Gaming PC Reviews

Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines – A Forgotten Legend – Review

Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines was the final game by Troika Games. It is a legendary PC exclusive RPG released in 2004, and the first ever Source game. It is based on the tabletop RPG called Vampire: The Masquerade.

Bloodlines is a first person and third person action RPG known for its quality… but more than one meaning is associated with the word “quality” in this case. On the one hand, it is known as one of the best, most thorough video game RPGs ever made with some of the best writing quality in video game history. On the other hand, it is known for being blatantly incomplete and incredibly buggy, perhaps even unplayable without mods.

As such, we will be analyzing and reviewing the game with the unofficial patch applied to it, as it’s truly required to play the game to completion. After all, the version sold by GOG comes with this patch already. Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is a somewhat forgotten great that needs to be reevaluated.

The Story

Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is available on Steam, and also DRM free on GOG. The GOG version comes with an unofficial patch preinstalled as we mentioned, and is 100% playable from the get go unlike the Steam version which requires the unofficial patch to be installed.

This franchise takes place in a modern day California (Los Angeles). As the name implies, a code called the Masquerade is in place, in order to conceal and protect supernatural, undead species. This setting is like the real world for all intents in purposes, save for a secret supernatural society that masquerades alongside us.

After you create your character, the game starts with a scene showing (off screen) your character becoming embraced by a Kindred. In other words, being turned into a vampire. Unknown assailiants then barge into the room and stick the two of you with wooden stakes. No, you don’t die, but you are incapacitated. Right after this we all get a taste of what is to come; political turmoil, your character (often called Fledgling) caught in the middle of it.

Your Sire (vampire who embraced you) is executed, and your execution is ordered by the Prince as well. But the de facto leader of a group called the Anarchs, Nines Rodriguez, stands up for you, and as a result of all the commotion stemming from this, you are spared. The game then takes off with a dialogue heavy tutorial mission that is very well designed, and while it is a blatant tutorial, it makes sense. Your abilities are new to you, and the events during this mission add to the plot and world as a new faction and character are introduced.


Nearly every important character in the game is in this opening scene.

After this tutorial, you are on your own, sent to the first of four hubs in the game—Santa Monica. RPG players will feel at home here. The hub design is loosely inspired by Deus Ex, a game which Bloodlines references a few times. Hubs are non-linear and have a decent amount of exploration although not nearly as much as Deus Ex. Quest content varies per hub; Hollywood has by far the most, Santa Monica has the second most, Downtown has noticeably less than those two, and Chinatown has by far the least because the last quarter of the game roughly was clearly rushed (Chinatown is the last hub unlocked).

It is not completely open world or free roam because hubs are unlocked sequentially according to main quest progression. Santa Monica is first, Downtown second, Hollywood third, Chinatown fourth. It is best to go out of your way to pick up side quests, as they are all outstanding in Bloodlines. Each hub has a uniquely designed sewer system, which Nosferatu players will use primarily for travel (although it is not technically required).

As you make your way through the game, it becomes painfully obvious (but in a good way) that you are nothing more than a pawn in something bigger. For the majority of the game you are used by the Camarilla (organized vampire group with the most power) prince LaCroix, the de facto Anarch leader Nines Rodriguez who seems more straight and honest, Anarch supporter and Baron of Hollywood Isaac Abrams (who is a sharp contrast from the actual Anarchs), and later on the local Kuei-jin leader Ming Xiao. Every one of these factions has an explorable HQ if you want to call it that. It is never clear who, if anyone, can be trusted, nor is it made clear what their true intents are. Even the first character you meet, Smiling Jack, a high ranking Anarch member, keeps throwing “What-ifs” at you if you choose to speak to him in Downtown LA, gauging your thoughts and reactions but leaving it at that.

Every character you converse with, significant to the plot or no, is a unique character. The writers obviously made it a point to flesh out everyone so that they have more than the bare minimum required for their role. An insignificant character will be unique in their own way, and everyone has distinct facial animations and mannerisms to set them apart. So much additional effort that so few games have. Only Planescape: Torment is similarly excellent in this regard; that is, only these two games have this level of character development for all characters, out of all large scale non-linear games.

Every character and every quest, including side quests, adds to the whole. These characters and quests are often different thematically; some rooted in philosophy, others social commentary and often satirical, others making fun of stereotypes. So multifaceted that you never know what to expect, such that it takes you by surprise emotionally, only adding to its potency and effectiveness. But they all fit, they all create different emotion, and they are all powerful and showcase a high level of writing talent that is very rare in gaming.

