Friday, December 10, 2004

Byte: Grab the boom-stick, white princess!

I'm rather enjoying Vampire - The Masquerade: Bloodlines at the moment. I'm running a couple of concurrent games, one as a Ventrue (the classic Dracula-type vampire) and one as a Malkavian (a vampire who has supernatural insight, at the cost of complete madness), so I'm not particularly far into the game yet (a handful of hours for each character), but everything so far has been pretty interesting and enjoyable - even the tutorial mission at the start.

First person RPGs have a terrible reputation for sloppy combat, for both melee and ranged weapons. Vampire gets around the melee problem by switching to third-person when you have a melee weapon (i.e. tire iron, knife, arm severed by madman prostheticist...) equipped, but the gun combat isn't anything to write home about. All the people who complained about the stat-based weapon accuracy in Deus Ex will complain about Vampire too; it's exactly the same. Until you put plenty of experience points into the Firearms skill and other feats that improve it, you'd be lucky to hit a wall with the shotgun from three feet. It's lucky then that the melee system is much more user-friendly, and more powerful to boot. Get yourself a combat knife and use your Blood Buff power, and if you've got a decent Strength score you can swipe through most low-level enemies in a couple of blows.

If you'll excuse the pun, the lifeblood of an RPG is the story and the writing, and here (thankfully) Vampire delivers in spades. The script is brilliant, especially if you choose to play a Malkavian. Malkavians make Will Self look like John Major. Their language is somewhat flamboyant to say the least, and packed with madness and metaphores. Talking to people who don't realise your nature (Kine, that is, mortal humans) can be somewhat amusing - "That was an interesting thing to say!" - and ending conversations with lines like "You cannot speak, for I am not here." is just wonderfully eccentric. Even though you can't see your character's wild eyes and twitching face (brilliantly, if you look in mirrors, you have no reflection), you can really tell the other characters can, thanks to the wonderful facial animations of the Source engine.

There are also some excellent and supremely atmospheric set-pieces. Early in the game in Santa Monica, you're asked to retrieve a personal item from a burnt out hotel, which just happens to be haunted. The scene draws influences from Ring, The Shining and Poltergeist, and it's absolutely brilliant. If you found Ravenholm unsettling on Half-Life 2 (as I did) the Ocean House will positively give you the willies. It's the best moment of the game in the first couple of hours - be prepared for it.

If there's one disappointing thing, it's that it doesn't appear to have been particularly rigourously playtested - it's one thing having the odd bug here and there, but having sound and animation bugs in the opening movie is a bit of a poor showing. The clipping (particularly with doors) isn't all it could be either. All these can be easily worked around or ignored, so it doesn't detract from the game that much, but I'm told that the bugs get worse as the game goes on. One apparently even requires you to get around it with the development console, which is QA criminality. Still, this is what we have patches for, I suppose.

If you're into your RPGs, it's certainly worth a good look - it's by far one of the most interesting titles to be released this year. Just don't expect it to be anything like Half-Life 2 because it uses the Source engine, though - as games go, these two are practically polar opposites.
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