At this point, Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines is essentially done. This action role-playing game, based on White Wolf's popular supernatural pen-and-paper RPG and built on Half-Life 2's Source engine, is due out later this month. So there's not much left for the developers at Troika to do other than to sit back and relax. In fact, we saw two of Troika cofounders hanging out in the corner of a recent Los Angeles press event for the game, watching as the members of the media got one last look at Bloodlines before it ships. That included us, and we finally got our first hands-on time with Bloodlines since the game was announced last year.
Bloodlines is set in the modern Los Angeles underworld, a place populated in White Wolf's universe by seven different vampire clans, as well as by other supernatural creatures. You'll create a vampiric character who serves the vampire prince of Los Angeles, though how you serve him is up to you. If you want to play as a suave and sophisticated vampire, you may, or you can go the violent way and play as a demonic vampire.
To speed us into the game, Activision and Troika had already created a vampire for us to play, thereby skipping the character-generation process. So instead of being able to choose from one of the seven vampire clans, a gender, and basic attributes, we began the game with a male vampire of the Gangrel clan. Gangrels are fierce, almost beastlike vampires. It's hard for Gangrels to hide their true nature, unlike their more-urbane cousins, the Toreadors. As a result, our character had almost an apelike swagger to him as he ran around the streets of Santa Monica. Our brutish appearance also affected the conversations with some of the non-player characters, as many characters seemed nervous and cowed before the vampire. This makes it easier to threaten or intimidate the other characters, as you can bully them into doing what you want.
You'll begin the game in the Santa Monica hub, which is similar to the city zones found in the classic role-playing game Deus Ex. In fact, Bloodlines seems to bear more than a passing resemblance to that game since, like in Deus Ex, you start off in your gritty little apartment. Turn on the radio and you can listen to a lengthy, local talk radio show with callers discussing things that may or may not be clues to later events in the game. Then you can sit down at your computer and sort through your e-mail, filtering out the junk mail (yes, spam exists in the virtual world of Bloodlines) and looking for the clues. But some of the spam may be clues as well, as some of it corresponds with businesses and services that are in the game. It's all stuff to file away in your head for later use. You can also search your apartment for useful items, like blood packs that someone thoughtfully stashed in your refrigerator. Blood packs serve as health packs in a way, but they also allow you to recharge your blood meter. Blood powers your vampiric disciplines, which resemble magical powers, such as obfuscate, which makes your character invisible to detection.
The Santa Monica hub seems roughly comparable in size to some of the larger zones in Deus Ex, and it's filled with businesses and other locales that you can't access yet (but they hint at further adventures later on in the game). There's also plenty of foot traffic, with random passersby, prostitutes, and police officers walking around. These people may offer the opportunity to feed, but since the four major hubs are considered masquerade areas, revealing your nature in public or killing someone can have serious repercussions for you. Still, it's possible to lure a prostitute into an alleyway and partially feed on her. All you have to do to feed on a human is get close to her and hit the "f" key, and your vampire will grab victims and bite them on the neck. A blood meter will display how much blood remains in the victim, and you can stop feeding just before it runs out so you avoid killing the human. This is usually the safest method, as killing a victim will just raise potential problems, not the least of which is that you may lose humanity points, or the ability to control your vampiric nature in public.
An Explosive Situation
Your first quest in the game is one that Troika demonstrated to us earlier this year. It involves your character recovering some explosives from a ghoul called Mercurio. Ghouls are humans who have been allowed to drink some vampire blood to become supernatural servants. When you find Mercurio, he has been beaten up and bleeding from a weapons deal gone bad, which means that you have to recover the explosives yourself.
When you reach the gang's beachfront hideout, you'll enter a combat zone in the game, meaning that you can kill to your heart's content with no repercussions. Even though we were playing as a brawler-style vampire, we used stealth to sneak around the guard in front and flip the switch on the power box in the rear of the house. When one of the gang members came back to flick it on, we ambushed and killed him, then picked up his baseball bat and snuck around to the front. Unfortunately, the front guard heard us and raised the alarm; we bludgeoned him to death with the bat and then had to dodge the gunshots from the other gang members. Recovering a tire iron, we rushed one of the gunmen and pummeled him, then picked up his revolver and went after the other gang members.
With Bloodlines being built on the same graphics engine that powers Half-Life 2, you might expect the gunplay to feel the same. In reality, firing a gun in Bloodlines feels similar to using a firearm in Deus Ex or System Shock 2. Like in those games, Bloodlines requires your character to increase your firearms skill in order to use weapons effectively. Our character was able to shoot the gunmen at close range, but his relatively low firearms skill meant that trying to hit from longer range was a riskier proposition. But we managed to take out the gang members and recover the explosives, which opened up another quest to actually use the explosives against a rival vampire clan.
Troika has been very careful about revealing much about the single-player storyline of the game, but we got tantalizing glimpses of quests we hadn't seen before, including an intriguing haunted mansion with a mystery revolving around twin sisters. According to Troika, the game should pack around 40 to 60 hours' worth of gameplay (if you perform all the side-quests). Of course, you'll also be able to replay the game numerous times from the perspective of the different vampire clans. There are also four different endings in the game to explore, if you wish.
The graphics engine in the game looks strong, but what really impressed us were the facial expressions on all the characters we spoke to. One of the highlights of the Source engine is the ability to render facial muscles, which adds to the realism when the characters speak. And, strange as this may sound, the game seems to render eyes especially well, as you can almost see the glint in characters' eyes when they're speaking to you. It's a small point, but in a game about vampires, it could be a salient one.
Judging from the version on display, it feels like Bloodlines is pretty much complete. Everything worked properly, and there were no visible bugs or flaws. Of course, we only got to play through the game's opening moments, but it seemed to bode well for the rest of the game. Though we don't have an exact date yet, we're told that Bloodlines will ship later this month, sometime after Half-Life 2 ships.