The Surreptitious Midnight Exploits of Clyde Blackravyn, 11th Generation Toreador

by Cory

As I mentioned a few posts ago, I’ve been playing through Vampire: Bloodlines, which I purchased for the meager sum of $10 on Steam a good while ago. It’s been a real treat, as this is the most Deus Ex-like non-Deus Ex game I’ve played — including Invisible War. You’re skulking around modern-day LA, hacking into computers and lock picking your way into places you shouldn’t be. Like Deus Ex, it’s ultimately a flawed little masterpiece though. The game lacks a great deal of polish, with plenty of resultant awkward cutscenes and gameplay moments.

Fortunately though, what reportedly shipped as a soupy morass of bugs and instability has been transformed into a darn solid game, thanks in large part to the game’s loyal fanbase. This is something I’ll always love about PC gaming. There are two strains of player-made patches, the “TRUE” patch (warning, link is NSFW, as the patch author likes to create nude skins), which only fixes bugs and implements a few pieces of content that were clearly meant to be implemented, and a second one that fixes bugs as well as sort of refining and remixing the content. I’ve opted for the fixes-only patch for now. If I play through a second time, I’ll likely check out the other.

Here is a helpful post on the Something Awful forums, for anyone who might read this and feel inclined to check the game out.

  • NPC characterization is surprisingly great. Character designs are strong, and though this was one of the first games to use Source’s facial animation system, they typically manage to pull it off pretty damn admirably. The game features a colorful and memorable cast of characters, generally avoiding silly two-dimensional cliches. Voice acting is also of a near uniform high caliber — an impressive feat, given the sheer quantity of dialogue.
  • The character development system, like most classless character-building systems (Fallout, most Elder Scrolls games, and indeed, Deus Ex) allows you to gimp your character if you’re not careful. The usual advice is to choose one combat style and keep it leveled up, and that applies to Bloodlines as well.

  • Remember the Hell’s Kitchen map in Deus Ex? It was something of a hub area that you kept returning to between missions for the first third of the game or so. You even had an apartment to call home, and I think a lot of players developed a sort of fondness for the locale. I can only speculate that the guys at Troika specifically used it as inspiration, but Bloodlines’ four urban hub areas are evocative of Hell’s Kitchen, especially since you can gain apartments (“havens”) in the first two.
  • Unfortunately, in some pretty key ways, Bloodlines doesn’t hold up to the Deus Ex tradition. The game often seems ill-suited to dealing with stealth, for example. In combat areas especially, you get a lot of scripted triggers where enemies kick down doors or bust down walls — literally monster closets. If you’re stealthed when you cross these triggers, they’ll still bust through the door, but being unable to see you, they proceed to simply stand there. It’s very silly. There were also plenty of situations in which I was hiding literally right in front of somebody, out in the open, yet remaining unseen. Defeated enemies simply fade away too, so you never have to worry about hiding bodies. Splinter Cell this ain’t.

    Beyond just stealth though, there just isn’t as much opportunity for emergent scenarios as one would hope for. Outside of conversations, NPCs aren’t very responsive to your actions and environments are typically very static (though there are plenty of locked doors, vents, and computer systems).

  • Conventional wisdom on this game says that, in the latter third of the game or so, the game loses its roleplaying luster, relying more and more on uninspired action gameplay. It’s not quite as bad as I’ve seen it made out to be, but it’s hard not to notice. This lapse is only magnified by the fact that, at this point in the game, the storyline takes a detour, and suddenly you’re dealing with a lot of new characters who may not be quite as interesting as the characters you’re introduced to in the early game. An argument could be made that the entire Chinatown portion of the game could have been cut without the game as a whole suffering greatly (though you’d admittedly miss out on some cool gameplay sequences).

    It’s worth sticking it out though, as the game does eventually return to LaCroix and the Anarchs for a pretty satisfying conclusion.

  • Finally, a couple posts ago, I mentioned that Bloodlines seemed to be a game with a lot of perhaps superfluous art. Now that I’ve fully played through the game, I can confirm that this is the case. I used a small example in which the player ventures into a creepy prosthetics workshop for a very brief battle, but the worst offender of superfluous art assets has to be the Natural History Museum level. In it, there are about ten to twenty displays that show fake animals, from dinosaurs to elephants, each one fully modelled out and textured. Yet, there’s really nothing interesting in there aside from security guards, and it was very possible that the player could bypass the room entirely, not seeing any of that art at all.

    Simply put, Bloodlines is a big game with a lot of art. It’s something of a surprise, given that Troika’s previous two titles had been 2d isometric games. They must have had to really hire a lot of artists to create so much art output, and I can only imagine that the budget for Bloodlines swelled correspondingly. It makes the game’s apparent commercial failure all the more bittersweet; with HDR, more extensive normal mapping, and higher-resolution models where appropriate, this game would be very competetive, appearance-wise, with most modern AAA titles.

Rock, Paper, Shotgun did a retrospective last year for Bloodlines as well. It’s worth a read if you found this post interesting (though it does contain spoilers). It’s significantly more negative than my take, but their criticisms are fair. They’ve also just recently put up a nice interview with CCP’s Reynir Harðarson. This is relevant because CCP Games are the guys who built EVE Online, and who are now starting work on a World of Darkness MMO. The interview doesn’t contain much directly relating to the WoD MMO, though there is reassurance that they will apply their virtual world approach to the project.

I’m not big on the gothic industrial thing, but playing through Bloodlines has certainly given me an appreciation for the World of Darkness setting and license. Everybody ‘gets’ vampires, after all, and there are a lot of inventive things you could do with an urban, modern-day setting. Incorporate the game world with real fake websites (in a slightly ARG-like twist), allow for user-generated content (custom clothing, who knows?), or even explore in-game advertising as an alternative revenue stream from standard subscriptions. It’ll be a fascinating project to follow, I’m sure.