An extremely intelligent example of "postmodern entertainment"
Troika's "Vampire: Bloodlines" is a wonderful game, set in a present day city environment in Los Angeles. Within this quite realistically presented city exists a vast sub-culture of Vampires and all sorts of other, super-natural creatures entangled in a complex society of their own. The game's focus lies heavily on describing this vampiric society and culture. However, since Vampires have hardly more regard for humans than humans have for cattle, the two depicted societies ("real", "human" L.A. and "vampiric" L.A.) hardly ever mix, except when a "new" human gets in some way or another introduced into said vampiric sub-culture, which is exactly what happens to the player right at the beginning of the game.
With its approach of assuming two entirely different cultures sharing one physical space, this game succeeds splendidly at simulating the player's "newborn" feel - in a world he/she knows quite well ("Vampire"s L.A. is, after all, the L.A. from the movies) an alternate culture exists and has always existed - behind back doors, in shady bars or in secluded towers. Since this is the only culture the player is really allowed to deal with during the game, he/she will quickly get accustomed to it, accepting it as the actual "reality" - which quickly renders the regular "human" reality he/she knows of to appear less real than the fictitious one.
This is truly an elegant way to begin a game: "Vampire: Bloodlines" starts out with a world the player knows, only to have him/her then concentrate more and more on a world he/she doesn't know (yet) - a world entirely new. Apart from this intriguing starting point there are many things which are great about this game. This review shall now separately address technical, gameplay and content aspects.
"Vampire"s graphics are impressive, probably not so much in themselves but because of the how and why of their usage. Graphics in "Vampire: Bloodlines" always serve one or more of three distinct purposes: their design reflects the personalities of people (e.g. Jeannette's room, the Nosferatu city, LaCroix' tower etc.), they build up a distinct genre background complete with an appropriate atmosphere (hotel, graveyard, Giovanni mansion etc.) and they are used as elements of contrast and conflict within the game world (the player's shabby apartment vs. LaCroix' salon, the Anarchs' "punk-bar" vs. the Tremere's hide-out etc.). This form of contrast is additionally used to violently shock the player as he/she penetrates harmlessly looking suburban homes just to find them filled with unbelievable horrors - a clever device considering the Vampires' own reliance on the "Masquerade", i.e. on hiding away from human perception. Moreover, all places in this game are superior in design and colouring. Together with the extremely detailed facial expression animations of characters they brilliantly succeed in bringing the game's world to life and tying the game's widely differing elements together.
"Vampire"s musical score goes hand in hand with this. Just as the actual game, it covers a wide variety of genre terrain (ambient, ethnic, orchestral, trip-hop, punk, industrial, gothic...) while still remaining "in tone" with the game's main conception of exploring an alien society.
Voice acting can only be described as excellent. It is not only very professionally executed, but serves the same three purposes attributed to graphics: characterization, setting a genre and depicting contrast. On the streets, people talk Al Pacino-like L.A. slang, LaCroix talks elaborately high-brow, Jack hilariously low-brow...these are not only voices meant to spare the player the abominable task of reading, they are actually well-acted and always "in character".
As noted in other reviews, "Vampire: Bloodlines" is a real-time based 3D-Action-RPG similar to classics such as "System Shock 2" or "Deus Ex". It employs a number of RPG features such as different player characters, stats, experience points and numerous side-quests while offering the player a choice between shooting and sneaking during combat.
However, although this game boasts quite a few exhilarating fights (especially during the endgame), its focus lies clearly elsewhere. With its many intricate multiple-choice dialogues and its vast amount of side-quests designed to lead the player around its various, colourful settings, "Vampire: Bloodlines" is really a game of "social exploration" - its main aim is rather to find out about vampiric society than to follow its main plot, which is but a large "MacGuffin"-hunt anyway, largely created to make said society's innate conflicts escalate.
Moreover, the player is offered quite a lot of choices during gameplay. Interestingly though, these are not only limited to "moral choices" defining how the story will proceed (although these are present, too): in this game, a different playing style may unlock whole new aspects of gameplay including new characters, dialogue and quests. If one plays the game with a Nosferatu or a Malkavian character the entire game will appear to be completely different, however, even with one of the more "usual" characters gameplay may adapt drastically to a players choice of approach.
