game.
The story itself is also impressive, not just because it’s interesting and entertaining to play through but also because it’s designed to allow you the freedom to choose how you play without losing any content, it embraces people who happily choose a side and follow it to the end but also gamers like me who are more of the fence sitting variety.
Because It’s also on my steam and because it’s also a role playing game I felt the need to compare this to Skyrim, and to be honest I think VTMB excels in several regards, first off it has more than two voice actors but also while being fairly contained and with limited places to explore you still get a lot out of it whereas Skyrim and games like it are largely popular because of their expansive open world environment. I think it’s an interesting test case in fact, Skyrim also has storylines following two distinct factions and the ability to choose between different groups for your character, but VTMB still has incredible replayability and entertainment factor despite its limitations whereas games like Skyrim are expansive worlds but still don’t really hold a candle to the simple complexities of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines.
Anyway enough comparisons to the Elder Scrolls world, VTMB is an incredibly engrossing game about modern vampires in Los Angeles but it’s severely handicapped by the various glitches that are prevalent in the base game. Fortunately for fans there exists a fix in the form of the ‘unofficial patch’ which is an ongoing project to fix any glitches and issues found in the game.
Okay now that I’ve covered my thoughts on the game I want to talk about the game mechanics and the story before I wrap things up with an overall rating.
Okay first I want to talk about the story, Bloodlines follows an unnamed human main character who can be either male or female depending upon the player’s choice, after they spend a titillating night in a seedy hotel room with a vampire of the opposite sex. They are killed and then turned into a vampire. You are now a fledgling vampire, ripe and ready to be introduced to the ‘world of darkness’ to which you now belong. You don’t get to enjoy your newfound vampire life for too long though because the door to the hotel room busts open and both you and your sire are staked, paralysing you both, and from there you are taken to be judged before the greater vampire community. As it turns out your sire broke vampire rules by turning you and they are to be put to death for their actions. Before you can also be killed…for existing I guess. Someone in the crowd watching the trial and the execution of your sire stands up for you, or at least objects to the rule of the Vampire governance and so the Sebastian Lacroix the ‘Prince’ of L.A decides to let you live, but on the understanding that you need to prove your worth, and so you start the game, confused and sireless and working as an errand boy for the local ‘Prince’.
You learn very quickly about a power struggle currently taking place in Los Angeles and you end up stuck right in the middle of it, you have Lacroix on one side representing the vampire government known as ‘The Camarilla’ and on the other side you have the Anarch, who stand against the oppressive authority of the Camarilla and they are represented by people such as Nines Rodriguez (a vampire who came up during the great depression) and Smiling Jack, who looks more like a hobo than an Anarch leader but he’s survived several hundred years and is rumoured to have been a pirate prior to his undead life. Apparently several decades prior to the events of the game the Anarch community was able to overthrow and cast out the Camarilla from Los Angeles making it a free state (one not under the control of the Vampire governing body) however they’ve returned recently acting as if they’d never left and are trying to reestablish control over L.A and the rebellious Anarchic community.
As well as the Camarilla and the Anarchs, the third major faction in the game are the Sabbat, they are made up largely of human thugs and low level vampires who act as shock troops and cannon fodder for the leaders of the Sabbat. Higher up are more powerful vampires like the Tzimisce clan who are inhuman and sadistic, cable of a unique vampire discipline known as fleshcrafting which can range from something as simple and ambivalent as changing the appearance of themselves and others (for better or worse) to far more awful and evil means such as crafting monstrous creatures from the still living bodies of humans, the unfortunate subjects alive and aware right up till the end but unable to do anything to stop their new Tzimisce masters. The Sabbat can be seen as secondary antagonists in the game because their are no options in the base game to side with them not that you’d want to after you see the horrible fleshcrafted abominations.
Each faction despises and/or fears the others and this is the situation you are literally thrust into at the start of the game. At least you get a tutorial though, although you can skip it if you really want. I’ve found though that even if you’re familiar with the game it’s good to play this to recap and to spend some time with Smiling Jack.
