A fitting epitaph for a passionate, yet flawed, development house.
Troika proved with its first game that it really knew how to create depth in a game world when handling role playing. This game proves to continue that tradition, as role-playing really shines in this game.
You start by selecting a vampire type, each with its own strengths, weaknesses and a special power only allowed to the particular vampire family. And each character type is an experience in itself: The ugly Nosferatu who must hides its visage from humans or risk revealing the masquerade; the beautiful Toreador who easily moves through humanity, seducing their victims; the Brujah who viciously use their muscle to get what they want; the insane malkovians who can’t seem to communicate to others without creating and uncomfortable situation, yet have better insight for it. As you see, there are many paths to follow allowing some replayability as you try various vampires.
From this you will go into the dark under belly of LA, feeling your way through intrigues, lies, and plots. In the process you will get various quests you can solve to ingratiate yourself with the denizens of the everlasting night. On resolving each quest, you gain experience and levels, which allow you to pour points into various skills and abilities. You may do so as you wish, though your choice of vampire type will make some skills more expensive than others. This allows even more customizability by choosing individualized skills for your vampire.
When you do go into the world, you will need to work within the rule of the Masquerade. You must avoid human understanding of what you are, or you could be punished. This is a great gameplay obstacle, and can be used to change how you are looked at. On top of this is the bloodlust you must satisfy. All major skills use blood and damage taken can only be healed by blood. So, you will need to find ways to sate the lust or risk permanent death. These limits of the game world do add to the gameplay and keep it fresh and risky.
As you move through the various areas of LA, such as Hollywood, Santa Barbara, and China town, you will meet quite a few great and personable NPCs. Each has memorable dialogue and are generally well voiced. Main NPCS are well rendered as well, making them feel more real. I always enjoyed interacting with them, as the menu driven conversations have many paths and allow many reactions. Even your powers will add more reactions, depending on ability. The best are the Malkovian responses, creating quite humorous reactions.
Various quests these NPCs will give you will keep you interested and are rarely repetitive. You will get to try your hand at fighting monsters, sneaking into various companies, hacking computers and many other actions. You will even get to try various skills in missions to accomplish your tasks, such as either talking or fighting your way in the Chinese theater. But this is not always the case as I mention in the bad.
Various locations are generally well done, and a few are pretty darned exceptional. The hotel is one of the best scary places I’ve seen in gaming in a long time. It oozes a kind of fun house atmosphere that is really enjoyable. I also found the psychiatrist’s mansion a weird but interesting area, reminiscent of Thief’s Balfor mansion.
This leads to the area of graphics. My first error was to play this alongside Half Life 2, which truly is an unfair comparison. Though there are bugs (mentioned below) many of the scenes are well detailed and nicely designed. Some are better than others, such as Chinatown and the Nosferatu town. For an RPG, the look of the graphics are well done. But there are some issues with performance, and some areas leave much to be desired.
Finally the story is very good. It is rather linear, but has its own twists and turns, mostly depending on you. Much of the best story is in the sidequests where you learn more about the politics of being a vampire. And you do get to determine the ending, and I suggest you try them all for they do have some surprises and nice cinematics. I felt the ending was well done, though there are some other opinions. And though you never really get to know your character, you do get a taste of White Wolf’s vampiric world.
When it comes to role playing and characterization, Vampire gets a gold star. But battling enemies is another story. Despite multiple skills, battles devolve mostly in to clicking on the enemy to defeat them. Magic allows for some strategy, but the speed of battles can undermine thoughts of strategizing. And some of the tougher battles will use up your blood skills quickly before you can finish off the enemy. Enemies have a tendency to run up and attack without much thought to their actions. Many times you will use your powerful skills to kill enemies quickly without much more action.
For all the intricate character customizability, some of this gets lost in many actual quests one can undertake. Many of the actions emphasize only one or two skills, such as the zombie hunt requiring good gunplay. This would not be so bad if it were only the sidequests, but many of the main quests demand use of few skills, such as the need to sneak through the museum to get some of the best experience. If you leveled in the personality orders, you’ll find they get lost through many of the missions. There are some spells that will allow you to buff up your weaker skills, but it would still be nice to play through each as you have developed your character, not force your character into unnatural actions.
The final levels are the worst. Be prepared to use the last of your experience to beef up fighting skills and battle magic. You will be doing a lot of fighting and will have a hell of a time if you only poured your skills in other areas. This undermines the role playing strength of the game.
Another issue is the bugs. Many of the worst were fixed in the patch, but there are plenty of others. The graphics are choppy on the best of machines (I figure my ATI Radieon on 2.5 GHz machine is no slouch) and moving areas such as elevators skip around. I don’t blame Troika as much on this because Valve made a patch for the same issues in Half Life 2, but did not distribute it to Troika, leaving many problems in.
Load areas feel much like another bug, but they are a weakness a graphics heavy engine. Going in and out of buildings lead to all sorts of load times, and it can be frustrating to move around. On top of this, the places you go are both limited to a few areas and the areas feel artificially closed. There are many times I was confronted with strange barriers that shout “You are in an artificial room created by game developers!” Plus, it appears more areas were promised than delivered. Take a look at the box, I never saw that cowgirl anywhere.
Along with this are the graphical issues that can undermine believability. There are a lot of twins in the game at various places. Many of the body models can be so simple compared the the NPCs that it feels shoddy. And some areas are rather bland and repetitive (welcome to the sewers). Of course, much of this comes from the Half Life 2 comparison, and for an RPG, its not too bad.
The Bottom Line
Troika’s third and final game takes them to unfamiliar territory in creating Deus Ex style shooter. What they add is a deeper role playing system and in-depth character interactions. But, there are problems standard to Troika’s fare: bugs, a less then satisfying breadth of area, a linear finale with minor, though intriguing, choices in the end. They overreach at expansive gameplay and world but come up somewhat short, concentrating their efforts in a few areas leaving the game unbalanced, as if there could be so much more.
Despite the flaws, Troika does excel at what they concentrate on. This leads to a game that is well worth playing for to see how well they can do some things and leaves one wondering how well they could have made games had they found balance. So, if you want a fine example of idealistic zeal for creating great role-playing, characterization, and story, you can’t go wrong with this gem.