One example: when one chooses the talkative route to tackle the Giovanni mansion, one will get to know a number of characters to exercise one's social talents upon, one will be entangled in a very "Godfather"-like mafia intrigue game with the opportunity to make NPCs turn against each other. If, however, the player chooses to kindly inform the mansion's front door guard that he/she intends to kill everybody within the house, the game's transmitted genre will drastically change: the player will now have to face a plain white marble villa jam-packed with approx. 500 black-suited, heavily armed baddies all waiting to be killed - and these are simply not there if one picks the peaceful approach! Female NPCs which are of vital importance during the peaceful version of this scene will simply be omitted (probably fled through the windows) and the whole tone will be that of a John Woo action flick (seen "A Better Tomorrow II."?).
Thus, in "Vampire: Bloodlines" the player's choice may not only effect the outcome of a set situation like for instance in "Deus Ex", it may at times also decide whether certain plot elements or NPCs will "start to exist" in the first place. This is an interesting way to assign more meaning to the player: instead of always making NPCs boast at the player character's importance to make the player feel better, "Vampire: Bloodlines" does not only allow the player to cut through whole sections in whatever way he/she wishes - it even adapts itself to these wishes at times.
As already hinted at, this has to be one of the most postmodern games ever created - for a number of reasons. Due to its heavy reliance on quests rather than on a linear plot it's structure appears to be largely episodic. It's dialogue is not only extremely well written, but it's continuously tongue-in cheek, witty and ironic, even when dealing with the most brutal events and outcomes. Most important, however, is this game's playful approach to genre, "art culture" and to notions of reality vs. different kinds of fantasy.
"Vampire: Bloodlines" is highly infested with all sorts of allusions to all kinds of literature, movies, cultural phenomena and even present-day politics. These are not only extremely numerous - in fact, they're all over the place - but they also seamlessly range from their "lowest" (i.e. porn, splatter, snuff films etc.) to their "highest" respective forms (Scorsese, Hitchcock, Shakespeare etc.). Almost every genre is hinted at and played with in "Vampire: Bloodlines", shifting from witty screwball comedy to hentai in a split-second.
Most fun, however, is naturally had with the horror genre. Allusions, places and story elements include the classic "haunted hotel" setting, Cronenbergian visions of mutilation and "Body Horror", Hieronymus Bosch's apocalyptic vistas, George Romero's zombie slaughter-fests, Murnau's early German expressionism, mad scientists, serial killers, Victorian mad-houses, etc. etc. - it would be impossible to mention even a fracture of this department.
"Vampire: Bloodlines" gets successfully away with all this genre switching just because it fully dedicates itself to its own playful postmodernism - this game really declares constant, more or less radical changes of place, dialogue, style and atmosphere to be its main point of "unity".
However, apart from being playful, witty and ironic while dealing with its own, "fractured" design "Vampire: Bloodlines" effectively keeps itself from becoming a mere "guessing game" of popular/high culture simply because everything is executed so extremely well. The "horror house", for instance, is quite an obvious allusion to a whole set of movies - and yet it's still a frightfully effective horror level because of its intelligent build-up and some positively spooky graphics and eerie sounds. That's where this game really strikes a fine balance: while everything is presented quite ironically and with a lot of tongue-in-cheek humour, it's places are still seriously threatening, it's NPCs are still seriously interesting characters and it's plot-lines are still seriously engaging. Combined with all the allusions to various examples of the horror genre, it impressively shows that even the most corny and well known mechanics (flying books, bursting doors, howling wolves etc.) continue to be frightful if they're well executed - and, as already mentioned, this game features a masterful execution across the board.
Last but not least: this game almost academically addresses the elusive relationship between reality and fiction/fantasy - and in this context its postmodern means of quotation and allusion actually make real sense.
The motif of the Vampire already sets this game's main topic: since the late Victorian times of "Dracula", Vampires have always been regarded as an embodiment of exciting (and erotic) fantasy lurking behind an outwardly "normal" appearance. This employed contrast between a respectable, more or less reality-based "outside" and a fictitious "inside" which may be both frightening and fascinating at the same time has already been hinted at in this review and is used throughout the whole game.
