By Alec Meer on July 30th, 2007 at 2:29 pm.
“Every time I yank a jawbone from a skull and ram it into an eyesocket, I know I’m building a better future.” So Bender from Futurama, in the guise of a biker vamp, informs me as to how he thinks the world’s problems should be solved. Ah, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. Truly, you are the last of your kind. I no longer think you’re one of the finest, however.
Noting that yet another fan-made patch was out for the infamously broken swansong of that RPG/FPS hybrid genre awkwardly known as the immersive sim (unless you count Oblivion, which was a sort of waterered-down, action-only approach to the same concept), I’ve decided to revisit it. Despite slightly too fiercely defending it at the time against those who deemed it no classic because of the sheer weight of bugs, spelling mistakes and mindless combat in its twilight third, I never quite finished Bloodlines. I realised the shift from a game built on conversation, persuasion and seduction to one built on fists and knives and guns was an absolute one, so I stopped, with the story unresolved and my character not yet at the height of his dark abilities. I’d had my brainy fun, and I was grateful for it.
These were, you understand, dark times. Deus Ex 2 had recently breathed its foetid, compromised, characterless breath all over me, Doom 3 had me despairing for the future of the first-person shooter, and there was no strong RPG on the horizon to spin me a good yarn. I knew Vampire was the best I was going to get, broken or not. However, I made a dreadful mistake at the time. I picked the Gangrel sub-race of Vampires to play as – as I recall, because it could change into a beast form, which sounded like, rilly kewl. Actually, it was a big, dumb brawler character without anything interesting going on, and a tendency to crash the game whenever I turned him into a wolf-thing. Bah. The smart kids, it turned out, were playing Nosferatu – a breed of bloodsucker too phsyically monstrous to openly prowl the streets, so forced to navigate by alleyways and sewers – or Malkavians – semi-psychic schizophrenics who spoke only in twisted metaphors, their madness so absolute that picking between dialogue options was something of a lottery.
I’ve been meaning to replay Vampire as a Malkavian for a while now, but the depressingly middle-class part of me that gets all fascistic about missing apostrophes meant dabbling in the game’s slowly escalating grammar abuse again was painful to contemplate. With the fan-fixes taking to the game to an eyewatering version 3.9 (as an example of quite how dedicated these fans are, the official patches only went to 1.2), now seemed a pretty good time. A short browse of the planetvampire.com forums proved this is a game very much still alive. Hilariously, there’s an angry geek war between fan patches – one that makes some tweaks to game as well as fixes, one that’s about killing bugs only, ferociously dedicated to preserving developer Troika’s original ‘vision.’ I can’t help but feel that, given just how obvious the late-game’s complete change of tack into bad, broken combat makes it that said vision was horribly compromised, those latter fans are being just a little too passionate. Also, the guys behind the ‘pure’ patch are just as dedicated to creating endless, incredibly tacky nude skins for Vampire’s more buxom lady characters, so it’s hard to consider their opinions wholly reliable.
Certain elements of Vampire, on my first playthrough, stood out as moments of genuis. The wonderful, dark twist in the the sub-plot concerning mutually atagonistic goth-bunny/sex-secretary vamp twins Jeanette and Therese Voerhman. The genuinely spooky haunted mansion level, containing the best-ever sound effect of a baby’s severed head in a washing machine. The moral dilemma over how to treat your Ghoul – a feckless human granted a drink of your blood and, though still human, now utterly, hopelessly obsessed with you and the undead world. The sudden appearance, late in the game, of someone from your mortal past, surprised to see you ‘alive’ and determined to take you back to family and friends – do you let her, or kill her, or pretend you’re someone else?
They’re still there, and they’re still rare videogame triumphs of story-telling and character. What I see on this second playthrough, though, is that without them, Vampire is not a great game. Not in terms of bugs and the intellectual entropy of the last few hours, but in terms of not being a great game. Not by a long shot. What strikes me the most is what a collosal waste of space most of its places are. Almost nothing and almost no-one can be interacted with; there are rooms upon rooms that serve no purpose, often entirely empty and certainly with not a thing to press E to use within them. They’re too primitive-looking (even by Vampire’s 2004 standards) to add to the sense of world, and instead all they achieve is to make you get a bit lost. Outside, 90% of NPCs don’t react to your presence, or even to each other’s, though in fairness I did witness one street brawl, swiftly sucked into an Oroborous loop when one of the combatants got stuck on a lamp-post.
