Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines Updated Impressions

We get a final update from Troika's Leonard Boyarsky and learn of major new developments.

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Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines
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It's been a relatively quiet year for PC role-playing games, but that should change later this autumn when Activision and Troika release Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, an action RPG set in the rich White Wolf pen-and-paper role-playing game universe. There's been quite a bit of attention focused on Bloodlines, due to the fact that it's the first game outside of Valve to use the Source engine, the same technology that powers Half-Life 2. There's also the fact that it's being developed by Troika, a studio with a strong reputation for role-playing games. Leonard Boyarsky, Troika's joint CEO and Bloodlines' project leader, recently visited the GameSpot offices to give us a progress report on the game, and we have much to report.

Welcome to Chinatown, one of the four major hubs in Bloodlines. Be sure to bring your own flamethrower.
Welcome to Chinatown, one of the four major hubs in Bloodlines. Be sure to bring your own flamethrower.

To begin, there are two major things to report about Bloodlines. First, the game is currently in the final stages of development. This means that Troika is busy polishing the game and stamping out bugs. Second, Troika was able to reach this stage partly because it removed the multiplayer component from the game. Boyarsky explained the cut by saying that they wanted to focus on delivering the best single-player game possible, and that multiplayer would have consumed time and resources it didn't have. Since Troika's specialty is in creating single-player role-playing games, the omission of multiplayer should hopefully have little impact on the overall game.

Bloodlines will have you play as a recently sired vampire in the gritty underworld of modern-day Los Angeles. According to Boyarsky, your character was sired illegally, which would normally result in your execution, but the vampire prince of Los Angeles pardons you in return for your service. How you serve him, though, is entirely up to you. The game will let you create a male or female vampire from one of seven major vampire clans, so you can play as a smooth, sophisticated vampire in the classic Anne Rice style, or you can play as a demonic-looking Nosferatu-style vampire. Your choice of vampire clan will affect the way you get through the game. For example, vampires of the Brujah clan specialize in combat, while Toreador vampires are good at manipulation.

Boyarsky showed us the game's Chinatown hub, the last major hub to be revealed. Bloodlines revolves around four major Los Angeles hubs: Hollywood, Santa Monica, Downtown, and Chinatown. Throughout the course of the game, you'll be dispatched to combat zones and other locations in Los Angeles to pursue quests, but you'll always return to one of the main hubs, where you can explore and interact with non-player characters. The Chinatown hub showed off the Source engine's graphics capabilities, as it featured intricate architecture throughout the level. Like all the other hubs, Chinatown is populated with random characters you can feed on, such as prostitutes and passersby. However, like all hubs, Chinatown is a masquerade zone, meaning that you must not reveal your vampire nature in public. Vampires have survived for so long because they have masked their existence from humanity--if their existence were revealed, they would be hunted to extinction. Commit a masquerade violation in public, and the police may come after you, forcing you to either eliminate them quickly (before even more show up on the scene) or run away and hide until they call off the hunt. If you commit too many masquerade violations, the game will spawn a powerful vampire hunter who will relentlessly pursue you. Commit even more violations and you'll have multiple hunters on your trail, which Boyarsky said is not a good situation to be in.

Ming Xiao is the head of the Kwei-Jin, as well as a snazzy dresser.
Ming Xiao is the head of the Kwei-Jin, as well as a snazzy dresser.

In the Chinatown hub, you'll meet Ming Xiao, head of the Kwei-Jin, or the Eastern vampires in White Wolf's universe. The Kwei-Jin are different from Western vampires in that they don't feed on blood but rather on chi, the life force contained in all things. They also view their vampiric nature as a sort of Zen enlightenment rather than as a curse, like Western vampires. As a result, Ming Xiao's approach to your character in conversation can be haughty, depending on your responses to her baiting. Boyarsky explained to us that your character's responses will be based on his or her abilities and the type of vampire he or she is.

No Dice Rolls for You

In a mission that Boyarsky demonstrated for us, the vampire prince sent us to locate the sarcophagus of an Antediluvian that recently arrived in Los Angeles. The Antediluvians were the first vampires, and their blood can bestow powerful abilities to regular vampires who drink it, so many different vampire clans are after the sarcophagus. The prince of Los Angeles wants it for himself, but you're unsure about his motives, which is one of the themes of the game. Meanwhile, Ming Xiao warns you that she's sent two of her own agents after it, and that you should steer clear of them. The trail of the sarcophagus will lead you to the Giovanni mansion, home to a Mob family that's big on the undead. Indeed, if you can figure out how to get in, you'll discover an embalming room in the basement of the mansion, as well as various enemies, including zombies, that you must battle.

The severed arm on the floor is probably her work. Be careful.
The severed arm on the floor is probably her work. Be careful.

Troika originally designed the combat to be based on dice rolls, much like in a traditional role-playing game. However, that seemed contrary to the nature of an action role-playing game--Boyarsky pointed out that it doesn't make sense for your character to stand in front of an opponent and miss at point-blank range due to a dice roll. So out went the dice rolls and in came real-time combat mechanics. Now, you can shoot at your opponents like you would in a conventional first-person shooter, though your character's firearm skill will affect how well he or she aims and controls the recoil. You'll also have access to other powerful attacks, such as melee weapons and your vampire's own teeth and claws. One handy tactic, especially against groups of opponents, is to take down all but one enemy, and then seize and feed on the last opponent to replenish your health.

For those who are averse to twitch-style combat, Boyarsky maintained that every situation can be solved through the use of force, guile, or stealth. In other words, you can fight your way, talk your way, or sneak your way through any situation. To demonstrate, he showed us a bar scene in which your character has to get past the guards and ruffians inside. The most open and violent path involved taking out a weapon and taking care of the guards. Boyarsky played through three times this way, using a sword, a gun, and then a flamethrower. To emphasize the action elements of the game, he battled on the bar's second floor, and then jumped down to the ground floor from the balcony. In another sequence, he used one of his vampire's powers to summon a spectral wolf that materialized out of thin air and pounced on one of the bad guys.

Boyarsky then showed us that it was possible to bluff our way past the guards. Such an approach requires a character skilled in conversation, but it can be done. Finally, Boyarsky showed us that vampires who prefer stealth can use abilities such as "obfuscate," which makes them invisible, provided that they can keep from touching anyone. Of course, at low levels, obfuscate works only if you're completely motionless--it's not until your character reaches higher levels that you can use it while on the move. Also, using your vampiric powers drains your blood supply, so you'll need to constantly replenish it by feeding on victims if you go this route.

"Obfuscate" will hide you in plain view, sort of like a personal cloaking device.

Troika has made some big strides since we last saw Bloodlines, and the gameplay that we saw certainly looks very close to final. However, at this point, the company still isn't revealing much about the plot, so we haven't had a chance to see many locales in the game. Still, Bloodlines shows every indication of being a strong entry in the role-playing genre. Admittedly, there haven't been a lot of role-playing games lately, but the combination of first-person action and role-playing is an intriguing one. We'll find out when Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines ships this autumn.

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