Bloodlines does a phenomenal job in casting the player in several directions, throwing you off and playing with your expectations. The first 3/4 of the game or so (out of a total of about 40 hours) does this in a pleasantly original way. I personally played this game for the first time in 2016, after having played most praised video game wRPGs, and Bloodlines had me hooked from the beginning despite me not having any prior interest in vampire related fiction or Gothic settings. It is original, the world is rich with lore that is presented in a fascinating way and explored deeply like only the best RPGs have done, the characters are remarkable and many are unpredictable, the quests have so much variety save for the last quarter of the game.

To be clear, the first 3/4 of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is as good as any video game RPG. One can’t expect better. It is so far ahead of the RPGs we get today in writing, world design, and in how much role-playing is possible. Like some of the other greatest RPGs such as Fallout 2, Fallout: New Vegas, Planescape: Torment, and Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer, Bloodlines is extremely dialogue heavy. What I will remember most about Bloodlines is my interactions with other characters, and how unique they are for every playthrough. It ranks on tier 3 of our RPG tier list.

But, as you may have noticed, we keep specifying the first 3/4 and the last quarter (or maybe less than a quarter, but at least the last few hours). There is a discrepancy between them. Bloodlines was rushed, badly, which is why it’s unplayable without an unofficial patch. It’s also why the last quarter of the game moves too quickly, why Chinatown has too little content, and why there is a lot less variation and use of social skills in the last quarter of the game compared to the rest. It was rushed, and it shows. The writing and amount of content and quality of content (quest design) in the last quarter does not demonstrate the excellence shown by the rest of the game. It’s not terrible, but it doesn’t quite do the game justice.

Still, all things considered, Bloodlines has such an interesting world. The story is filled with relevant references, introducing things such as ghosts, zombies, Gehenna, the story of Caine (the first vampire) and more. The mechanics behind… everything is explained well, like how vampires function. The backstory behind it all is intriguing and richly explored, unlike most modern day RPGs. The world and dialogue contain so much style that all meshes perfectly together, which so many of today’s RPGs are lacking. Bloodlines has real characters, interesting ones, not just quest giving bots or copypasta companions. Bloodlines also has roots in philosophy, and elements of satire as well that all add flavor to this already rich game.

From an era of superior RPGs, Bloodlines still stands out as one of the very best. Thus, compared to the RPGs today, well there hardly is a comparison. Bloodlines has much better than average writing, far more role-playing, but unlike today’s RPGs it was actually trying not only to innovate but to elevate the genre. Fallout: New Vegas was really the last RPG that tried to do this, although Divinity: Original Sin raised the bar for tactical fantasy RPG combat.

Otherwise, mainstream RPGs today are greatly reducing role-playing in favor of cinematic fully voiced acted design, dumbing down gameplay to resemble action games because today’s mainstream audience can’t handle real RPG gameplay, and they keep reusing stories and plots from past RPGs. Then we have indie RPGs and too many cater to the nostalgia of deluded fans and end up deliberately trying to resemble a 1990s game when it’s 2016. There is much to take from the best 1990s cRPGs, but not everything, and most of these indie RPGs lack in writing quality/depth/originality even in world design, and combat is only a poor imitation of some of the classics.

Whereas Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines takes on a 3D, more immersive visual style with fully voiced NPCs, without reducing role-playing or dumbing down gameplay, while having a unique world and story. We get almost none of this today. Best of luck trying to find an RPG that really tries to create a unique, fleshed out, rich world. The 3D RPGs of today all try to take after action games more than RPGs, and even the 2.5D ones (as if 2.5D vs 3D should have any impact on role-playing) have far less role-playing than Bloodlines. As good as all of its writing is, one of the more impressive aspect is how nearly the every dialogue and conversation is rewritten if you play as a Nosferatu or Malkavian, not to mention how other races have more unique dialogue than most other RPGs, and it has gender and race specific dialogue choices as well.

Because of the state of the gaming industry today, playing Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is a real treat, but on the other hand it is saddening because such innovative, unique, and complex RPGs are certainly a thing of the past now.

Gameplay

The second thing you’ll notice upon launching this game, (the first being its awesome menu music) is its alarming lack of configuration settings. Next to no graphics settings, not even V-Sync! The unofficial patches don’t address this.

