The Ambitious Failure Of Cybervamp RPG BloodNet

I’m known for writing about old games that are worth playing today. This is something of a departure, as I can’t really recommend Bloodnet [Wikipedia page] with a clear conscience. It isn’t a good game. But it’s been lurking in my mind for the better part of 20 years.

It’s a rare game that would excite a traditional RPG fan as well as a genre cynic like me – an unforgiving, non-linear, party-based adventure with turn-based combat and minimal handholding, set in a world devoid of goddamn elves. Instead, it’s set in the kind of future that only the early 1990s could conjure up.

Cast as Ransom Stark, you’re a ‘disgrunt’ – a former employee of evil megacorporation du jour, TransTechnicals, discarded when your work made you sick. Now you’re one of many surviving the dystopian microcosm of Manhattan via illegal activities like ‘decking’ (unauthorised Matrix use. No, not that one. Well, actually….), theft, espionage, and of course murder. Then you’re bitten by a vampire.

Fortunately, your treatment – a neural implant designed by your missing friend Deirdre – has delayed your transformation, leaving you with a few days to seek a cure, find Deirdre, free the Matrix from corporate control, and maybe quite literally stick it to The Man.

Your greatest obstacle, however, will be the controls, which are atrocious. I criticised Darklands for its controls, but by the standard of its time, they’re not particularly bad. Bloodnet’s are. The simplest actions are slow and unreliable. Walking across a room feels like taking a drunk cow for a walk. Two right clicks mean “examine”, but one means “take”, and clicks register unreliably, making accidental theft and unwanted conversations common. Frustration is exacerbated by the graphics, with character sprites and portraits apparently matched at random, and the mixture of 3D rendered backdrops and 2D NPCs is awkward. The sound barely exists, and I wish I could say as much for the music, which is utterly terrible. Just be glad modern machines can so easily run Winamp in the background.

The engine is shared with Microprose’s earlier (and also ambitious) Challenge of the Five Realms, right down to the entertaining “what would you do?” character creation. Everything happens on static backdrops superimposed with immobile sprites, until combat starts, when non-combatants vanish and everyone else can shoot or move around at a pace envied by several species of fungus. From day one, Manhattan is your electro-oyster, a map dotted with possible destinations. Travel is unrestricted and instant, with time taken off the clock when you arrive.

So there you are, cast cyber-loose in the futurescape. But don’t reg yourself a dry chip – scope out some boards and go fry some corp nodes.

Oh, the dialogue in Bloodnet is silly. It’s so silly. There’s tonnes of it, and you absolutely must keep notes. But it’s kind of compelling. When Stark talks to his old accomplices, there’s a rare sense of loyalty and friendship in the conversation, overflowing as it is with adolescent proto-politics and cheesy 90s cyber-everything slang. Stark’s world is one of gangs and violence and ideological rifts. He’s able to survive not because he’s a superhero, but because of his loose network of old friends and allies who are willing to help him out.

That’s how you know he’s one of the good guys. It’s not because of his stats or who he kills. It’s because he’s proven himself trustworthy. They’re not wowed by meeting a famous hero – they’re glad to see someone in this dark and dangerous world who they can call a friend. It’s in the easy gossip, the bickering, even the recriminations. It’s in the unhesitating offers to help you, and the nuggets of information these people share to survive. They trade in guns and implants and hacking devices, but also information. Money is barely a concern, despite the theme of megacorporate hegemony – rather, success in this world is determined by what and who you know.

They reminisce about people you’ll never meet. They ask for things they have a use for. It’s nothing new, but the presentation is more interesting than “bring me 10 wolf anuses, which I can’t get myself because this is an RPG and we don’t give a toss”. That woman who drives the plot, your saviour Deirdre, is not a love interest. You’re looking for her because she’s your friend and she’s in trouble. An old girlfriend does turn up – she’s still a friend, but it’s complicated. Characters who care for each other as equals despite difficult pasts. Why is that scarce?

Then there’s that Matrix thing. It isn’t the internet, it’s more like the Matrix that came from the ‘constantly green’ district of Hollywood a few years later. Decking means uploading your consciousness, and is incredibly dangerous even without the corporate overlords patrolling cyberspace for errant souls. It’s presented in that ridiculous way the internet often was back then, as meaningless 3D shapes and surreal geometric planes to physically move across like the Lawnmower Man, or that Simpsons episode. This kind of world has never been done well in a game, and Bloodnet suffers even more from hindsight.

