Well, now that I’ve kinda teased it I guess I’ll have to follow through, don’t I?
So…welcome to another episode of Greatest Games Of All Time, my highly subjective compilation of the best video games ever made.
Unlike most of its fans my first experience in the World of Darkness setting wasn’t with one of its Pen & Paper RPGs, but the trading card game Vampire: The Eternal Struggle. The bits of story and background woven into that game were enough to intrigue me though, so I dug deeper and liked what I found.
Consequently I was eagerly anticipating the PC release of single-player RPG Vampire: The Masquerade – Redemption in 2000. Unfortunately it disappointed. It wasn’t a truly bad game, but in my opinion it wasn’t very good either. It was buggy, controls were clunky, combat frustrating. Even worse, the uninspired German voiceovers managed to undo every bit of atmosphere that might have been there (the English tracks weren’t included). I didn’t even make it far enough into the game to see the plot’s transition from 12th to 20th century, although I would have quite liked that.
Hence when the sequel, Bloodlines, was announced for release in November 2004 I was rather sceptic. Previews looked promising though, features like being able to choose a clan and having different ways to play the game seemed tailor-made for me. That Troika Games had decided to use Valve’s brand new Source engine instead of a homebrew was another reason for optimism.
So yeah, I bought it as soon as it came out. One of the best gaming-related decisions I’ve ever made.
Character creation is pretty good overall. The seven main Camarilla clans are available to play, either as a male or female. You can’t alter your appearance at all though, your male Tremere looks exactly the same as mine for example.
Thanks to a couple of fanmade patches you can now also choose a little bit of backstory for your character from a small selection, which even has some impact on gameplay because it changes your options for distributing your starting skill points and/or gives you small strenghts and weaknesses. On your first playthrough you probably won’t make very wise choices here anyway though because you won’t know yet which skills and disciplines will turn out to be the most important ones.
The game starts with a pretty long in-engine video sequence setting up your character and the story. Fortunately I had the option to play the English version this time, and the voice acting is terrific all around.
The first 15 minutes or so of actually controlling your character constitute the tutorial. It’s rather light gameplaywise, but teaches you everything there is to know about your…umm…condition, and it’s also very entertaining thanks to your guide.
The storytelling really is one of the game’s strong suits. The second one becomes accessible to you right after finishing the tutorial: virtual Los Angeles.
It’s not actually huge by any stretch of the imagination, especially in the beginning when you can’t yet leave the first locale, Santa Monica. Nevertheless it never felt too small to me.
I think the reason for this is that the game made me feel like the world was my own personal playground right from the start. Although the story is mostly linear I was always eager to stray off the path and explore every nook and cranny. For example, when I received an assignment to break into the local hospital and make some evidence disappear I’d long since raided the place and taken everything that wasn’t bolted down, just because I could. Oopsie.
The thing is, even as a very young and inexperienced vampire you’re immensely more powerful than any normal human being, which lets you get away with stuff like that. It’s extremely fun to try out your vampiric abilities and test your limits against different enemies and environments.
There’s also a lot of replayability, which is why I reliably come back to the game every few years without getting bored. Which clan you choose makes a huge difference, obviously, as having or not having disciplines like Obfuscate (which lets you become invisible) or Celerity (turns you into The Flash) changes how you play the game and tackle different challenges dramatically. Some clans even have their own special advantages or disadvantages. Ventrue can’t feed on rats, Tremere can get a special, fancy hideout (and make people explode, so there’s that) and Nosferatu can’t show themselves to humans at all lest they break the masquerade each and every time.
Additionally, many side-quests have different possible outcomes. Mostly the consequences of choosing one over the other doesn’t have a bigger impact than, for example, gaining more money or XP but losing a point of humanity in return (which can be regained elsewhere if you so wish), but it’s still nice to have that variety.
But wait, there’s more. Every now and then a quest sends you off to a new, insulated set piece that offers a story of its own and also somewhat different kinds of gameplay. An abandoned hotel haunted by ghosts, the mansion of a Malkavian (= crazy) vampire, a house completely twisted and perverted by a powerful Tzimisce (vampires with the power to sculpt flesh and bone at will).
You can only go to these places when you’re at the right point in the story, and only once, but they’re so great that these alone are enough to get me in the mood for another playthrough time and again.
Depending on whom you side with towards the finale there’s at least four different endings to the main story too. It’s never been more satisfying to kick some dead people in the proverbial nuts, let me tell you.
The game also has a really dry sense of humor which I like a lot. Many quests and dialogues are hilarious, even more so if you choose to play as a Malkavian. Other funny bits are hidden where you’d least expect them, like in various item descriptions.
Unfortunately the game also has some serious weaknesses.
Despite using the Source engine it isn’t exactly a looker even by 2004’s standards. It’s pretty clunky, animations are wooden and collision detection is weird.
Much worse are the bugs though. At release it was a total mess, bugs ranging from merely annoying to gamebreaking were everywhere. Word spread fast, resulting in less than stellar sales numbers. Troika managed to deliver a couple of patches, but their support for the game dried up quickly due to financial troubles. They had to close up shop in February 2005, seemingly dooming the game to stay in a poor state forever.
Fortunately it has a loyal, active fanbase to this day, and the aforementioned unofficial patches squashed many bugs and even added some new content. By now it’s finally in a technical state that can be described as “quite ok”. Of course a 15 year old game won’t attract droves of new players no matter what, but I for one will happily revisit it a couple more times in years to come.
I still haven’t played it through with a Nosferatu after all…