Thankfully it is not FPS capped and has no issues running at high frame rates (as in further glitches aren’t introduced). Forcing V-Sync through NVIDIA drivers works flawlessly.

Bloodlines uses an alpha version of Source engine so it will always be rather unpolished. With the unofficial patch, you can expect issues with AI (although they aren’t as severe as expected). The game is still stable with the unofficial patch and easily playable, but not polished. We’ll get more specific later in this review.


Grade A AI

Character creation is excellent. Not much physical customization, as expected given the time period, but seven races to choose from plus gender choice for each.

Player race in this game makes more of an impact on… every facet of the game, than every other video game in existence. Not only are your starting stats and abilities different, the plot responds so much to your race.

Two races in particular, Nosferatu and Malkavian, affect the game more than the others. Nosferatus are hideous, monstrous creatures, such that the public cannot even see them or else they endanger all supernaturals. If you play as a Nosferatu and get too close to a person, you will violate the Masquerade unless you kill them before they alert anyone else. Every Masquerade violation removes a Masquerade point, and losing all five will end the game in failure. It is possible to redeem Masquerade points.

Malkavian players are also seen differently by virtually everyone in the game, and have unique dialogue all the time. The undertone for Malkavian is insanity, something inherent to their bloodline. The entire game was rewritten for both Nosferatu and Malkavian characters, and other races have unique dialogue as well, and so do specific race + gender combinations.

The stats system is as good as one would hope from a video game based on a tabletop RPG. Logical, fundamental, robust, far better than almost all RPGs born in the video game medium.

There are plenty of viable options for combat, and some races are better than others at certain ones. Nosferatus for example should always use stealth. Stealth is an option, guns are an option, melee weapons are an option. What isn’t an option is non-lethal, unfortunately. The only non-lethal attack is feeding on unsuspecting victims, but if they are already hostile then they are not incapacitated by this.

By 2004 standards, Bloodlines had fluid but still unremarkable combat. By today’s standards it is somewhat clunky (feeding most of all) and lacks some of the responsiveness from well designed skill-based action games, but the amount of variety helps. No iron sights for guns and a crosshair size depending on your guns skill like Deus Ex. Basic melee weapon functionality; attack with LMB by default with your swing being determined by your stance/movement, blocking is present and the window for blocking is on the strict side meaning timing is important. Sneak attacks from behind on unsuspecting victims are possible and result in an instant kill. No non-lethal takedowns.

I take issue with feeding being able to fail on unsuspecting victims. This shouldn’t happen. Success of feeding is based on your unarmed skill which alone is perfect, but I feel that this should only apply to combat scenarios.

Different melee weapons swing at different speeds depending on weight, balance is good as is also the case for guns. There is a surprising amount of guns, it doesn’t have the most in the world but it has enough for anyone, for this type of game. Headshots are far more damaging but not instant kills even on mortals. Kindred are of course much more durable than mortals, as is part of the lore and this extends to you. Maximum health is somewhat dependent on race, as are Disciplines which are supernatural powers. Different races get different Disciplines. Bloodlines does not hold back with its role-playing.

Your health meter regenerates slowly on its own (stat dependent like everything else) but is sped up by feeding, which if you haven’t guessed refers to drinking the blood of mortals. A health item exists as well. There is a blood meter that is akin to “mana” or “magicka” and it is drained by the use of Disciplines. This blood meter is increased directly by feeding. Blood packs are a usable inventory item containing blood for feeding on the go, and there are three kinds with varying effectiveness.

You can feed on humans or rats. Rats are far less nourishing but are nourishing enough for Nosferatus. Every race other than Nosferatu can pursue a “romance” option (not actually romance at all) and some of them can become blood dolls who let you feed on them willingly, useful for gameplay purposes.

The inventory is not good. It is not weight dependent which is fine, nor is it space dependent. Technically you can carry as much as you want (but not as much of one item as you want, like ammo or health items), but it is possible to pick up more items than the inventory is capable of displaying, in which case you will have to drop visible items to access hidden ones because there is no scrolling.

As far as difficulty modes, Bloodlines has difficulty settings. Normal mode might be a tad too easy overall although some boss fights (which are usually unexpected in this game) are very challenging.