Because of your youth and naivete both the main factions (The Camarilla and The Anarchs) initially welcome you and so which one you inevitably side with is just a matter of choice, of course at the end you can pick siding with no one then it’s just a matter of killing anyone that betrayed you rather than fighting for your side. This might just be me but I’d leave a straight Anarch playthrough till your second playthrough, that’s just my personal opinion though and if you just can’t help sticking up for the little guy then maybe it’d be better if you were Anarch. Even if you do prefer one faction I do recommend multiple playthroughs with different clans and siding with different factions though just so you can get the most out of the game.
As well as the political strife taking place in Los Angeles during the game, the entire city is in an uproar because of what many to believe to be harbingers of Gehenna (the vampire name for their own personal apocalypse) such as thin bloods (vampires who are weak and display very little vampire abilities) and sightings of Caine (the biblical Caine who is reportedly the father of all vampires) this Gehenna fear is all focused on the mcguffin of the game known as the ‘Ankaran Sarcophagus’ which is believed to hold an ancient sleeping vampire. Gehenna telling that the end of days for vampires will come when their sleeping ancient forefathers wake up and feast on their descendants. So the various factions want the Sarcophagus some just because they want to prevent Gehenna others because they believe it holds a sleeping ancient vampire and want to commit the act of Diablerie (consuming the blood of another more powerful vampire to the point of their death in order to become stronger and more powerful themselves) and simply other factions only want it to stop the others from getting it.
Of course as the main character it’s your job to find this sarcophagus, although as the game repeatedly tells you…don’t open it. And that in broad strokes is the storyline of the game, I’ve left out a lot and honestly even after playing it maybe six times from start to finish it’s still entertaining in some many ways and worth playing again and again.
I’ve covered the story as well as I can and now i’m going to move onto the gameplay mechanics. First off character creation, I mentioned earlier that you could pick your characters gender, this isn’t the only thing you can pick about your character, you can also select your clan, and that isn’t merely a different skin although each clan does have a unique look, I’m partial to the Tremere for example because their outfit and eyebrow piercing make them look like the stage magicians they really are. All the clans in the game are based on clans from the tabletop games and are largely accurate to the source material. While there are a large number of clans in the tabletop game, not all are playable in bloodlines, but there’s still enough choice to give you several distinct and different playthroughs. In Bloodlines you can choose to be Clan Brujah, Clan Gangrel, Clan Malkavian, Clan Nosferatu, Clan Toreador, Clan Tremere, Clan Ventrue. Each of these clans has their own unique attributes and weaknesses, for example Clan Tremere have access to a unique vampire blood magic called Thaumaturgy which allows them a variety of unique abilities such as Blood Strike (you fire a projectile at opponents which will return bringing you blood points) and Blood Shield (you are covered in a layer of blood that absorbs damage) but as a result of them focusing on their mental abilities and disciplines their physical attributes have atrophied and so they can raise no physical attribute above four. Another fine example would be Nosferatu, they get extra benefits when feeding on rats, and their intelligence stat is naturally boosted but as a result of their horrible visage they can’t raise their seduction level above zero and also their appearance can cause instant masquerade violations. I think that the pros are cons are an excellent way to balance the game, because without them you’d find certain aspects too easy and there wouldn’t be as much replayability because the clans would then be too homogenous. While I’m talking about clans I want to issue a little bit of advice, avoid playing as a Nosferatu or Malkavian for your first playthrough, they are both fine clans and both force you to come at games from a different way than perhaps you would get with the other clans but because of the difficulty in playing with a Nosferatu and the confusion of playing with a Malkavian it’s probably better to wait until you’ve played through the game with one of the other clans first, just so you have more context and know what you’re supposed to do and where you’re supposed to go.
