Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines
For a Whole two issues now we've been living under a cloud. Food hasn't tasted quite the same, the sun hasn't shone quite so brightly, and games certainly haven't looked as good. That's because two issues ago we first laid eyes on Half-Life 2. And it changed our perceptions forever.
But if Valve's bombshell has relegated everything else to second best, what about a game that uses the same technology, but for very different ends. An RPG, let's say, from a developer known for making deep, innovative gaming experiences. Surely that would be worth a look?
As it happens, that game is Vampire: The Masquerade 2 - Bloodlines, sequel to Nihilistic's fantastic Vampire: The Masquerade - Redemption (development duties have now shifted to Troika Games). For those with fond memories of that title, the concept is basically the same - it's a deep, storybased RPG with strong action elements, supernatural powers and gothic-punk atmosphere. Once again it's set within the World Of Darkness, the alternate reality created by White Wolf in its popular paper RPG, and once again it's all about being a badass bloodsucker fighting in a vampiric clan war.
However, the merest glance at these screenshots should tell you that something very different is going on. For a start, the party-based aspect and isometric perspective are gone. In their place we have a first-person perspective and far stronger shooting element, complete with knives, guns, flamethrowers and even a stake gun. And with Valve's Source engine under the hood, it looks bloody amazing. Not quite as polished as Half-Life 2, perhaps, but gorgeous nonetheless.
"We're taking a first-class shooter engine and marrying it with what we think is an equally first-class RPG experience," explains Troika co-founder Leonard Boyarsky. "As opposed to watering down either of those aspects, we've tried to keep them as intact as possible. That doesn't mean you have to play the game as a first-person shooter, but if you choose to do so you can get that kind of effect."
Clearly, part of this decision has been inspired by the technology itself, but the results speak for themselves. Take the facial animation system for example. Incredible in Half-Life 2, it acquires even more significance in an RPG context, allowing NPCs to react to you more convincingly, emotively and meaningfully than ever before. The impact this has on a game driven by dialogue simply cannot be underestimated.
"The Source technology provides the opportunity for a more dynamic type of gameplay than seen in traditional RPGs,'' continues Leonard. "We've got a world that responds to who you are and the choices you make. The level of detail we're able to include, and the whole attitude we're able to bring across through the characters has allowed us to evolve the RPG and fully capture the World Of Darkness experience."
The choice of setting is also different this time round. While supernatural and mythical elements abound, Bloodlines abandons all medieval swords 'n' sorcery malarkey in favour of a gritty vision of contemporary Los Angeles. The levels we played at E3 were grimy back-streets and Hollywood strip clubs, replete with pimps, hookers and street trash. It's a deliberately grungy, sleazy environment that suggests a genuinely mature tone -something we welcome wholeheartedly.
Another key facet of Bloodlines is the expanded character system, designed to increase both variety and replayability. At the outset you have to choose one of seven different clans, each representing a distinct type of vampire from classic mythology. "We've got everything from the suave, sensitive and romantic vamp, to the stealthy hunter hidden in the shadows, or the powerful and inhuman fighting machine," says Leonard. "Each brings powers, andrro Eeach clan a radically different experience."
As a shadow-hugging Nosferatu for example, you're a kind of twisted, bloodsucking Solid Snake, with the ability to hide in darkness, snap necks stealthily and turn temporarily invisible (or partially invisible, depending on your stats.) The pimp-clad Malkavians, on the other hand, are simply nuts, employing such skills as Dementation, which makes NPCs go temporarily insane, and Insight, which detects when someone is lying.
The variety of character types and vampiric powers offers a huge amount of choice in how to deal with any given obstacle. Faced with an unhelpful NPC, do you attempt to charm them, overpower and drain them, summon a plague of rats, or just blow their heads clean off? "There's a nearly limitless variety of ways to play, because your stats directly affect gameplay," agrees Leonard. "For instance, if you put all your points into charisma you'll get more dialogue choices and be more effective when conversing with NPCs. But if you do it at the expense of putting points into your firearms skills, your combat ability will definitely suffer?
At the same time as this, you have to carefully manage your blood pool. Blood powers your disciplines, requiring a steady supply of unprotected necks.
For an RPG fan who's become tired with role-playing conventions, Bloodlines' gameplay possibilities are hugely exciting. The depth of atmosphere and immersion enabled by the technology, the blend of shooting and RPG elements, the genuinely open-ended gameplay - we could be looking at a true bloodguzzling, night-stalking, stakeimpaling successor to Deus Ex here. And that's a beautiful thing.
What's In Store For Multiplayer Then?
When the original Vampire came out three years ago, one of its biggest draws promised to be the unique Storyteller multiplayer mode, which mirrored the style of tabletop role-playing by putting one player in charge of events in story-based online quests. Great idea in theory, rubbish in practice; though the concept was later reworked with some success in Neverwinter Nights. With that disappointment in mind, we were interested to see what multiplayer innovations Troika could come up with for the sequel.
So far, all that's been announced is an objective-based teamplay mode, pitting vampires against vampire hunters in "the ultimate battle of good vs evil". Full details are yet to be released, but on paper it sounds like Counter-Strike with vampires, which hardly spells a revolution. Of course, if it beats Counter-Strike 2 (and Team Fortress 2) to our screens, we'll all be sharpening our teeth in no time...
Processor: PC compatible,
OS: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game Features:Single game mode