And there are so, so many doors. Doors that never open, doors that don’t even have handles on them, doors that unlock only after a certain event trigger, doors inexplicably immune to the lock-picking ability I’d ploughed all my experience points into, and all of them always bafflingly protected from the vampiric superpowers that enable me to punch a man into bloody pieces. Purposeless, unopenable doors have always been a pet-hate of mine. Why do so many developers, especially of first-person shooters, persist in adding so many of them? Can they really believe that a flat, non-interactive texture will make a player believe this digital world is bigger than what they can see? In so many games, it adds an artificial, cheerless challenge – Find The Door. Find The Door is no fun. People don’t play games because their idea of a good time is looking for a door, the one door amongst dozens that they’re allowed to press the Use button on. Is this challenge deliberate, or is it because the art team seek ways to make a room look more decorated? If the latter, then there’s a gap in the market for a company that specialises in stock 3D models of bookcases, posters, shelves, radiators, hat stands, bins, stuffed animals… Please, developers, stop making Find The Door challenges. I refuse to accept they’re a necessary part of videogames.
What’s saddest, though, is the speed with which Vampire’s great ideas dwindle into combat or stealth-centric missions. Once you’re out of the lovingly-crafted first area, Santa Monica, the places become simpler, the interesting dialogue options (i.e. solving quests using the talky abilities of Persusasion, Seduction, Intimidation or Malkavian dementia) become rarer and rarer and you’re dragged off to setpiece levels containing legions of identical baddies to fight or avoid with increasing frequency. Even my Malkavian’s glorious gibberish-talk, having earlier gotten me into trouble with highly-strung NPCs because I didn’t quite know what I was saying to them, became steadily more pedestrian, just everyday dialogue in a funny font and with a token cackle at the end. Worse, as the game wears on, there are more fights you can’t avoid, spelling instant death or multiple reloads if you’ve poured all your experience points into the more interesting, non-combative abilities. As those abilities are completely useless at multiple critical moments of the game, moments you must complete to progress, why have them at all?
Perhaps the worst example of both Vampire’s rapid collapse into bad action gaming and into Find The Door is the Nosferatu warrens at the end of the game’s third zone, Hollywood. First, an unavoidable combat-only mission, ending in a difficult boss fight against a Fiend able to summon infinite scuttling head-on-legs demon things at will. Then, you’re immediately banished to four long levels of labyrinthian warren, positively brimming with pointless, texture-only doors. At one point, you’re required to crawl through half a dozen long, dark passageways until you find the one that isn’t a dead-end at which you have to turn around and go all the way back to the start. Throughout, those head-on-legs demon things spawn out of nowhere, able to completely ignore the invisiblity skill I’d spent all my experience points on, with the subsequent noise of unintended combat alerting various bigger, deadlier beasts to my frail presence, and often causing the sudden death of my undead.
The misery ends with a Find The Key challenge that, in my case, involved backtracking through 15 minutes of carefully-avoided monsters to find the one turning I’d not taken, picking up the key, and running the same gauntlet a third time. The Nosferatu I was looking for finally located, I relievedly emerged back into the city – from a hidden door in a location I’d visited hours before, and just a hop, skip and a double-jump from where this whole mess began. I felt so insulted. All that grind and tedium and reloading and getting lost, just to artifically add an extra couple of hours to the game, just because that door was cruelly made unopenable until I’d been through every inch of the warrens.
How did I stomatch that at the time? Were the moments of high character and deliciously twisted moralising so rare in 2004 that I was able to ignore such plunges to gaming’s rock-bottom? True, those Nosferatu I finally found were fascinating – a hacker-nerd completely untroubled by his monstrous appearance because he was socially unacceptable before he became undead; a fallen beauty queen, vamp-face horribly scarred by her surgical attempts to restore glamour, plotting the demise of a rival actress who’d retained her looks; and their leader, a vamp whose bedroom contained a dinner table sat at by skeletons, and who chummily called me ‘boss’, even though I was a pale-faced, huge-breasted lass in a police costume, chaps and lingerie. (It’s worth noting, in fact, that though Vampire offers a choice of genres to play as, it’s primarily only women you can seduce, some buildings only have male toilets and I swear an NPC referred to me as ‘he’ several times. Either the game’s sexist, very probable given the amount of quivering breasts in it, or its unfinishedness meant gender equality fell by the wayside.) Fine proof of what Troika’s writers could do, but not reward enough for the travials of reaching them.
My intent was to finish Bloodlines this time, but for now my savegame is stalled just outside that hateful door. The thought of going back raises a bile of frustration in my throat. Give me a week or two and maybe I’ll go back, but for now, I’m convinced this was a sacred cow badly in need of slaying. While I’d let them shoulder the blame until now, a three-year vintage and a pushy publisher don’t justify quite how far it falls, and how quickly. The first zone is a grand achievement, but only goodwill from it has held the others in high esteem. Once, I fought for this game’s honour. Now, I’m embarassed by it.