"Fine, obscure gems." Part of a periodical series: Great Games You Never Played.
Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines is one of the greatest RPGs ever, sharing many of the same gameplay elements that made the original Fallout games great. This should come as no surprise, considering that a good portion of VTMB's development team were the key designers behind the first two Fallouts. Developed by Troika Games in 2004 using Valve's Source engine, Vampire Bloodlines is a classic role-playing game with a unique gothic-horror setting.
Bloodlines begins just as you're embraced and join the ranks of the blood-sucking undead. As a new vampire, you learn the rules of the Masquerade -- a self-regulating system vampires follow in order to survive unnoticed in the mortal world -- and quickly become the new errand boy for the head of the Masquerade, Prince LaCroix. As LaCroix sends you on a mission to recover the sarcophagus of an ancient vampire lord, you become the focal point in a faction war to seize (or maintain) control of the Masquerade while preventing the vampire Armageddon.
As an RPG, it shines with a heaping serving of available side-quests and countless ways to customize your character. Choosing which vampire clan to be during character creation is one of the biggest choices you'll make, as each one has its own unique playstyle. Lots of quests have different ways to complete them, depending on your skills and how you want to role-play your character, and most of the decisions you make have some kind of tangible consequences. The dialogue is well-written and well-acted, and the atmosphere is just so rich and immersing.
Bloodlines is such a good game that people still talk about it on messages boards, eight years after its release. Fans love it so much that the community has pieced together an unofficial patch that's made it up to a whopping version 7.9. Bloodlines was Troika's last game, as they sadly went out business following production issues and poor sales. So if you've never played VTMB, then you owe it to yourself (and to Troika) to play this instant classic.
Set in White Wolf's fictional World of Darkness, VTMB follows a more classic interpretation of vampire lore -- at least, relative to the "sparkly vampires" in more recent media. In the WoD, (most) vampires look (mostly) like ordinary people, they die in the sunlight (all of VTMB takes place at night), and they're possessed by a monstrous inner beast that takes over whenever they lose touch with their humanity. Get careless and kill an innocent while feeding on their blood, and the beast may put them into a frenzied mania of killing and feeding. Some vampires relish the frenzy, but the bulk of society keeps it in check to avoid exposing themselves to human society.
A trailer for Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines
A sort of governing body called the Camarilla protects vampires from exposure by enforcing the Masquerade, with a "prince" heading each local district. They use their power to influence politicians and the press in order to keep vampire activities under wraps. They also decide the rules vampires have to follow, such as "don't get caught feeding in public," or requiring Kindred (the term by which vampires call each other) to get permission before converting a human to vampirism. When someone breaks the rules, the Camarilla is quick to punish.
Bloodlines kicks things off just as you're "embraced" by a vampire in a night of casual sex, and with Camarilla agents breaking into your apartment to take you into custody. The prince of Los Angeles, Sebastian LaCroix, holds a public execution to make an example of unauthorized embracing. Just as you're about to be executed, the leader of the anarchist rebel faction makes a loud protest. LaCroix quickly changes his mind, using the opportunity to ease tension with the anarchists and improve his public image. Instead of killing you, he takes you under his wing, thus beginning your adventure.
One of the reasons Bloodlines is such a compelling experience is the way Troika present the lore of this unique setting. All of the specific details were already established in the WoD, so they already had good material to work with, but the thing that sucks you into this game is how real and developed everything feels. The rules of the vampire society and how they manage to get along with human society, the relationships between different vampire clans and factions, it all adds an extra layer to the atmosphere and makes the game very convincing and immersive.
Gameplay begins as many RPGs do: filling out your character sheet. The first step is picking a clan -- a bloodline that can loosely be considered a vampire's race. Each clan has its own strengths and weaknesses, but the main differentiating factor are their disciplines -- active skills used at the expense of blood reserves (blood functions like a magic meter that you have to replenish periodically by feeding on humans). Combined with special clan features and the numerous other ways you can customize your character, the disciplines basically ensure that each clan will play the game differently from the next.
A sample character sheet for Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines
Play as a Gangrel -- animalistic Kindred who embrace the inner beast -- and you'll be shapeshifting and summoning spectral animals. Play as a Nosferatu -- grotesque, disfigured descendants of the first vampire, Caine -- and you'll be a stealth character clinging to the shadows. Play as a Tremere -- a line of human warlocks turned to vampirism -- and you'll be using blood magic to attack from a distance. Play as a Malkavian -- cursed with mental insanity -- and you'll be exposed to insane dialogue and use your dementia to produce supernatural effects on your surroundings.
All of your different stats affect such feats as melee combat, ranged combat with firearms, lockpicking, computer hacking, haggling, persuasion, intimidation, seduction, research (gaining statistical boosts from skill books), and inspection (finding hidden items in the environment). Like any real RPG, it's impossible to max all of these feats with a single character, so you have to pick and choose based on what you think will be important and on how you want to role-play your character.
As a result of these different feats, a lot of quests can be completed in different ways, depending on how you built your character. If someone tasks you to get an item from another NPC, you can 1) sneak into their apartment and steal it, 2) beat it out of them, 3) use persuasion, intimidation, or seduction to convince them to give it to you 4) pick a lock or hack a computer to gain access to it. Other skills can make longer quests a lot easier and grant you extra rewards in the process. It's the kind of game that rewards your decisions by giving you unique ways to implement your skills in the environment.
