Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines Impressions

Troika's role-playing game built on the Half-Life 2 engine will let you drink blood, talk fast, and shoot guns.

One of the most anticipated role-playing games this year is Activision and Troika's Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines. Set in White Wolf's rich role-playing universe and using Valve's cutting-edge Source engine (the same used to power Half-Life 2), Bloodlines will let you live the life of a vampire in a dark and seedy version of the Los Angeles underworld. The developers at Troika have a history of developing role-playing games, including the famed Fallout games, but this is their first attempt to create a role-playing game with first-person action. Leonard Boyarsky, the game's project leader, recently visited the GameSpot offices to show us some of the gameplay in Bloodlines.

A Nosferatu vampire after feeding off a fresh kill.

Boyarsky walked us through the character creation process and explained that Bloodlines incorporates all the rules from White Wolf's pen-and-paper role-playing game. The White Wolf system is flexible enough to account for all the usual archetypes for vampires, from the disfigured and bestial vampires of the Nosferatu clan to the beautiful and seductive bloodsuckers of the Toreador clan.

The two key concepts behind a vampire's powers are disciplines and blood buffs. Disciplines are basically special abilities that cover all the things that vampires do in movies and novels. For instance, there's blood healing, which, as the name suggests, heals your wounds. Then there's auspex, which boosts a vampire's perception. Not only does auspex allow you to see better in the dark, but you can also see the auras generated around people. At higher levels, you can even see auras through walls, which is a handy ability that lets you map out where people are scattered throughout a building. At high levels, auras will also be color-coded according to the person's disposition; neutral characters will have white auras, while hostile characters will have red auras, allowing you to quickly determine who's a threat. There are quite a number of other disciplines, including presence, which covers a vampire's supernatural charisma. If you have a strong presence, your friends will love you, and your enemies will fear you even more.

Blood buffs are the ability of a vampire to use blood to temporarily boost any of the three main stats: strength, dexterity, and stamina. Not only is this a useful ability in combat--you can boost strength to increase damage or boost stamina to increase durability--but this will also have plenty of noncombat applications. You may, for example, encounter a locked door. If you don't have a high lock-picking skill, you'd normally be forced to find a key, but with blood buffs, you can simply boost your character's dexterity, which, in turn, will boost your character's ability to pick locks.

In the White Wolf universe, vampires are held to the laws of the "masquerade." That is, though vampires are powerful, they are far outnumbered by humans and must remain hidden from human society, lest the humans organize and wipe them out. As a newly sired vampire, it will be your responsibility to keep the masquerade intact. That means that there are areas in the game, known as masquerade areas, where you have to exercise caution and not expose your nature to humans. If you violate the masquerade, your masquerade level will take a hit. If you accrue too many violations, the vampire clans may send someone to eliminate you before you blow their cover. According to Boyarsky, this will be one of the challenges in the game, but you will be given opportunities to recover lost masquerade points by completing certain quests and missions.

Skulking in the shadows of Santa Monica.

Another key element of the game will be your humanity level. Humanity is basically how much control you have over your vampire nature. It will be important to keep your humanity level high, because if it gets too low, your character may simply lose control and give in to his or her vampiric urges. When this happens, the game will switch to a third-person view, and you can only watch as your character grabs humans at random to feed on them. Naturally, this can be particularly damaging to your masquerade level, especially if it happens in public.

The game's story was developed by Troika, but it is closely intertwined with White Wolf's Time of Darkness novels about "Gehenna," the end of the world. In fact, the story has been officially accepted into the canon, and White Wolf considers Bloodlines to be the prequel to the books. You'll star in the game as a new vampire, and you'll have to report to your sire for guidance and directions. Eventually, you'll be able to choose between any of the seven major vampire clans, or you may choose to not affiliate yourself with any clan and go solo instead.

These thugs are screaming for a beating, and maybe some feeding.

Every quest and mission in the game will have multiple solution paths, and Boyarsky took us through an encounter to show us how it could be resolved three different ways. The mission was to recover some stolen explosives from a beach house guarded by thugs. We watched as Boyarsky completed this quest using different styles of play: fast talking, stealth, and out-and-out combat.

Talking your way through the quest is something that a vampire associated with the Toreador clan would do. The Toreadors are the smooth talkers of the vampire world, much like those that appear in novels by horror author Anne Rice. You can use your charisma and presence discipline to try to bluff or to endear yourself to the thugs. If your character is sufficiently skilled, you'll be presented with dialogue options with different colors and fonts; an aggressive dialogue option will be presented in bold red letters, while a persuasive solution will be displayed in flowery blue lettering. This should make it easy for you to differentiate between each option and foresee the consequences of each selection.

As we saw, a vampire of the Nosferatu clan seemed best suited to using a stealthy or an aggressive approach, since the monstrous-looking vampires would have had a hard time trying to talk their way past humans. The stealth solution to the mission involved sneaking around the back of the house to switch off the fuse box. When one of the thugs came out to switch it back on, Boyarsky snuck up from behind, grabbed him, and drained him of blood. The obfuscation discipline also came in handy--this powerful skill helps cloak your presence in darkness, and at its highest levels, it can render you almost completely invisible.

The guy on the couch is actually a ghoul--a human who consumes vampire blood. Will you help him...put him out of his misery?

The hostile approach can be very rewarding if you're looking for action. As we watched, Boyarsky's vampire used the blood boil discipline to kill off one enemy by causing the thug's body to convulse, swell, and finally explode. Boyarsky then picked up a pistol and started shooting. Troika plans to take full advantage of the fact that the game is using an engine designed for first-person shooters; your character will be able to handle all sorts of firearms. There will be a general firearm skill, and high levels in that skill will give you greater accuracy and effectiveness with a gun.

Boyarsky told us that they want Bloodlines to have the depth of a solid role-playing game and the fast pacing of a first-person shooter, and it looks like the pieces are falling into place. After the disappointment of 2000's Vampire: The Masquerade - Redemption, Bloodlines may very well be the game that White Wolf and role-playing fans have been looking for. The game is scheduled to ship later this year. For now, watch our exclusive video interview with Troika's Leonard Boyarsky.

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