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SummaryOnce again, pure RPG bliss courtesy of Troika
The GoodAs every fan of role-playing games should know, the guys from Troika Games played a major role (no pun intended) in the creation of the landmark RPG Fallout and its sequel. As they established themselves as an independent game-developing company, they delivered us the wonderful Arcanum, one of the most flexible, open-ended, and yet so intensely atmospheric and story-driven games ever known to mankind. After this game I realized that I would buy any game developed by Troika. Well, not exactly any game - I wasn't really interested in Temple of Elemental Evil, but it was because I'm not into classic AD&D-style hack-and-slash, not because the game was bad. When I heard that "Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines" was going to be a real RPG - with NPCs, story line, sub-quests, and so on - I went out and bought it. Even more than that, this game helped me to make up my mind and finally purchase a new computer. So, did it live up to my expectations? No. It surpassed them.
When I hear the words vampires and Los Angeles in the same sentence, I can't help thinking about Angel, one of the few TV shows I was interested in and cared to watch. Now, I was never a fan of Buffy - The Vampire Slayer; somehow, this show seemed childish and too "cartoony" to me. But then I watched "Angel" (as a matter of fact, still watching it, Season 4 comes next) and was charmed by the dark atmosphere of vampire-ridden Los Angeles. Well, let's just say that all this atmosphere, good as it is, doesn't stand a chance against the sheer beauty of the world in "Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines".
The atmosphere in this game is, quite simply, amazing. I was totally addicted to the world of this game. I can't find the right words to describe it; there is something so magical in it, something I don't know how to define. Of course, one of the chief atmosphere-making components is graphics. Needless to say: the graphics of the game are fabulous. Never mind their technical quality - it's their artistic touch that makes them shine; the incredibly stylish design, with all kinds of weird and grotesque ideas, full of imagination - gothic horror, immense sensuality, and decadent glamor are mixed together to create an unforgettable setting. This is one of those games where extensive usage of adult-oriented imagery - sex and gore - has a true artistic value. There are many bloody locations in the game; suffering and physical pain literally surrounds you. At the same time, the game is extremely erotic - in a dangerous, menacing way. There are reasons for all that: these stylistic elements are there because they help to create a believable, convincing, seducing world. "Vampire" is a masterpiece of dark beauty.
Some locations in this game ooze atmosphere to the point of engulfing the player entirely. When I was running around the haunted mansion early in the game I felt as if I were having a beautiful dream. And when I descended into the sewers to investigate the video tape murders, I was genuinely scared by those terrifying demons. I nearly jumped on my seat when the first of those creatures suddenly attacked me in the internet cafe. Really, such things should be experienced in order to be believed. And the werewolf chase? Undeniably one of the most nerve-tickling, scariest moments in my game-playing career. I remember how I ran away from that beast and crouched helplessly in a dark corner of that tram shack. The werewolf was madly running about, crushing the door of the shack. It didn't notice me and continued howling and hitting the walls. It was terrifying. The only thought I had was: "Don't move! Just... don't move". And then the tram finally arrived, and I jumped into it at the same moment as the werewolf's claws hit me... I escaped alive, and gazed at the spectacular panorama of nocturnal Los Angeles spread in front of me, sensing deep relief and still trembling at the thought of what I have just experienced.
Yes, this game is very intense - poetically, artistically intense. But the more "normal" locations, those you visit all the time, and where scripted events rarely occur, are as atmospheric and as stylish as those unique set-pieces I described above. There are four main "hubs" in the game - Santa Monica, Downtown LA, Hollywood, and Chinatown. Each one of those big locations is depicted with great style and enormous attention to detail. I often found myself simply stopping and staring at the dark skies, with all those neon signs cluttered on top of skyscrapers. Just to visit those places is a magnificent experience. And character graphics? Every conversation is shown up close, with remarkable variety of facial expressions. You won't forget those faces even if you try to. Not to mention the technical side of the whole thing - shadows, reflections, lights, and so on: everything just looks fantastic in this game.