As you complete quests, you earn experience points which you can spend freely upgrading your stats on the character sheet. In a slight twist from typical RPGs, you don't gain any experience points from combat, which is actually a pretty nice thing because it doesn't promote level grinding, and instead focuses your attention on the quests. I've always been annoyed when RPGs would give you the option to sneak through a level with hostile enemies, or "reward" you by letting you skip all of them, only for you to miss out on a lot of experience points by missing the combat. In VTMB, you'll be forced into a lot of combat situations, but you can avoid combat in many side-quests without missing opportunities for experience.
A werewolf is usually certain death for even the strongest Kindred
With the Masquerade playing such a prominent role in the game's lore, following it is one of your top priorities. The Masquerade dictates that you can't be caught feeding in public, you can't kill anyone from draining them of too much blood, and you can't be caught using obvious disciplines in public. So when you're low on blood and you need to replenish it, you have to silently stalk citizens through the streets and jump on their necks when they turn a corner, or pay a prostitute to follow you to a discrete location, or seduce/persuade someone into following you, or feed on the homeless living in the alleys, or if all else fails, feed on the blood of rats living in the sewers.
Get caught feeding in public five times and it's game over. You get one or two free strikes, but then vampire hunters start attacking you in public, and if you use obvious disciplines to fight them (and if anyone sees you), then you lose another strike. Maintaining your Masquerade points is not an especially challenging task, especially since you can regain lost points at critical moments in the main quest, but it's an extra layer of depth that you have to consider while you play, and it just adds tremendously to the feeling of being a vampire blending in with human society.
Meanwhile, you also have to maintain your humanity, which functions much like a karma meter. It starts out neutral, and through quests you have opportunities to gain or lose humanity points coinciding with morally good or bad choices. Bad choices are often the quicker, simpler solutions or present you with greater rewards, but the cost of a low humanity means you're more likely to frenzy (losing control to your inner beast), which causes you to lose control of your character as you attack, feed, and use your disciplines in public (although frenzy can also be very powerful and beneficial in extended combat scenarios). So the humanity is just one more element you have to balance.
Set in Los Angeles, California, the game starts you off in Santa Monica, which functions as a large, enclosed district that you can explore in a non-linear fashion. As you progress in the main quest, you travel to other districts like Hollywood, Downtown, and China Town, including numerous other, smaller locations. These districts function a lot like the hub cities in the original Fallout games, where they give you opportunities for sandbox-style role-playing and gameplay in manageable doses, while giving you a sense of direction along a compelling main questline, with rewarding side-quests that compliment the pacing of the main quest, instead of just being extraneous filler.
Compare this dialogue to meeting Ulfric Stormcloak in Skyrim
There are a number of different factions you can choose to side with when it comes to the sarcophagus and the greater Kindred politics. There's the Camarilla who enforces the rules of the Masquerade, there's Prince LaCroix pushing his own agenda, there are the Kuei-Jin (vampires originating from Asia), and there are the Anarchs, a group of Kindred rebelling against the rules of the Masquerade. Or you could not support any of them and just follow your own path. You come into contact with these factions over the course of the game, working for or against them, up until the final moments when you have to decide what to do with the sarcophagus.
The factions add a good element of flavor to the game, adding a little extra conflict to the premise while developing the sense of society even further. The game already feels pretty realistic (despite the obvious fantasy elements) on account of its great lore and dialogue, but seeing different factions squabble with and conspiring against each other just makes it that much more convincing. Unfortunately, the factions aren't quite as sophisticated or fleshed-out as in, for example, Fallout: New Vegas, where each faction has their own unique quests. Here, you play essentially the same main questline regardless of whom you're supporting, which detracts slightly from the experience.
Combat is not the game's greatest strength, either. As an RPG, the main factor in determining your success is your stats, with relatively little emphasis on personal skill. Melee combat is basically just a matter of "spam left-click until everything is dead," and using guns feels a bit crude as a consequence of the early Source build (Troika didn't have the same build used for Half-Life 2, and even that one feels kind of primitive nowadays). Your ranged skill also determines how accurate you are, so ranged combat feels especially clunky until you've gotten high enough level to be halfway decent with guns.
Little moments like these are the icing on the cake
The disciplines, however, are pretty fun to use in combat regardless of any other shortcomings. Some disciplines are relatively simple buffs or debuffs that just improve the effect as you level it up, but others grant you whole new active skills with each level. Playing as a Gangrel, for example, you can summon a spectral wolf to kill a distant target instantly, then summon a flock of bats to drain another target's blood and bring it back to you, then summon a swarm of insects to incapacitate a cluster of targets in an area, then buff your defense with fortitude, transform into your bat-like war form with protean, and go in destroying everything with your supernatural claws. So even though the basic combat elements are kind of ho-hum, the disciplines elevate it back up to something unique and enjoyable.
There's also a whole lot of enjoyable replay value in VTMB. You can play the game twice back-to-back and get a fairly unique experience the second time around. If you pick a new clan, then you'll get a whole new set of disciplines, and you can focus your skill points in different areas for a completely different playstyle. You'll still be playing the same basic quests, but it'll feel fun and rewarding to complete them with different solutions, and you'll see new areas or characters if you make different decisions.
As an RPG, Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines is among the best ever. There's a reason message boards are still active for an eight year old game -- it's so good that people keep coming back for more, and newcomers find that it stands the test of time. It's just an all around fantastic game, and it's a shame the game didn't sell better, or else we might see more games like this.
Oh, and let's not forget all of the fun radio loops that play throughout the game:
The Deb of Night, #4