Bloody Good Fun
Before vampires became the sparkling tween obsession we regard them as today, the mythical blood-sucking beasts were a hallmark of otherworldly terror. They were almost impossible to kill, only came out at night, had the ability to transform into one of the most grotesque creatures on Earth, and literally drank the life essence out of human beings. Although their appearances and perceptions have changed with every narrative that uses them, there was a time when vampires represented everything that was morally wrong with the world. They were violent, foul, distasteful, and sexual all at the same time. They took pleasure in drinking the blood of others, using ungodly powers to bend minds, and spreading the scourge of vampirism through mischievous and sly means,
Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is the closest you’ll ever come to experiencing first hand the underbelly of this hellish existence. With the pulsing, raw streets of Los Angeles as a backdrop, you take the role of a recently turned fledgling vampire as you climb the ranks of the mob-like society. Rival factions will attempt to win your favor, random strangers will require your unique skill set. and the thrill of personal gain is always one more quest away.
Everyone, vampire or not, hides a truer self that they expose only when the sun goes down, and what better place to tell a story of masquerades and hidden identities than Tinsel Town itself? Luckily, Vampire: The Masquerade doesn’t waste its setting or the opportunity to poke fun at its inhabitants. Characters, even fleeting ones, feel like they’ve existed long before you arrived, and will continue to exist after you’re gone. Branching dialogue choices give you the option of interacting with them how you see fit, and they’ll react accordingly. The script is smartly written, often times very funny, and brought to life with great voice acting. You’ll catch yourself lingering around your downtown apartment, checking emails for new missions, and just listening to the late night radio conversations chatter away.
Los Angeles is the biggest and most impressive character of the game. There are four distinct level hubs that you’ll explore throughout the forty hour journey, each with their own baron, quests, and secrets to uncover. Vampire: The Masquerade is realistic, but never cheesy in its portrayal of the city. This is LA’s underbelly you’re navigating. Strip clubs, sex, violence and shady characters are all on display, but never feel like they are there to push controversy or make the game feel more “mature”. This is a fully realized city, and the honesty in which it portrays its inhabitants is admirable and a pinnacle of excellent level design.
How you choose to interact with the environment is up to you. Want to play the sneaky type? Slinking the back alleys of Santa Monica while stalking your next unsuspecting snack feels immersive and draws you into the role of a vampire organically. Conversely, you could smooth talk a prostitute and spend a little cash for an easy meal. The game will never tell you what is right or wrong, only when you are violating the code of the established faction or giving into your primal beast, and even then, just so you understand the consequences of the world.
Quest design is where Vampire: The Masquerade really shines. This is one of the first games I’ve ever played where I felt compelled to complete every last thread I could find. Yes, some missions boil down to fetch quests, but the multiple ways in which you can complete an objective, coupled with interesting and sometimes hilarious character motivations, make even the most mundane goals exciting and rewarding. However, fans of a modern day waypoint system will find themselves wanting. Your quest log gives you some information about what you have to do next, but it’s up to you to put the pieces together.
The brilliance of these quests is how intertwined they are with the level design and the larger vampire world. You always feel like you are completing something no matter where you go. Objectives will often overlap, and where you go for one quest will often uncover answers or further another. The missions themselves are also almost always related to the larger scope of vampire lore. This gives the game a strong cohesiveness that is severely lacking in more recent, sprawling RPGs. The information you can learn through conversations and completing side quests will heavily influence how you react to main story missions down the line.
What’s most refreshing about this design is that you never feel like you’re wasting time, wandering around the city with nothing to do or completing unrelated tasks. The result is a game world that feels alive, complete and lived in, but can also feel intensely lonely and desolate during the longest stretches of the night. Atmosphere, world design and quest structure come together to create an incredibly realized experience that surprasses many modern big budget titles.
Developer Troika Games should be applauded for their effort in providing multiple paths to choose, Deus Ex style, but some aspects of this design falls short. Combat in particular is a nuisance. Guns fire wildly and lack any weight, while melee combat forces you to play in a very awkward third person mode. This puts the focus mostly on stealth, which would be fine if it weren’t for the last few main mission levels that force you to fight through floor after floor of enemies. If you didn’t level up properly by the end, many players will find nothing but frustration at the tail end of what was, up until the finale, a very engrossing experience. The stat screen is also clunky and confusing. Multiple categories level up different stats, with some overlapping, and others singular. It is an unnecessary blunder that could have easily been streamlined.
Still, those flaws don’t take anything away from the immersive and incredibly woven experience the game creates. The scope and ambition of Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines is astounding, and it’s a testament to Troika Games that they pulled off as much as they did. Yes, not everything works in the gameplay department, but the world is complete and unlike anything anyone has created since. Once you’ve completed the game, make sure to go back and replay it as the mentally deranged Malkavian vampire class, which features an entirely different script and new gameplay options.
Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines was overshadowed during its initial release. Aside from being released on the same day as Half Life 2 and Metal Gear Solid 3 (a multiple AAA release the likes we’ll probably never see again), the game was initially plagued with bugs and glitches thanks to a rushed development cycle. Luckily, there are numerous mods that fix bugs, update the aspect ratio and provide sharper textures which are available online. I highly recommend you download and install them prior to playing. The extra work is more than worth it.
If you’re a fan of old school, sprawling action-role-playing-games, do not miss out on Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. The world is incredibly deep and the level of character interaction is something we may never experience again. Identity is at the heart of this underrated gem, and in an industry where escapism and role playing are some of the biggest draws, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is the best example of what the genre can do.