Before I bought it, I thought "Vampire" won't be a heavily story-driven game, but more a "vampire simulation" in which you'll simply have to become more powerful. In reality, "Vampire" has a surprisingly strong and fascinating storyline. There are plot twists, unexpected events and similar stuff. The story revolves mostly about politics in the vampire world, and in the middle of the game, when you get the big picture, you realize how complex the whole set-up actually is. The political organizations of Los Angeles are believable and well thought-out. There is the leading party of Camarilla, a conservative movement, corrupted from within, but with clear inclination to order-preserving; the Anarchs, sort of radical leftists who don't recognize any authority and who believe in a "free world"; the vicious Sabbat, who exploit the beastly, cruel part of the vampires, and whose goal is utter destruction; and finally, the mysterious Kuei-Jin, Chinese vampires with different traditions and ideas about spirituality.
The best part of all this is that before the endgame begins you'll have to decide which side you are on. Some decisions won't be possible, because during the game you were too rude to representatives of certain organizations, or did something to offend them. In the end, it is you, the player, who has to find his own ideology and to believe in it. I absolutely loved this kind of moral choice. It was almost like Shin Megami Tensei games with their Law, Chaos, and Neutral paths; perhaps more similar to Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne with its more detailed ideological movements, and also to Deus Ex. You get different endings depending on which side you choose. You'll also skip one of the two final areas if you side with certain people. I decided to go along with the Chinese guys. Next time I'll try to choose a different alignment, partly because the ending I got was... well, I can't spoil it here.
"Vampire" also has fascinating characters. Prince LaCroix, Nines, Jack, Isaac Abrams, Ming Xiao - each one of those people (and many more) has a unique personality, style of speech, and behavior. It was a pleasure just to listen to those characters talk - first, because the voice acting was of surprisingly high quality, and second, because the dialogues themselves were wonderfully lively and often very witty and humorous. The humor plays an important role in the game - there are hilarious dialogue lines, messages, and eastern eggs spread around it. Once again, the talent of the developers shows itself - both Fallout games and Arcanum also contained quite a lot of intelligent, fine humor.
The main plot itself is just the tip of an iceberg. One of the most impressive aspects of "Vampire" is the whole background information you receive about the game world. I never played the pen-and-paper RPG, but I enjoyed enormously reading all this background information on the loading screens (I had more than enough time to read them...ahem), or grilling various NPCs for information about the World of Darkness and its inhabitants. It was great to read about the history of vampires, their clans and societies, their nature, Caine, Antediluvians (which should mean "those before the flood", if my Latin doesn't deceive me), all kinds of prophecies, blood relations, social rules... it's a believable world, you could swear that it exists alongside the real one. Fascinating stuff that enriches a game and makes it even more appealing.
Now to what is probably the strongest aspect of the game (although all other aspects are damn good as well): gameplay. Oh boy, where do I start... "Vampire" delivers ultra-quality gaming no matter which genre you want it to belong to: role-playing, action adventure, or first-person shooter. Well, to be honest, it doesn't really work as a FPS; or, better to say, it doesn't work as a braindead, "kill-'em-all" kind of FPS. In certain areas, late in the game, you start gaining firepower and get involved in some exciting gunfights. For the most part however, you won't feel that you're playing a FPS, but something far more intelligent. "Vampire" follows the path of Deus Ex: its action is clever, it depends on the way you have customized your character, and most problems can be solved in two or more different ways. Of course, "Vampire" puts a much stronger emphasis on role-playing than "Deus Ex"; also, first-person shooting is just one of the ways to play the game: third-person melee action is in fact a more comfortable path on many occasions. "Vampire" is like a refined, evolved "Deus Ex"; something like "Deus Ex meets Arcanum".
Already the character creation gives you an idea about what a wonderful role-playing experience you are treated to. Different vampire clans are defined in a uniquely appealing way: instead of the usual boring "fighter" or "priest" you'll have a choice between beast-like Gangrels who can summon ferocious animals; insane Malkavians who have unique dialogue lines seemingly taken from a surrealist book; ugly Nosferatu who must hide from humans during the entire game, and so on. I spent a long time just studying those clans, and when I decided to be a Brujah, one of the idealists with unstoppable passion and love for melee fights, I felt as if I was reading a fascinating book about some really interesting mythology.