!!! WARNING !!! SEVERAL SPOILERS AHEAD !!!
Even the game's title implies the notion of masquerade, i.e. the veiling of one's true nature, and thus a dissent between "inside" and "outside". As already mentioned, the game begins with a reality shift in which a natural "outside" reality is more or less replaced by a super-natural "inside" one which also physically exists "inside": behind locked doors or in secluded apartments. This "vampiric" reality is, however, further fractured in itself and contains several additional divisions between "inside" and "outside": the different clans hide away from each other, different political fractions live in significantly different locations and outwardly "normal" NPCs may reveal their true, "monstrous" nature any minute.
The whole game, its plot as well as its settings, is filled with notions the treachery and unreliability of what's supposedly "real". Both the Camarilla and Prince LaCroix hide their true motivations. The Kuei-jin are actually shape-shifters with a more than elusive "outside", as is the game's final enemy. Jeannette has a split personality including a respectable, controllable "outside" part as well as an outlandish, exciting, but menacingly crazy "inside" part (both of which are in constant conflict and very hard to reconcile). A strip dancer turns out to be a Vampire killer, a church hosts a gothic club, a gothic club hosts the mafia, a snuff-film containing "real" killings is made with "unreal" (or "surreal") monsters which are hopping around various movie-sets...the list of "inside"-"outside" contrasts and uncertain realities to be found in "Vampire: Bloodlines" is just too long to be coincidental. In the end (at least in the ending I got) the "inside" of the main plot's "outside" sarcophagus everyone is rambling about (though its opening might actually end all life - again, the fascinating goes hand in hand with the threatening) is not revealed: in fact, it may be rather the players' and the various NPCs' shady fantasies than anything "real" which fills the sarcophagus' "inside".
By now it can easily be seen that "Vampire: Bloodlines" does in fact not only challenge the player's perception of "reality", but also his/her perception of the nature of the "fictitious", of "fantasy" - which can be both exciting and dangerous, even (or especially) at the same time. This is certainly one reason why this game contains so many allusions to both present-day reality and all kinds of different fantasies (i.e. all kinds of novels, movies etc.) from all imaginable "quality levels": it offers the player a kaleidoscope of our own world's immense chaos of varying and uncertain realities and of the often enough dubious nature of our fantasies (which aren't any less chaotic).
The city of Los Angeles is a somewhat final expression of that notion: it's just as much a real city as it is a "dream factory", and as a "dream factory" it does not only offer a vent for our pleasant, glossy "Hollywood" fantasies, but for all the uncomfortable and dark ones, too.
Many minor negative issues have already been addressed in other reviews, so there is no need to address them again. It has to be noted, though, that most of the bug and loading-time related problems have been largely eliminated by now due to the numerous existing fan-patches and the more advanced hardware which is accessible today (reminds one of Origin-days, doesn't it?).
However, one can apply the same piece of criticism to "Vampire: Bloodlines" which one can apply to most postmodern art in general: for some people, it may well be too witty, too ironic, too varying in its atmospheres and places and, well, probably a bit too cold. "Vampire: Bloodlines" is often enough quite the contrary of a heart-quenching experience. No sir, in a game where one can play basketball with a severed human head and slap enemies silly with a severed human arm, emotional qualities are indeed bound to suffer.
All in all, "Vampire: Bloodlines" is extremely well-done, literally glows with style and intellectuality - and is probably more aimed at one's head than at one's heart.
The Bottom Line
Apart from some minor negative points, "Vampire: Bloodlines" is a great game in all respects. It features stellar production values across the board, it's gameplay is innovative and fresh and it's content is extremely witty, intelligent, "up-to-date" and - in the end - even thought-provoking.
It is a must-play for everyone who is interested in a 3D-RPG which is in the best possible way modern, moreover, it's simply a treat for postmodern blokes trying to find out just how many horror movies they've seen, as well as for anyone interested to find out more about the relationship between respectable "outside" realities and the ambiguous aspects of (wanted? feared?) "inside" fantasies. In this respect, it is not only a worthy contribution to the motif of the Vampire but also, in the original meaning of the world, perverse (lat. "perversio": a twist, a reversal).