Next up are the various points systems in the game which are all important for one reason or another. The points systems can be broken down into blood points, humanity points, Masquerade points and experience points and each have an impact on the game. Blood points are analogous to MP (mana points) because they are the pool of points through which you can use your various disciplines, which are themselves analogous to magic or spells. Each time you use a discipline it depletes the pool of blood points you have, you can refill your blood points bar either by feeding on people, rats or blood bags. The next is humanity, in terms of story, humanity is the moral structure through which vampires fight the beast within them, in terms of gameplay you have ten humanity points and will gain or lose those points depending upon certain choices you make. For example outside of combat zones if you kill or drain a person then you’ll lose a humanity point, and by doing things like sparing characters when presented with opportunities to kill them you can regain humanity. Another way to regain humanity points is to dance, not just anywhere, it’s not that type of game, but at various clubs throughout the game there are dance floors and you can dance at them and if you dance uninterrupted for approximately five minutes you’ll regain a humanity point. In the game a low humanity level can provide certain unique dialogue options but at the risk of increased chance of Frenzy (you lose control of your character and he drains and kills nearby humans, this unfortunately can lead to a masquerade violation) and the only way to avoid frenzying is to maintain a high humanity level and keep your blood bar filled. Next up are Masquerade points, you have five of these and they require a little bit of explain. The Masquerade is a term used by vampires to describe the maintenance of the secret that is the existence of vampires, so anything considered a violation is anything that outwardly reveals the vampire society to humans. The game will end if you lose all your masquerade points. You lose masquerade points for being caught feeding and for using certain disciplines. Nosferatu suffer instant masquerade violations if they are seen at all because of their appearance, whereas unless they do something overly supernatural all other playable classes of vampires can walk freely among humans. You progress through the game by completing quests and you gain experience points by completing the quest requirements, often receiving additional experience points for completing the quests in particular ways such as without being seen or without killing anyone. These experience points can be spent in the character menu to increase your stats, making it easier to sneak or hack or use melee weapons or a variety of other capabilities. You can also use these points to buy back lost humanity points but since you can just dance to regain them and also have opportunities during main or side missions to regain them that seems pointless to me and it would be far more valuable to either save them up to buy for expensive upgrades or pour them into one stat.
The game takes place in 21st century Los Angeles where you can travel between a few areas, initially only Santa Monica is available to you until you unlock other places by completing quests, and you will unlock further areas as you progress until you can travel between all of the main hubs in the game. Santa Monica, Downtown, Hollywood and Chinatown. There are other areas which are only available for a limited time for a specific mission for example Grout’s mansion (one of the best parts of the game by the way) and the Society of Leopold monastery. You travel between these areas in two ways, you can either take a taxi, which becomes available as soon as you unlock downtown and also via the sewers. If you play as a Nosferatu (the hideous deformed vampires) then you have no choice but to take the sewers as travelling via the surface world is almost guaranteed to elicit a Masquerade violation. As well as these hubs which you can travel between the game is split into three areas; masquerade areas, Elysium areas and combat areas. Each area has its own rules and requirements. Masquerade areas are plentiful, usually streets and open areas where you are likely to interact with and be spotted by humans should you do anything supernatural and while here the rules of the masquerade are in place and you must do nothing to reveal vampires to the world. Elysium areas are usually buildings and are neutral territories for vampires in the game, you cannot use weapons or disciplines (with the exception of bloodbuff) while there and so cannot cause any mischief. Finally combat areas are places in the game where you can fight and kill without worrying about loss of humanity or masquerade violations, you can kill your way through even innocent humans here with no negative consequences.
Before I move onto the technical aspects I want to discuss dialogue, I’ve already touched on how real and natural the dialogue is and how it sounds like a real conversation so I won’t mention it again here instead I want to talk about the dialogue and its effect on gameplay. Dialogue changes in the game depending on the clan and which stats you’ve spent most on, for example if you’ve piled experience into appearance and charisma then you’ll be presented with more seduction options, identified by pink text in the dialogue box, whereas if you went the intimidation route then you’ll be presented with for intimidation/domination dialogue options which are identified by red text. Whether these dialogue options succeeds however depends on your stats again , you might have a high enough intimidation factor to trigger the option but not enough for it to be successful so it’s sometimes a swing or a miss type situation using those dialogue options.
