Vampires don’t exist. Well…that is exactly what The Camarilla wants you to think anyway. For those who have played the White Wolf pen-and-paper version of Vampire: The Requiem you already know about the Camarilla and the creatures of the dark, for those who have not, you are about to discover the true nature of your world.

You simply cannot talk about the graphics in Bloodlines without talking about the Source engine.  As you may or may not know, (you Nosferatu need to get out more if you don’t know this) Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is built on the high-powered engine that will also power the much-anticipated title Half-Life 2.  What this should also tell you is that Troika has known about Half-Life 2 a whole hell of a lot longer than the rest of us.  The use of the Source engine gave Troika the ability to use their talents on fleshing out the incredible storyline and remarkable atmosphere.

The Source engine features a graphics system that is yet-unrivaled.  You’ll see this showcased heavily in your interactions with the many people that you will encounter in the game.  When you speak with someone you will zoom up close to them and this is where the magic starts.  Each muscle is rendered over a complex skeletal system that makes the incredible eye movement and lip synch more real than anything you’ve ever seen other than pre-rendered cutscenes.  When a character looks upset with you, their eyebrows, cheeks, eyes, and every other feature of their face will tell you long before their tone conveys this fact.  When dealing with more seedy characters, they may be more shifty-eyed or wide-eyed with surprised if you are overpowering them with aggression.  The time for the video game characters with sightless thousand-yard combat stares are over.

If the character animations and facial expressions wowed you, you’ll be blown away by the environments.  You start off in Santa Monica in a run down apartment, and you can practically smell the slum.  The window glass is the sort of shoddy somewhat wavy glass with bubbles of imperfections that cast an Dali-esque neon glare into your room.   Your bed looks like you might pick up some rust-borne disease simply by being near it.  Almost every area in the game is given this level of detail, with only a few exceptions that seemed somewhat devoid of objects.  The real pieces of work are the buildings.  Confessions, a vampire hangout and nightclub, is an old Gothic cathedral complete with spires and gargoyles and the detail simply defies explanation.  When you end up in an old train yard, it is filled with old burned out cars, bashed down doors, crates and garbage, and a deluge of Sabbat thugs.

As you pass through the four incredibly detailed hubs of Los Angeles you’ll see that each is filled with passers-by, police, bums, mafia, and a whole bevy of other characters.  Occasionally you’ll run into other vampires who recognize you for what you are and reveal themselves to you.  All of these people create a graphically full world that provides food, entertainment, interaction, and a big obstacle if you are a Nosferatu. All of these incredibly detailed structures and environments are completely free of any fog effects, pop-in, or any of the other usual graphic trickery used to make a scene complete. Occasionally, you’ll encounter some areas of the environment that are destructible, but they are usually contextual and not the norm. 

The issues that I’ve seen that bumped the graphics down from the solid 100 that is seems like this game so obviously would deserve are evenly split between this category and the gameplay category.  Occasionally, the beautiful work that went into eye work goes haywire.  While I only encountered it during the intro scene and one other occasion the eyes went spinning through the skull of a person I was talking to like some sort of Las Vegas slot machine.  Given the incredible work that has gone into this game, I can say that this is a very minor thing, but worth a mention. (and a giggle)

Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines has a soundtrack headlined by legendary industrial metal guru Al Jorgensen of Ministry.  The game also features dark and sinister music from such bands as Darling Violetta, Lacuna Coil, and Tiamat just to name a few.  It lends an air of realism to the game as the bands play real music instead of the cookie-cutter techno music you usually get fed in games. 

The voice work in Bloodlines is on par with the graphic work.  While there aren’t any big name actors or actresses, the people they did get are fantastic.  I think you’ll especially like Jeanette as she is fun, bubbly, and certifiably insane.  You can usually spot a character by the way they speak; the Brujah are your typical biker rough-speaking tough guys, but on the other end of the spectrum the Toreadors are more slick and aristocratic.  The Nosferatu clan sound as twisted as they look. The real fun is the Malkavians…

The Malkavians are insane, although they might say that they are ‘touched’.  Everything they say is just twice as bizarre as the last.  Suffice to say, for the odd changes between the normal speech options and the ‘off the deep end’ Malkavian speech options (and the subsequent reactions from everyone else) the game is worth playing twice. 