The best part about combat is the Disciplines. They are fun to use. The gore (which can be disabled) makes regular violence rewarding. AI is awful since AI nodes weren’t even possible in this alpha version of Source. AI is incredibly easy to exploit at times, so combat is not the main attraction for Bloodlines. Stealth is very easy, which given the unfinished AI is a good thing I’ll say. AI at least doesn’t see through the back of their heads, as usual crouch walking is silent. But the Disciplines are well designed and very fun! Some aid with combat, others stealth, others create dialogue options, so much variety.

The core stat system of Bloodlines is one of the best in gaming, such that it makes leveling up exciting and rewarding but also a bit nerve-wracking since they are so important. But the stats page has so much detail, so it’s hard to go wrong if you think it through. A good, logical stat system like this one makes RPG gameplay so much better.

That’s all we have to say about gameplay. Continue to the next page to learn more about its story, without spoilers.

 

Audio & Visuals

Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines was the first ever Source engine game, therefore it was one of the better looking games around although Half-Life 2 edged it when it released shortly after. Nonetheless, for its time every single aspect of its graphics were very impressive, water and character models most of all. Animations were lacking, and it still wasn’t top tier (behind not only Half-Life 2 but also DOOM 3 and Far Cry).

Being a Source engine game, physics are of course on display, although they are far glitcher than Half-Life 2 not to mention there are less physics objects. But, it’s better than overly static games which plagued gaming then and still does now.

The lack of graphics options, including anti-aliasing and V-Sync, is the only thing to complain about really, since it means the game was not scalable. Not a problem today since any modern PC can run it easily. V-Sync can be forced through GPU drivers, and so can ambient occlusion and MSAA, SSAA, and HSAA via NVIDIA drivers. All of this is shown in our screenshots.

I am happy to report no ill effects when running Bloodlines at over 60 FPS. I play the game at 120 FPS with V-Sync, HBAO+, and SGSSAA forced through NVIDIA drivers, and the game has no issues with this.

Being on Source engine, Bloodlines has facial animations that surpass lots of modern games like the dreadful Fallout 4. Every major character has very distinct facial animations and general animations in combat, successfully conveying their thoughts, feelings, or perhaps showing only a front for what they want you to believe. But it works very well even by modern standards, compared to modern games.

Sadly the general animation quality isn’t as good as its facial animations, due to the game being released before it was complete. Not enough time was allowed to create as much animations as say Half-Life 2.

Bloodlines has an amazing soundtrack. So fitting for the style and setting. Voice acting is very good even by today’s standards, being on the same level as games like Fallout: New Vegas. By 2004 standards it was top notch in this area.

Sound effects are incomplete in places; lots of debris make the same sound when collision, footsteps in sewers are out of sync with your movement. Aside from this, sound effects are acceptable but not of the highest quality. Gunshots at least sound pretty good.

An environmental audio option is available and it works, creating dynamic echoes/reverb but I have noticed no other special effects. However, it seems that it needs to be enabled for the game to output surround sound, otherwise it’s stereo only. I needed to use some cfg file tweaks to get 5.1 surround to work. The code can be found below, copy it into the autoexec.cfg files (create it if need be) in Vampire\cfg and Unofficial_Patch\cfg in your main Bloodlines folder.

snd_mixahead "0.35"
snd_surround "1"
snd_gain "2.2"
snd_gain_max "1.58"
dsp_on "1"
dsp_spatial "73"
dsp_dist_max "9999"
hisound "1"
footstep_pc_vol "0.31"

Note that surround localization/spatial accuracy is not any better than other Source games. I do not believe that this game uses DirectSound3D, but rather DirectSound with its own environmental audio implementation (not EAX). I don’t think the environmental audio is hardware based either, but I could be wrong.

Bloodlines has unusually high quality voice acting. Considering how unique every single character is (something only Planescape: Torment can boast about on equal footing), they are supported by such spot on voice acting to really capture the quality of the dialogue. You will not find more effective voice acting than this.

Now let’s move on to the conclusion on the next page.

 

Conclusion

Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is one of the finest RPGs ever made, and one of the most innovative of the 2000s. It is an action RPG without less role-playing than turn-based or pause-and-play RPGs… in fact it has more role-playing than almost every other video game. I have seen comments around the internet stating that action games cannot be good RPGs; while such comments are obviously baseless, this is one of the best games to use as an example to shut them up. Only Fallout 2 can arguably be said to offer role-playing than it.

