Buggy Yet Beautiful, an RPG to be Savored
Ahh, the feeling of being a vampire in a modern city… the freedom to take the life of your enemies with firearms or melee weapons, your fists, or maybe just your teeth. Free to roam about the city, staring up at the skyscrapers rendered spectacularly in 3D, or the freedom to take to the sewers and ogle the shiny water, away from accusing eyes of the mortals. This is an RPG where you dictate your role while following a storyline, experiencing the game on your own terms. The game brings to mind the greatness of games such as Deus Ex and Fallout, yet also brings to mind their faults. More on that last bit in a moment, but for now, the greatness.
The feeling is what is pulled off best in this game, the raw sensations generated by an expertly crafted world. Though this is Los Angeles by the terms of an overburdened video game engine, this is still the closest that a game has gotten to the actual feel of a city. Bump mapped surfaces, well-placed lighting, and pedestrians and cops to keep from feeling lonely. While the hubs (the four main open areas that the game branches out from) are in perpetual night, due to your vampiric condition and all, each has its own flavor of the night. From run-down Santa Monica to seedy Hollywood, to surreal Chinatown to booming Downtown, the four hubs all do their jobs admirably, and never seem to get old. Part of that is simply because of the scale – each segment of the city feels alive, and makes the player feel small. The buildings of Downtown pen you in, but also provide a sense of awe while wandering around underneath them. The interiors can get detailed to the point of where you can spend five minutes just looking at the satirized products on a convenience store’s shelves, or the horrifying ‘decoration’ of a particularly evil vampire lord. The Source engine is capable of much, and being impressed by the simulated world is just as matter of course while playing this game. There are points in this game where you’ll be scared or amused or angry, but each time it happens, the feel of the game comes through and you’ll appreciate the skill with which the game designers have manipulated the Source engine. Words aren’t enough to describe the exceptional feeling of the game, however, so I’ll move on.
The visuals in the game are also capable of impressing. While not the most pristine graphics ever, the slightly gritty feeling of the game pervades the look of everything in the game. The environments are easily the best thing in this category, as described in the previous paragraph. There is also the unique look for each of four armor levels for each of the 14 possible player characters in the game (Male/Female for 7 clans), each providing an interesting look for your character. Then there are the high quality character models, something of critical importance in a role-playing game. From the unbelievably ugly characters to the clean beauty of others, the faces that you will come up against in conflict, and ‘friends’ that you talk with, are varied and outstanding. The talking heads of Fallout are finally matched in an RPG by these faces, and I have to say that it’s about time. You can see the emotion in the faces of those you’re negotiating with, and a frown and a lowered brow can spell caution. Your dialog choices will influence this, sometimes chaotically.
Dialog, arguably the most important part of any RPG, is given the number one position in this game. Visuals, sound, atmosphere, none of it can touch the character interactions. Much like Fallout, you have no voice beyond the lines of text that you see on the screen, but fortunately the actual dialog has evolved in the time since that admittedly classic game. The multitudes of characters that you will encounter all talk, and in most cases outstandingly. One of the most memorable characters, Jack, whom you meet right off the bat and see several times over the course of the game, is voiced by none other than John Di Maggio, of Futurama’s Bender fame. Your responses are dependent frequently on your stats, which add another element of role-playing. Color coding for persuasion, intimidation, or seduction lines are the most obvious feature of dialog in this game, and those coded dialog options are all dependent on the amount of XP you’ve pumped into various social skills. You’re free to extort, con, inspire, seduce, frighten - basically, you’re free to treat an NPC however you like in order to get what you want. And you’ll get what you want plenty, which is what makes the dialog so rewarding. The words in this paragraph come up far short of the words in the game, so again, you’ll have to experience it to believe it.
And finally, the gameplay is just plain fun. You’re free to play the game however you feel, and even tackle the main story arc with the attitude that you want, eventually ending up with one hell of a character, and in one of several endings. From the start to the end, your choices influence how the game plays, and the repercussions of actions are sometimes more fun than the actions themselves. If you’ve played a great RPG, you know what it’s like. This is a great RPG, and that’s all I can say.
For all the goodness in this game, there’s unfortunately a heavy burden of bad things that can detract from the game. This game, released the same day as Half-Life 2 (Nov. 16), and powered by the same engine, should not have been released in the state it’s in as of this writing. A patch is rumored to be forthcoming, and all I can say is, it better not be a rumor. I’ve had remarkably few problems, but even on my beefy system, performance starts to drag after a while. Load times are somewhat aggravating, especially after several hours in the game (time that seems to simply disappear, since the gameplay is so engrossing). Activision dropped the ball big time on this one, considering how publishers work, and I hope they can clean up their mess. I have faith that Troika can salvage this game, provided they receive the support to do it. Similarly, there’s faith that Activision knows that keeping this license as pristine as possible is in their best interests.
Aside from the performance problems, there are also the plain old software bugs. From gamestoppers (at least one that nearly everyone gets, I got, and is fortunately easily fixed through the console), to slightly broken quests, to untested features (character histories), the list is just too long to put across appreciably. Needless to say, I’m one of the very lucky ones, and many people have had nothing but bad technical experiences with this game. I feel for them, since this is such an outstanding game. Troika came close to perfection with this one, and it’s unfortunate that technical problems plague what would have otherwise been an unarguably great RPG. The two to three minutes it can take to exit out of the game is slightly aggravating on a system with a gig of RAM, however, and the hard drive thrashing that this game has put my aging IBM HD (with the OS & pagefile on it) through now makes me wonder whether I should back up all the files on it. Yeah, the performance is that bad.
The Bottom Line
The game is inexcusably buggy at release, the load times are horrendous even with a gig of RAM, and even that much physical RAM, a 1.5 gig pagefile is recommended for the game. The bugs, the load times, and the decreasing performance problems over time, are the only bad things I can say about this game, although both of those things eat at me. Besides that?
Simply, this is as close to a perfect RPG as I’ve played. I enjoyed Vampire TM: Redemption enormously, simply because of the story, but this game is great not only because of the story. From the intricately branching dialog paths, to the satisfying and varied combat, to the atmosphere experienced during every second while playing, this game doesn’t quit giving the gift of good gameplay. With all of the these words, I still haven’t been able to put across everything I feel that’s good and bad about this game. Fallout and Deus Ex were my tied as my favorite RPGs until this month, but after many years, they’ve both been displaced by the game that is Bloodlines.
Troika has created a world that I’m sad to leave, in spite of the immense satisfaction that I took out of completing the game with a character that had a ton of momentum going into the final months. Dozens of hours of gameplay later, I’m holding my breath for a patch that will make this game become the game it should have been at release, and when (if) that patch hits, I will be playing through this game again.