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I've never been a huge fan of White Wolf's "Vampire" series. I quite enjoy the World of Darkness system itself, however I've been reluctant to try this particular iteration for the following reason. I've met too many Vampire players who fit an annoying stereotype of teen or twenty-something emo-goth-LARPers who will spend hours telling you about their characters, all the while using the word "I" rather than "my character," showing that their understanding of the line between fantasy and reality has blurred.
Luckily, Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines (V:tMB) manages to provide a single-player Vampire adventure, allowing me to enjoy the system and setting without having to deal with other players. The result is a buggy, but enjoyable title.
The story begins with your character being "sired" by a vampire. Unfortunately for your sire, this was unauthorized and the penalty for said crime is Final Death. You, however, are granted reprieve by the prince of Los Angeles, Sebastian LaCroix. You are instructed to learn the ways of Vampire society, making special note to preserve the Masquerade: the code by which (most) vampires abide. This involves keeping your vampiric nature secret from humans at all costs.
In order to better familiarize yourself with your new (un)life - and to make sure you earn your keep - you are requested to perform certain tasks. As you complete these tasks, you are drawn into a plot of Byzantine proportions, and you quickly learn that the only person you can trust is yourself.
I must say that I was very pleased with the story in this game. Everything from the top-notch dialogue to the engrossing plot left me satisfied. There's murder, intrigue, and a good dose of humor to satisfy any gamer's taste. I personally played through the game as a Malkavian (the "crazy" vampire clan), and some of the dialogue options were hilarious. V:tMB truly has one of the best stories of any video game I've played.
Try Your Hand at the Jyhad
V:tMB's gameplay is based on White Wolf's "World of Darkness" rule set and, from what I know of the system, was ported pretty accurately onto the PC. You make a character based on one of the 7 Camarilla-aligned clans, each with its own advantages and disadvantages, and then put points into different skills (which raise abilities, called "feats") and disciplines (vampire superpowers.) As you go through the game, you are given tasks to complete, for which you gain experience (used to increase skills and disciplines, among other things,) and sometimes money and items. Tasks can generally be accomplished in one of three ways: through talking, through sneaking, or through fighting. Depending on what you're best at, you can choose how to go about the task, which gives the game a real "open-ended" feel.
The battle system itself is very simple. You can switch between first and third-person views and use melee weapons, firearms, or your fists to take out the baddies. Certain enemies are more vulnerable to one type of attack over another, so it's important to use the right tool for the job.
The blood meter influences your character in other ways as well. The lower your blood points, the more likely you are to enter a state of frenzy, in which you lose control of your character and he or she goes nuts by beating up on everything in sight. The chances of this are partially mitigated by your "humanity" level, which is a gauge of how in touch with your original human morality you are. The lower your humanity, the more likely you are to frenzy and, consequently, the more likely you are to violate the Masquerade.
Restoring blood points also helps you heal. While vampires naturally heal over time, feeding on enemies (or innocents) will speed the process. As long as you don't kill innocents while feeding, you won't lose humanity.
While the overall gameplay is good, V:tMB suffers from some very noticeable bugs which, despite the most recent patch, still significantly affect the gameplay. The most glaring issue is the one-two punch of seemingly interminable load times and frame-skipping, even on high-end systems. The game is built on Valve's Source engine, which is arguably the most graphically advanced out there. Yet, while Half Life 2 plays fine on even mid-range systems (providing some of the visual effects are toned down) V:tMB frequently stalls. I was running the game on a 1.8GHz AMD 64 with 512 MB of DDR RAM and a GeForce GT 6600, and the game would sometimes take up to 2 minutes to load an area and then frequently lag for 10 seconds or more at a time. It was downright frustrating, and if it weren't for the excellent story and the rest of the gameplay elements, I would have just given up on the game entirely. Unfortunately for gamers, with developer Troika having recently closed its doors, it's unlikely that these problems will ever be remedied.
We are Shadows, We are Sight Unseen
As previously mentioned, V:tMB uses Valve's Source engine and it's very evident from a graphics standpoint. Surface textures are incredibly detailed, and while the NPCs aren't as breathtaking as they were in Half Life 2, they are still well above average.
Water effects are beautiful, though they tend to hog resources, and particle effects are decent. Shadows and lighting are good - though they didn't make that much of an impression - and character animation was very nice and rarely overstated. Yes, the game sometimes needs the gamma boosted, but in a game in which a dark atmosphere is a must, it's not really something to complain about.
The Voices in My Head Say You're Lying
The aural presentation in V:tMB is very good. Each area's musical theme fits in quite nicely with the visuals, and ranges from gritty industrial to rock to frightening horror-flick-grade mood music complete with pizzicato violins. In addition to the instrumentals, there are some excellent vocal pieces by notable groups such as Ministry, Tiamat, and Aerial, who play in the various clubs scattered throughout Vampire's L.A. setting. This is definitely a soundtrack to pick up if you're a fan of industrial or hard rock.
The vocal performance is excellent, with famous voice talent such as Phil LaMarr (Samurai Jack; Green Lantern in Justice League), Neil Ross (Shipwreck in G.I. Joe), and John DiMaggio (Wakka/Kimahri in FFX.) None of the performances are overdone, and the actors all managed to capture the feel and personality of the characters quite well. Sound effects were also a cut above, with superb explosions, footsteps, and weapon noises. There was nothing lacking in the sound department, except perhaps for the music getting caught in the sound buffer during the aforementioned lag.
The Hunger Makes You Lose Control
I really don't have much to complain about when it comes to the game's control scheme. WASD + mouse = standard first person gameplay. Menus are easily navigated and organized and, aside from certain mouse-over locations being in strange places, most aspects were decent. The only other issue that comes to mind is that I sometimes wound up getting stuck in objects, which is a severe pain when you're tying to escape from a mob of zombies, but this happened infrequently enough not to stand out as a major problem.
The Blood of Caine Determines Our Fate
Vampire: the Masquerade Bloodlines manages to deliver an enjoyable RPG experience, while at the same time providing high-quality visuals, excellent audio, and a truly fantastic story. If it hadn't been for the bugs, this game would have been one of my favorite RPGs of all time. Unfortunately the problems are substantial enough that V:tMB doesn't quite make the cut. Still, for those of you who are able to tolerate long load times and lag, and who either have high-end systems or don't mind putting the settings down, this title will confer hours of enjoyment, and a substantial amount of replay value.