Role-playing, world design, story, characters, and dialogue are the strongest aspects of Bloodlines. Personally, I was never into vampire stories at all, but Bloodlines has made me a fan of Vampire: The Masquerade. While playing Bloodlines, I could not get enough of the lore.

It is an official, licensed Vampire: The Masquerade product, thus existing canon besides the pen and paper RPG. One might expect that this mandates emphasis on lore and well written world building, and Bloodlines will not let such a person down. It is a mix of topics, themes, genres even, such that the player never knows what to expect. It can seamlessly transition from a more classic but incredibly well done horror theme such as the Ocean House Hotel, one of the most famous levels/quests in video game history, to delivering satirical social commentary riddled with intricate details, to being outright witty and hilarious, and much, much more. This is an impressive feat in its own right, not just for a video game. It takes supreme writing talent to pull this off, but Bloodlines makes it look easy.

Even for those initially uninterested in Gothic style vampire stories (such as I), Bloodlines will be captivating. Its writing is simply too good, too inviting, for it to be anything less.

Its biggest flaw is that it was rushed and released incomplete. An unofficial patch is required to play it, and even that doesn’t fix everything. The last few hours of the game aren’t quite on the same level as the rest. But despite this, it is more ambitious than pretty much any RPG being made today and released within the last few years, and has an amount of role-playing that video games unfortunately no longer strive for.

Regarding the scoring, as stated earlier in the review we are reviewing the game with an unofficial patch applied since it is needed. It will also be scored relative to its time period, which really just affects graphics fidelity and thus the audio/visuals score.

  • Presentation: Bloodlines will suffer most in this category, even with the unofficial patch. Some glitches remain in physics, AI, and more, and it has hardly any graphics options and no separate volume controls for voices and effects and music. But at least it’s stable now. 13/20
  • Story/Writing: Distinct, stylized, intriguing, rich lore and backstory behind everything. Character development and dialogue stand out, as do the twists and unpredictability. You are not the hero, you are a pawn in something much bigger than you can imagine, and everyone has their own motives. This is presented well within its unique world, adding suspense and intrigue at every turn. Every quest and character is unique and fleshed out, adding to the whole like only a handful of games accomplish. Some characters and quests will add to the story in different ways; perhaps philosophically, perhaps in the form of satirical social commentary, or perhaps making fun of relevant stereotypes. Every single person you can have a conversation with is a unique character in every way, fleshed out and well written, to the point where only Planescape: Torment can compete. This game has an abundance of role-playing that strongly benefits its narrative, more than anyone can imagine without playing the game. The entire game and just about every conversation is rewritten for two specific races! Plus, other races have more unique dialogue than other RPGs with race-specific dialogue, and then there are the unique dialogue choices for specific race and gender combinations. Although the last few hours of the game do away with a lot of its greatness because they were clearly rushed. Still, it is very well written overall. 19/20
  • Gameplay: The core stats/rules are excellent, as one would expect from a PC exclusive RPG based on a tabletop RPG. It supports many possible character builds that would greatly affect not only story but also gameplay, especially combat. Every race has a unique set of Disciplines or supernatural powers, and the Disciplines are awesome. It has lots of weapon variety for both melee and ranged. It isn’t the most fluid or responsive, especially feeding, and I feel that feeding should have 100% success rate on unsuspecting victims. AI is bad and uncoordinated. As an action game it could be a lot better, as an RPG it is phenomenal. 16/20
  • Audio/Visuals: Very good for its time period in every aspect of graphics except for general movement animations (the developers did not have enough time to finish this). Impressive Gothic art design as well depicting the night life in modern day Los Angeles. Some of the best facial animations for the time thanks to Source engine, outdoing plenty of modern games even and being timelessly sufficient to effectively portray characters. Phenomenal soundtrack. Voice acting is some of the best there is which says a lot considering how demanding this game’s writing is. Its characters are so unique, and the writing quality is so good that if it is to have voice acting, it must be top notch, and it certainly is. Honestly the only thing to complain about is sound. Some sound effects glitches exist and it could use more sound effects variety. 18/20
  • Lasting Appeal: So much role-playing, so many possible character builds including seven playable races. Somewhat moddable, faction packs and a few custom missions/campaigns exist. Bloodlines can be so much different all around on subsequent playthroughs. Other games can take a lesson. 20/20
  • Overall: 86/100 (Technically flawed masterpiece)

 

...one of the finest RPGs ever made, and one of the most innovative of the 2000s.

8.6
Gold Award:
8.6

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