Based on an old pen-and-paper role-playing game, Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines is a new action/RPG from Troika Games that's powered by Half-Life 2's groundbreaking Source engine. The story takes place right before the "Time
books from White Wolf, and has become the official prequel to the end of days for the Vampire universe.
As you might expect, the game revolves around the vampiric politics in the World of Darkness, as do all great Vampire: The Masquerade games. The story starts as a prince has recently come to the anarchic free state of Los Angeles to establish the Camarilla's power. Meanwhile, you are embraced (turned into a vampire) illegally without the prince's permission. The prince kills your Sire but spares your life, putting you at his beck and call to be his errand boy…for the time being. From there, it's up to you to decide how the rest of the game will go.
In Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, you can play as either male or female, choosing to play as 1 of the 7 different clans of the Camarilla. Each clan represents a different bloodline and set of disciplines. Your choices are Ventrue, Brujah, Gangrel, Malkavian, Nosferatu, Toreador and Tremere. Each clan has its advantages and disadvantages and its unique combination of three disciplines, which are the equivalent of magic spells. These include Celerity (Super Speed), Potence (Super Strength), Presence, Animalism, Fortitude, Protean, Auspex, Dementation (ability to drive NPCs crazy), Obfuscate (ability to blend into the shadows), Dominate (ability to make NPCs do your bidding) and Thaumaturgy. There's also "Blood Buff" discipline, which significantly raises your physical attributes for a limited amount of time (by spending blood points). This is great for those instances when you want to pick a lock that is beyond your intrusion feat - just pump some blood into strength or dexterity and you are temporarily able to pick up that object or bypass that lock. All disciples are easily accessed by scrolling the wheel on the mouse and then right-clicking. While it sounds overly simple, the use of Disciplines is actually incredibly well-implemented and user-friendly. The clan you choose will also determine how you communicate to the world in terms of dialogue. For instance, if you play the insane Malkavians all your character's options are altered to enigmatic pseudo-prophetic schizo-tongued gibberish.
Much like the other RPGs, Bloodlines allows you to add experience points to certain skills and characteristics during the game, and you are given a base template of 10 points to designate over the skills initially at your character customization screen. You can distribute these points throughout your various attributes (strength, charisma, intelligence and so forth), abilities (firearms, stealth, and, of course, finance!), and the aforementioned disciplines. You can set how each point is spent yourself, or turn on the increasingly standard autolevel function.
At the completion of each Quest your characters will receive a bonus number of experience points which they can then use to improve their character in any way they see fit. Your skills as a player definitely have an effect on the combat, from your judgment about how to plan your attacks, or who to attack, or whether to spend your money on armor or higher firepower, or whether to spend your points on defense or offense or persuasion, Ranged Combat vs. Melee, or concentrating on your Disciplines instead of weapons, etc.
Combat, on the other hand, is a different matter. There are two factors contributing to how much damage you can do when it comes to hand-to-hand or melee attacks: first is how high your appropriate attributes are and secondly, how fast you can actually click the left mouse button. Firearms, at the start of the game, are weak and ineffective because your statistics affect both how accurate you are and how much damage your ranged shots deal. This can be particularly frustrating because when you wield a gun, your view switches into a first person perspective and feels like your shots should be more accurate than they are. If, however, you are willing to increase your Perception and Firearms abilities, you can quickly become a being capable of dealing swift and lethal death to your enemies through lead poisoning. Typically, though, it is easier to just stick to basic unarmed and melee attacks and focus your talents elsewhere.
Combat is clunky and not very deep, but it's still fun. The game does a good job of mixing your role-playing stats with your twitch gamer abilities. Combat generally involves using one or more special abilities while furiously clicking the mouse during melee, or doing your best to move and shoot your guns. You also can feed on enemies during combat, which you will often need to restore your health and blood level.
Bloodlines takes place in modern-day Los Angeles, in four major sections of the city - Santa Monica, Los Angeles, Hollywood and Chinatown. Santa Monica is a sleepy little seaside town, not a lot of huge buildings, it is right on the beach, and the pier contains the colorful Ferris Wheel. Los Angeles is a city of skyscrapers and feels like much more of an urban setting than any of the other hubs. Hollywood is basically a version of the Sunset Strip, with the famous Hollywood Hills overlooking it. And finally Chinatown probably has the moodiest feel of all the hubs, as it feels completely foreign with its fog shrouded skyline and its unique architecture. Each of these hubs has several sub-maps attached to it where you do most of your questing. Of course, since this is the world of darkness, each of these areas, while possessing its own distinct feel, also has an overarching feel of decay and death. Everything is dark, dingy, and a little hopeless.
Perhaps the best part of Bloodlines is the nonlinear gameplay. You have multiple quests to do throughout the game, which encourages replay value. Some range from blowing up warehouses, slashing paintings, retrieving a ghost's personal locket, and so on. Some quests are little more than busywork but some of them, such as one that leads you on a creepy investigation of a haunted old hotel, are really engrossing. This game earns its "M" rating, and is not for the faint of heart!
There's also considerable replay value for those who wish to experiment with different powers and dialogue options or try different approaches to some of the game's quests. There are numerous endings as well, though a save near the end of the game will allow you to access them without playing through the entire game again.
However, no game is perfect. Especially this one, which is very unfortunate. The game seems to crash a lot, character models float instead of walk, and there are a lot of other glitches such as clipping errors and a broken quest or two. The bugs can be a little hard to swallow considering that the game was actually ready over a month before it came out and couldn't be released until Half Life 2 was finally released. Fortunately the first official patch is already available, so it isn't as buggy and performance has been improved a bit.
Another disappointing thing is that this game was made with Valve's source engine, yet it doesn't utilize the physics and full interaction with the objects to nearly the same level as Half-Life 2. Also loading times between levels are long-ish which is annoying. Some maps are only one room which means that you are constantly looking at loading screens throughout the game. My computer runs Half-Life 2 without a hitch.
But, overlooking the bugs, thinking that they all will be fixed one day, this game is a must buy for any RPG player and definitely deserves a good look from anyone wanting to get into the RPG genre. It's immersive, totally different from anything you've ever played It's more like 30-50 hours, and after you are done playing, you can choose a different clan and get an entirely different experience.
Minimum system requirements: 1.2 GHz Athlon or 1.2 GHz Pentium III, 100% DirectX 9.0c-compatible 64MB (128MB recommended) video card and drivers, 384MB of RAM (512MB of RAM recommended), CDROM 4x ,3.3 GB free HDD space (plus 1.4 GB for Windows swap file), 100% DirectX 9.0-compatible 16-bit sound card and drivers