Something that I hope gets patched, but suffers as only a minor nuisance, is a slight voiceover glitch.  Occasionally the voice will get cut off and overrun by the next voice track.  This is exacerbated by the fact that occasionally the voice doesn’t match the subtitles, but the voice is usually clear enough to understand what is going on anyway.

For as complex of a mixture of RPG and action elements as Bloodlines is, the control scheme is surprisingly simple.  The Diablo-esque inventory management of the first title is gone and is replaced by a simple quick selection system activated by the function keys.  Movement is handled via the usual WASD key configuration with Ctrl activating the crouch button.  At any time you can switch to a third person view by using the Z key.  F is used to start the feeding process and F again will release your victim with a hearty push.  Like many games, the E key is your Use key and allows you to open doors, speak to people, complete stealth kills, hacking, and more.   For more advanced combat we move to the mouse.

The left mouse button will fire your weapon or swing a melee item such as a hammer or tire iron.  The right mouse button activates your vampiric disciplines, and your mouse wheel can rapidly select between them.  How effective you are with all of these items is very much dependent on your skills in firearms, melee combat, and any skills and attributes associated with those skills.  Your targeting reticule will expand far faster if you are unskilled with a particular weapon, and you will fire and reload slower than you would if you knew what you were doing.  Some more exotic weapons such as the flamethrower really aren’t that dependent on your skill as you can lay down a more indiscriminant burn over the top of your enemies without the need for as much aiming or skill.

Vampiric powers aren’t limited to blood magic and seduction, you can also engage in very effective melee combat using only your claws.  Behind the scenes, dice rolls are accomplished to determine the effectiveness of your attacks.  Depending on your skills and traits and the defense level of your target, you can knock your opponent through the air, stun them leaving them open for a second strike, or they can reverse your strike and stun you.  It gives the feel of a pen and paper roll playing game’s dice roll attacks mixed in with the reality of face to face combat that shouldn’t fail at point blank range.  To accomplish this, Troika has made all attacks that should connect into effective strikes, although they might not do a significant amount of damage.  Its better than a miss at point blank and helps preserve the immersion.

The only knock against the controls in Vampire is that it is not always easy to quickly switch between guns, fangs, and claws for some characters.  My primary character is a Toreador, the more humanity-engrained sect of the Cainites.  While his combat skills are poor, sometimes it feels like I’m better off relying on my claws rather than learning a weapon as the innate skills such as knockback give so much of an advantage that I can devastate most enemies without much difficulty.  Most weapons are just simply too slow.  The Brujah, a more unarmed combat oriented clan are even more devastating with their claw attacks, but still suffer when using weapons.  Again, it seems that claws are your friend far more than firearms.

The first White Wolf stab at the World of Darkness, Vampire: The Masquerade – Redemption, was an action RPG but suffered from quite a few gameplay flaws and issues with powers that simply didn’t have much effect on the overall gameplay.  Redundant gameplay and control issues manifested and were not rectified by patches issued by Nihilistic.  Activision turned to Troika for their incredible storytelling power and to Valve for their incredible graphics engine.  Combined, you have something that the pen and paper Vampire players will love, and newcomers to the series will be playing for a long time to come.

The first issue that Troika tackled was capturing The Masquerade.  The Masquerade is the enforcement that vampires do not exist.  The Camarilla, an organization formed to uphold The Masquerade keeps the vampire society in check by ensuring that they are not exposed to the human race as the combined human onslaught would surely destroy all vampire-kind in short order.

Preserving The Masquerade is important to your survival as a vampire and ensures that you are not hunted by police, vampire hunters, and your own kin alike.  The Prince of Los Angeles has given you an ultimatum to complete a few tasks for him, but its funny how a few simple tasks can turn into something far larger than it appeared on the surface. 

As you move through the four hubs of the game you will complete the basic delivery quests as in any other RPG; the twist is in the Troika.  In one mission you have to take on a ghost and retrieve a pendant.  You can give the pendant to one person and make them happy, but you are sure to upset somebody else that you might need help from later.  If you don’t complete the mission at all you will be hard pressed to find an alternate way to accomplish the same goal, but it can be done.  Even simple delivery missions can turn out to be incredibly altering to the entire path of the gameplay.  The speech options you pick, how you interact with people, and who you chose as enemies and friends make a massive and long lasting difference on the overall story arc.  I have to admit that I was worried that the options would be shallow and wouldn’t change any outcomes within the story structure, but as I played for hours and hours it became very apparent that my actions had lasting consequences.