Unlike most other RPGs, you don't gain experience points from battles in this game, but only from completing quests. This encourages stealth and persuasion approaches and also makes it possible to run away from some difficult battles without fear of losing valuable experience. When you gain experience points, you distribute them to raise various parameters of your character. The role-playing system of "Vampire" is very flexible, almost like in Fallout games and "Arcanum". Beside just making your character stronger and tougher, you can update such skills as lockpicking and stealth (once again, "Deus Ex" comes to mind), as well as feats such as persuasion or seduction. In a true role-playing fashion, the game allows you to do whatever you like. Feel like going all stealthy, hacking computer terminals, picking locks of security doors, and silently creeping past unsuspecting guards? You can do that. More inclined towards diplomacy? Raise your charisma and persuasion, and you'll be able to complete many quests which can't be solved with stealth or brutal force. And maybe you'll spare yourself a fight or two. Or just make yourself sexy and seduce people in bars and discos. You can do all that. Welcome to real role-playing.
There is also plenty of vampire-exclusive stuff in this game. After all, you are playing an immortal creature, you can't be killed in conventional ways, and you can drink blood, right? Of course! All those vampire aspects are wonderfully integrated into the gameplay. First of all, there is the Masquerade. It means that you are not allowed to reveal to humans your true nature. So, if you are playing as Nosferatu, who don't look human, you can't even allow yourself to be seen. If you violate the Masquerade, be it through reckless mentioning of vampires in conversation, public blood-drinking, or usage of your special disciplines in front of human witnesses, you get a warning. Five such warnings, and the game is over. Cool gameplay element? You bet! But there is more. You should also pay attention to your Humanity. I loved this aspect of the game. You are constantly reminded that even as a vampire, you needn't be evil. Yes, you are a dark creature, a predator, a blood-sucker, but that doesn't mean that you should rampage the city killing innocent people. If you do anything of the kind, you'll lose Humanity. The less Humanity you have, the more you will be inclined to frenzy - berserk mode that will send you killing everyone left and right. But the more people you kill in this condition, the less Humanity you will have... so you'd best pay attention to it. Wonderful gameplay addition that adds a new layer of moral depth to the game.
The "meat" of this game, as in any good Western RPG, are the quests. Of course, theoretically you can just follow the main story quests and be done with the game, but first, you'll really need the experience, and second, those quests are for the most part quite exciting and original, sometimes even more so than the main storyline. You'll get various simple bad guy-killing or item-retrieving assignments, but also such interesting material as preventing a book from being published, criticizing food in a restaurant, or convincing a girl her boyfriend is really not interested in her. Many quests can be completed in various ways - persuasion skill plays a particularly important role. Will you kill a person, lockpick his office, or convince him to do what you want? The choice is yours.
When you fight, you do it either by punching your enemies, using melee weapons, or shooting. To use your vampire disciplines (some of which are unique to certain clans, so you'll never see all of them unless you play the game several times), you need blood. Blood points is another excellent vampire-related twist to the traditional usage of MP. Each discipline requires a certain amount of blood. Those disciplines range from increasing your attack power to driving your opponent insane. Blood points can be replenished by drinking blood packs, but of course a much cooler way is to feed on your enemies, if they are human. High unarmed combat rating increases your chances of successfully feeding on an armed enemy. Like this you can replenish your blood points and health as well. Also, you regenerate health over time, which is something I always like in this sort of games, and which once again fits the setting perfectly - vampires quickly recover from any wounds. The fights are exciting, there are different melee weapons and guns to try out, and overall the combat is as satisfying as are the quests.
The BadOkay, I'll say it quickly and be done with the Bad section: loading times, poor performance. Like most other players out there, I was irritated by the extremely long loading of areas and the clunky, choppy movement I couldn't get rid of. While smaller areas usually worked perfectly, the four main sections dragged and dragged, and so many times everything just froze, and I was physically sensing the pain of the computer as it tried to load so many things at the same time. Really, I almost never complain about technical issues, but this was too much. I admit I set everything at the highest level (complex shadows and all), but this game was not the last reason for buying a new powerful computer, which was above the minimum requirements. I can imagine some players could get annoyed by this issue (well, I wasn't so annoyed, but still). Come on, people. I remember how Max Payne 2 worked on my Pentium III!
I really have no other problems with the game. It's true there is a lot of combat, and I some battles probably do become extremely difficult if you decide to neglect combat-related stats. I personally had no problems at all, but then again, I played as a melee-oriented Brujah, and I didn't fight the hardest battle of the game because of my alignment choice. On the other hand, I had no seduction and persuasion skills, and therefore was unable to complete some quests, which in their turn would lead to more experience points, which I would then distribute for combat abilities; after all, this is exactly what true role-playing is about... hey, why am I writing this in the Bad section?!