For reasons unknown, the genre of vampire gameplay has never seemed to hit it big in the gaming market. When you're not effortlessly killing them in some other action title, you probably aren't doing much else involving vampires in gaming, and you are almost certainly not playing as one. This is all about to change, however, as Activision team up with Troika Games and White Wolf Game Studios to produce Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, the vampire simulator to end all, er, vampire simulators. Does it have enough power to sink its teeth into the exposed silky neck of the PC gaming market, or has the blood stream already been sucked dry with recent attempts from other FPS titles?
As your first task, it is your job to customise the vampire you plan to enter into the dark dangerous urban woods that is cyberpunk Los Angeles. Visually, you can't change much of your Vampire - you simply select one of the 7 clans or "Bloodlines" and then the gender, each combination producing a unique model, however you can change your Vampire's "on paper" attributes considerably. Much like an RPG, V: TMB allows you to add experience points to certain skills and characteristics during the game, and you are given a base template of 10 points to designate over the skills initially at your character customisation screen. Choose wisely, as the experience points and clan choice will mould your vampire and what he or she is capable of doing in the game, so this early part of the game should be treated with sufficient attention. If you want to skip this step, however, the game has included a nifty "survey", which will ask you a bunch of questions and based on your answers, will choose the character for you, which is a very cool feature for gamers new to this style of play (or too lazy to read the clan descriptions).
It is not long after the initial character customisation step that you're thick into the world of V: TMB, luring unsuspecting mortals into dark corners for their sweet sweet juices, taking out baddies in the process. Unlike what many movies and previous videogames portray, V: TMB is not an all out vampire brawl, rather, the game features a very sophisticated and structured vampire society, riddled with political struggles and faction alignments. It is also not your job to spread fear throughout the human race by becoming a killing machine, in fact it is in your best interests to keep your vampire status a complete secret where possible, as your fellow vampires will look harshly at such behavior. Failing to do so will bring in the vampire hunters, which is the game's subtle way of saying "Game over dude". Mindless killing will also lower your 'humanity' rating, which, when depleted, will turn you into a beast of the night, completely out of your control. As you can see, there is a fine line between surviving and being classified a pest problem, so you can throw out any cliche's you're use to seeing with vampires when playing this game; as powerful as you are, you are in a very dangerous world that can get the better of you through means as simple as getting your arse kicked.
Whilst this is officially a FPS (First Person Shooter), you can also choose to play the game in the TPS (Third Person Shooter) perspective. Sometimes during the game it will autoswap between the two, like in hand to hand combat, however this is only to avoid awkward camera angles, which it does a pretty good job of doing. On the topic of combat, besides the usual assortment of weapons such as bats, knifes, pistols etc, you also have what is known as your "Disciplines", which will change depending on your clan type. These Disciplines can range from physical enhancements such as super strength and speed, to mental enhancements such as the power to force enemies to commit suicide and to confuse their minds with a trance. These disciplines really define the way you play this game - sure you can run around with a knife and shotgun and ignore them, but in the right situations a certain discipline could mean the different between an unscratched body or final death, the ultimate ending to a vampire's existence. Some of them are also excellent time savers - nothing beats Mass Suicide for taking out 10 near by baddies.
Perhaps the best part of V: TMB is the nonlinear gameplay. Not only are you given control on how to interact with certain characters, these interactions will influence the missions on hand including your stance with certain factions in the game. Whilst you are not given direct control on who you work for, often you won't even have choice in the matter, there will come times where you are given control on what your future has in store for you atleast to some extent. Also, the game doesn't stop at just making the storyline nonlinear, moving throughout the world of V: TMB is also nonlinear in the sense you can usually choose where to go and what to do next, which is a very refreshing change from the many recent "FPS on rails" titles we've seen lately. As you progress throughout the game and unlock areas, you can move from district to district within LA at your command by simply jumping in a taxi and choosing your destination on the map, giving you full control on where you want to be at almost any time during the game.
Another aspect which works hand in hand with the nonlinear gameplay is the mission system. Instead of giving you a sequential series of direct missions and objectives, the game will allow you to undergo more than one mission at a time, meaning you can focus on more than one aspect of the storyline at any one time, even if said aspects have absolutely no relation whatsoever. This gives the game very good depth and places a very nice degree of control in the gamer's hands. Of course, only some missions will significantly progress the storyline and these missions are usually pretty easy to spot, but nonetheless, allowing you to pick and choose at your own pace does wonders for the gameplay. Even though the game is played out in the style of an FPS or TPS, this system better represents that of an RPG, which is very much what V: TMB is; an RPG in a FPS/TPS shell.
One drawback with this nonlinear mission structure is the fact you will be moving around a lot often continuously back and forth, and since you're merely a humble vampire, this is of course on foot. The areas you move around in aren't huge, but they are big enough to make the trip from one end to the other somewhat tedious when done over and over again. It is hard to imagine, but I wouldn't be surprised if most of this game is infact spent on moving from one mission to the next, which means there are points in this game where you will be incredibly bored, unfortunately. The fact a considerable amount of missions are almost completely non violent in nature doesn't help the excitement factor, either.
And if most of the game is not spent on moving from one mission to the next, then it is certainly spent on trying to find out what it is you are required to do. Most missions are straight forward, but the occasional mission will leave you frustrated as you run around in circles trying to decrypt the riddle that is the mission description. This is mainly due to the lack of any sort of waypoint or minimap feature in the game, and often the mission descriptions are vague and not detailed enough. When you finally figure out what it is you're meant to be doing, you will feel a little silly for missing it at all, but it could have been totally avoided with perhaps a clearer mission objective system which provided more clues or, god forbid, an easily accessible map which points you in the right direction.
Although the game is powered by Valve's Source engine (as seen in Half Life 2) the movement and environmental interaction doesn't seem to be as impressive as I had hoped, in fact after playing Half Life 2 I found it hard to believe V: TMB used the Source engine at all. This is not to say the engine is poorly implemented, because it isn't, however it does feel a little rough around the edges. Often you will get temporarily stuck in objects, sometimes the clipping seems way off and other minor bugs like NPC's shooting off into the distance at 100 miles an hour and coming straight back in the blink of an eye don't help. I imagine a few of the quirks seen can be fixed with a patch, but as it stands now, V: TMB is certainly a little buggy.
Visually, V: TMB features some pretty impressive detail on both the environment and characters, however there isn't anything overly groundbreaking here. Although as mentioned above the individual districts you move around in are reasonably small in size, the game does a good job in creating a visual feel that the area you are in is actually much bigger. Animation wise, some movements particularly from surrounding characters seem a little awkward and are generally not very life like, although this does not really detract from the game significantly. When it comes to system requirements, expect slow performance on mid range systems with high visual detail, this is a title which will require serious CPU and GPU power to fully capture its visual capabilities, and while that is expected in today's PC gaming market, Half Life 2 performed on mid range systems fine and its visuals were better, so this further emphasises the point that V: TMB's implementation of the Source engine is a little shabby.
The PC has not had any shortage of FPS games in recent times, in fact it seems to be that time again where many FPS titles see their latest series additions, however out of all the recent releases, none seem to have the unique appeal that Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines has. Not only is the subject of vampires pretty unique itself, the way the game executes seperates it from the pack in some regards. If you were disappointed with the recent FPS titles and their somewhat lackluster plot and linear storylines, then you will probably find Bloodlines to be a refreshing change, however on the other hand, a few technical and design issues let it down, preventing it from becoming an absolute must have. If you can look past the collection of minor annoyances, Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines will provide an all round gameplay experience rivaling that of practically any FPS title to date.