Speaking of consequences, violation of the Camarilla, public law, and basic decency will cost you.  Repeated violation of the Camarilla will cost you your neck as the Prince will not tolerate your wild-dog behavior.  Public law will extract their justice in bullets as the police will track you down and try to put you down like a common thug.  Violating enough laws will eventually pull down the wrath of Vampire Hunter groups who specialize in putting down Cainites.  Know that unless you blend in well, you will be burned into True Death.  Being a badass vampire is not without cost.

Bloodlines offers more options than many traditional RPGs in terms of pure options of interaction.  The Toreador can use his silver tongue to work over the local population, human and supernatural alike, like puppets on strings.  The Brujah can convince you that you might want to do what he wants if you’d like to keep your arms attached.   The Tremere can use their incredible power of Thaumaturgy to cause humans to bend to their will using blood-magic such as brainwipe and wide-reaching mass suicide.   Each clan interacts with the populous in a different manner and uses their unique clan powers to control or destroy the humans as they see fit.  The options are incredibly varied and each clan is different. 

The only real knock on gameplay is that occasionally the AI simply shuts off for some of the filler characters in the hubs.  In Santa Monica, after several hours of play I noted that most of the characters had filtered into one area and stood motionless like statues. While it did not affect the storyline as all of the quest characters were where they were supposed to be and working as they should, as I mentioned in the graphics section, it bears mentioning.  It is a minor issue but it does break the immersion.  Another concern that many people voice is the loading within the game.  As you move through each area you load, but it is a very brief sequence and you are offered useful gameplay tips.  By the time you read the tip you’ll be back in the game.  You load the primary hub and are able to move freely until you enter a building.  A short load and you are inside, as is the case throughout the game.  It is a slight break to the immersion, just like the AI glitch, but certainly not detracting enough to warrant more than a passing mention.

One area that the pen and paper purists will want to know about is the character generation process.  You can make your character by answering a series of questions, akin to the generation system of the Ultima games, or you can skip this process and create your character manually.  When you create your character manually you are allowed to pick your clan and sex, the clan making the most difference, and your sex changing the way people interact with you.  Once you pick your clan and sex you name your character and move into the heart of the generation process, selecting your skills and traits.  Each vampire bloodline is unique and gets bonuses and weaknesses based on their clan.  The Tremere are heavily focused into their blood magic so their physical traits suffer and cannot be moved above 4, whereas the Brujah get automatic bonuses to physical traits due to their brutish nature.  Your ‘pretty boy’ clans such as the Ventrue are given more social skills to spend as they will need their silver tongue to survive.   Nosferatu are masters at research; if you need it found, they’ve already found it.  When you’ve allocated your skills and attributes you can spend your remaining points in your Disciplines.  Each clan has different Disciplines, so chose your skills wisely fledgling, it could spell the difference between undeath and True Death.

Another important aspect of Vampire life is Humanity and your preservation of it.  Each clan has a different starting humanity level and they each earn humanity at different rates. Feeding on humans until they die will cost you humanity, as will killing innocents.  This affects you as your humanity can affect how quickly you frenzy. Frenzy is when a vampire loses the ability to control themselves and they rampage in search of blood.  Naturally, if you Frenzy in a crowded intersection and begin to rip the populous limb from limb this would quickly break The Masquerade and a few human laws to boot.  You will become unpopular very quickly.  You can earn back humanity by performing good deeds such as saving innocent lives or being charitable when you don’t necessarily have to be.  Having a low humanity will begin to affect your ability to carry on normal conversation as you slip into your more feral side, so once again it may be worth playing through the game as your favorite clan but in a very low humanity state.  The replayability cup runneth over…

This isn’t Troika’s first trip around the block as they are known for their expansive RPGs with compelling storylines.  Bloodlines is no exception and is rumored to feature a staggering 60 hours of gameplay on the primary plot thread alone.  When you couple this with the 7 clans and incredible host of voice options you can see why this section scores so incredibly high.  Vampire is a title you’ll be playing for a long time, and then playing again and again shortly thereafter.