Playing Splinter Cell with vampires isn't as cool in reality as it is on paper. Despite an absolutely fantastic concept that transforms Sam Fisher's spies and saboteurs into postmodern bloodsuckers called Nightwalkers, insta-death difficulty and confusing level design make Vampire Rain nearly unplayable. Developer Artoon hits some high notes with guts and gore, but the frustration factor kills whatever pluses the game has going for it.
About the only good thing about this game is that it doesn't waste your time; it broadcasts its awfulness right from the very start. The campaign story tells the ludicrous tale of John Lloyd, member of a team of plucky commandos fighting a secret war against vampires that are somehow taking over America and will outnumber regular citizens with pulses in precisely 908 days (vampires must be really good at mailing in their census forms). It's never explained exactly how this is happening, though. Even though the game is loaded with nonstop cutscenes, virtually all of the leaden, comic-book exposition is devoted to the repetitive explanation of mundane mission goals. Average folks are still walking the streets at night without a care in the world, too, so it's tough to worry about the undead swarming in to take American jobs or whatever.
Even with the vampire plague left unexplained, Artoon could still have built a creepy atmosphere. You don't need context to send chills up spines when hunting vampires in the dark, after all. But the developer doesn't do anything with the horror-movie vibe aside from throwing in the odd cutscene featuring a--wait for it--creepy little girl with stringy hair and buckets of gore (including one memorable moment where you discover that a few of your buddies have been turned into bloody performance art courtesy of some stop-sign poles). Lloyd looks exactly like Sam Fisher, right down to his black spandex Underoos and night-vision goggles. Mission objectives are straight from the Third Echelon playbook. You get a lot of high-tech scavenger hunts in alleys, office buildings, underground parking garages, and warehouses, and goals like taking down cell-phone towers, recovering electronic data, and shooting baddies with sniper rifles.
So aside from fanged foes ripping your throat out when you lose, there aren't any serious differences between Vampire Rain and a typical espionage-style sneaker. Gameplay certainly mirrors Splinter Cell and its clones. The basic structure of the game is identical in that you creep through alleyways, climb ladders, slide down wires and poles, and do all sorts of odd creeping around in a desperate attempt to avoid the vision cones of patrolling bad guys displayed on your minimap. Still, this isn't exactly a by the numbers stealth game, as Artoon introduces new ideas in almost every area, all of which do nothing but mess up what should have been a pretty straightforward game design.
First of all, Nightwalker vision cones are only a rough approximation of what the beasties can actually see. This seems realistic, as the distance is never beyond the realm of possibility and the vampires do have to be looking right at you. Shadows are more authentic zones of darkness here, not the magic cloaking fields seen in the Splinter Cell and Thief games. A good rule of thumb is that if you can see them, they can see you, which seems pretty fair. But even though you get used to this over time, not being able to trust the vision cones forces you into a lot of tedious trial and error, as you never know what you can get away with. Sometimes you'll go to great lengths to get around a sentry that you're positive will be able to easily spot you, only to eventually give up on alternate routes and discover that you can dart around it unseen. Other times you'll try to walk by a guard well out of his range of sight and be picked up immediately. To make everything even more annoying, you can't even activate vision cones on your minimap without identifying passersby as bloodsuckers with the necroscope function of your goggles.
Second, Nightwalkers are virtually impossible to kill. When you're spotted, you're dead. Weapons through much of the game are worthless. It takes a full clip of the automatic rifle or the submachine gun to take down one of these Drac-pack refugees, while they move so fast that they seem to be beaming from one place to another and can kill you with two swipes, the first of which generally incapacitates you. And once one gets you in its sights, it goes on the hunt until one of you is dead, so there's no running away or hiding. A sniper rifle and a UV knife show up later in the game and make killing Nightwalkers easier, although these new-and-improved devices require rare ammo (yes, even the freaking knife) and disappear at the end of each level. At any rate, vamp numbers rise so dramatically that it's suicidal to fight them no matter what weapons you possess. And even though Nightwalkers are so deadly, being hunted by them feels very artificial. Vamps never talk to one another, shuffle their feet, cough, wander over to see what might be lurking in the shadows, or even mutter about noisy rats. Instead of any interaction, you get a flashing-eyes special effect that lets you know you've got a couple of seconds to get under cover.
Level design causes more headaches. Paths forward are relentlessly linear in the campaign missions. Even though street scenes in the game appear wide open with all sorts of alleys to explore and ladders to climb, you're hemmed in by invisible borders. Everything is also so dark that it can be tough to figure out which way to go. Shadowy visuals boast incessant rain effects that set an appropriately depressing mood, although the scenery is so murky and indistinct that fine details are swallowed up by the gloom. You often can't even be certain of the presence of vampire sentries until you get so close that they can spot you. Night-vision and necroscope goggles can pierce the blackness, but the battery powering them runs down every few seconds. You spend more time waiting for recharges than you do hunting down hidden ladders and vamps. Sound effects don't help, either. Vamps frequently don't say anything when they spot you, and their footsteps are so muted that they might as well be walking on air. The only noteworthy aspect of the audio in the whole game is the squelching sound of a vampire mowing down on your carotid artery--and, of course, you hear that only during the brief cinematic that plays every time you get killed.
Gameplay modes outside of the campaign are unimpressive as well. Trial missions that give you short objectives to solve, like playing tag with all the other members of your team or grabbing a weapon from under the nose of a vampire, are often more entertaining than the full-blown story levels. Still, they're too short and limited to be all that involving. Multiplayer is dull, and the Live server is sparsely populated much of the time. The only multiplayer option that stands out is Death or Nightwalker, a deathmatch variant where a killed player can turn into a vamp. Of course, all this does is give the player the absurd speed and strength of the vampires in the game, so games end up totally unbalanced. It's probably best to stick with the uninspired alternatives, which include deathmatch, team deathmatch, and a capture-the-flag clone where you capture a flame.
It's entirely reasonable to look at Vampire Rain's concept and hope for something good to come of it. It may be a Splinter Cell also-ran, but the bloodsucking enemies and gorier moments give it a sufficient level of intrigue for the horror crowd. Too bad that any unlucky souls forced to trudge through this masochistically awful adventure would likely drive a stake through their own heart less than an hour in. Here's hoping someone sees the potential in future genre mash-ups like this one--ideally someone with a better game design.