Finally we move onto the technical aspects, visually the game is quite strong, especially for 2004, it still has trouble with individual fingers a lot like another popular game out the same year, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas but overall the graphics are very visually interesting enough that unless you get right up to something you don’t really notice any issues, the woman look attractive if a little pale and backgrounds look appealing but if you do scratch the surface things can get a little poorly rendered to say the least. This is especially bad for clothes, which considering you can take a first person point of view so that you are the character means you spend a lot of time looking at a badly rendered hoodies or underwear (i’m thinking of one female club owner in particular) but overall despite some issues the visual quality is good enough that it still looks good today.
Sound is good and bad in this game, sometimes character audio isn’t ideal like someone recorded it with the mic turned away from them but for the most part everyone sounds good. The music is also quite good, listening to it on a loop can be bothersome at times but since it’s largely contained to clubs it’s not really a huge issue. And it is good to listen to, it sounds incredibly atmospheric and adds something extra to the game. The sound effects are another issue, clearly meant to add the same sense of atmosphere as the music, and sometimes it did but largely it grated on the nerves, the random coughing, laughing, gross squelching sounds and other such noises might add to the whole impression of a real world but when it doesn’t stop it ceases to be immersive and actually detracts from it entirely. I will say this though, there is one sound effect I’ll never get tired of though, part way through the game a character gets decapitated and you can fire it through a basketball hoop and be rewarded with ghostly cheering, it’s far from immersive but it’s certainly entertaining, although man getting that head into the hoop was so hard.
Next I want to discuss is the A.I which was sorely lacking at times, I can’t really complain because obtuse guards who couldn’t see me if i moved back a single step helped when sneaking about but it still took away from the game because it’s meant to be challenging. I’ll give you an example, at the end of the game as you complete the final mission you come up against a line of what I assume are S.W.A.T or something similar, basically highly trained mercenary types in full black body gear, they are lined up and without using disciplines to subdue them you can sneak up on these trained soldiers and stealth kill each of them one by one without alerting the others, sure by this point i’d put a lot of experience points into stealth but i can’t shake the feeling that this had more to do with something lacking in the game rather than my character’s own skills.
Finally I want to discuss the ‘unofficial patch’ which I believe has a profound impact on both the technical aspects and the gameplay of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. I mentioned at the start of the review that the game received little support after its release because Troika shut down and so because of the immense potential the game had numerous fans started to develop their own patches and fixes for the game, Dan Upright was credited with creating the ‘Unofficial Patch’, the most prominent of these fan fixes. The development of the patch was taken over after about a year by Werner Spahl also known as Wesp5 who’s been continuing the development of the fan supported fix for over ten years. The Unofficial patch is split into a basic and plus version, the basic version serves only to fix the various noted glitches in the game whereas the plus version added or re-added unused content and quests and adjusted stats and feats to create a more balanced game. Many people consider using the Unofficial patch the only real way to play the game. I was lucky enough in fact to get an interview with Wesp5 which you can read here.
Two things i need to talk about that were re-added by the unofficial patch are the entire ‘Night at the Library’ questline which also restored the associated characters, locations, objects and cutscenes. It was so exciting to play something in the game that was entirely new, not just the same quests but different because of your clan but an honest to god new quest. There are certain aspects of it that are a little rough because of how it was created but I really enjoyed it nonetheless. The other piece of content that I loved was inside one of the best areas of the game, you investigate the missing Malkavian Primogen Alistair Grout and go to his mansion. His clan are inherently insane to some degree or another and as he declines mentally he tricked out his house with puzzles and mazes and insane ghouls (human servants fed on a diet of blood) in one area of unused maze there is a room that was so beautiful I had to stop. It was filled with white marble, and the broken ceiling is letting deadly sunlight into the room (even though it’s always night time) and the music is so melodic and beautiful I just spent a good ten minutes in the room trying to get through the wall of sunlight to pull a lever without dying.
So with all that in mind I think I’ll give the game a strong 8/10 because it truly is a nearly perfect game, and if Activision or whoever owns the rights to the game were to put out an updated version then they’d have at least one customer right here. Speaking of which if you want to buy the game then you can get is here on Amazon for various prices and you can also get it on Steam for 14.99 (as of 18/08/2017) so if you haven’t got yourself a copy already then please get it now and clear your weekend. If you do have a copy, don’t you think it’s about time you dusted it off and played it again.