What does work though, is this idea of the Matrix as dangerous. The concept is scary. It isn’t cool, it’s a risky place where at any moment you might get caught and your memory wiped, or worse. TransTech isn’t just a generic evil corporation, bad because money is bad. It’s a secretive, frightening mystery. It only has one building, but its presence is threatening and ubiquitous. Cybernetic ugrades and decking enhancements aren’t just a free +1; they feel like a dangerous experiment in altering your very essence.

Because of this, its opaque nature sometimes works in its favour. It hints around things that may or may not be true or extant, and might be helpful or best avoided. It fits the cyberpunk theme, too, as information and the struggle to free it from corporate greed are key plot points – there’s even an Electronic Frontier Foundation. It’s cyberpunk because it’s about the ideological struggles intrinsic to a world that becomes less speculative fiction every year.

Megacorp staff are social castes, and the punk plebs are politically and economically fractured groups. They’re not comfortable people choosing to wear the dress of the fashionably downtrodden; they’re desperate, sick, and angry, and even they have it better than society’s real victims. Homeless kids barter junk for drugs, monsters prey freely on the vulnerable, people die because they can’t pay for healthcare. The vampires feed on the humans and the corporation feeds on the society. It’s not high art by any means, but the concepts are there. It may be about vampires and lasers and robots, but the conflict is mostly human, and would remain so without the blunt tool of the ‘humanity meter’ depleting with every heinous act.

It’s easy to rattle off a list of Things You Can Do In This Game, without regard for whether they’re worth the bother. In Bloodnet’s case, while it allows much, its handling of the result varies. You can go anywhere. You can vamp-murder almost anyone. You can give a priest a flamethrower and make her torch homeless children. You can build a cyborg and transfer a man’s mind into it, or replace much of your body with the parts. You can bolt together tools from junk, cook up your own drugs and pump them into your gimpy sidekick before feeding on him. You will definitely render it unwinnable at least once.

The game doesn’t react to all of these, and some are functionally flat – stat boosts, or a character simply vanishing. This is no Alpha Protocol, with everyone you meet judging your every move, but neither are you casting meaningless numbers into an uncaring void, as NPCs react to some of your choices and teammates comment on events or leave if you upset them. But at times, you’ll gun someone down and everyone else in the room will plough on regardless.

Sadly, combat is a dud. While there are myriad options, the vast majority are pointless. For all the bioweapons, vampire bites, and robot-disabling USB sticks, it’s much more effective to give everyone a dirt cheap shotgun or laser rifle and aim for the chest or head every time. It’s one thing to accomodate powergaming – players can take or leave that as we like – but it’s quite another to create a system that’s easily bested with the simplest, cheapest option.

It’s a shame, is what it is. And that’s more or less what I take away from Bloodnet. It is in many ways a game made about 20 years too soon. It toys with some very silly stuff, particularly at the end, as you’d expect from “vampires in cyberspace”, but its ideas and ambition occasionally shine through. Can I recommend you play it? No. But I really hope someone does it again.

BloodNet is available to buy on GOG (£4) and Steam (£5).

24 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    gritz says:

    Vampire Bloodlines had more than a few references to BloodNet, IIRC.

  2. Shockeh says:

    Oh God I loved this game. I loved it so much, and yes, I occasionally remember it and consider playing it for no good reason.

    It’s such a great premise, that I’d love to see someone truly recapture that 90’s Cyberpunk is such a stylish way.

  3. Premium User Badge

    Hodge says:

    I gave this one a go a few years back (after remembering Amiga Power banging on about it back in the day) but I couldn’t get past the controls. Damn shame.

  4. Laurentius says:

    It is a great game. Just play it with a walkthrough.

    Also Hopkins-Brie syndrom was so powerful idea that I remeber it to this day.

    • Sin Vega says:

      That illness is one of my favourite details. It’s imaginative and plausible and well thought out, it supports the idea of the matrix as another place and gently encourages you to imagine what it’s like to actually see it. I particularly love that it even has a realistic name, and isn’t called something lazy like cyber sickness, or net blindness, or webfluenza or whatever.

      • Laurentius says:

        Absolutely, love that illness name, it so fitting and grounded. All this moments where Ransom meets other deckers suffering from syndrom are really moving imo.

        • newton says:

          True! The visit to the Bellevue hospital was heart-wrenching.

  5. Infinitron says:

    Fun fact: The Elder Scrolls Online “loremaster” Lawrence Schick designed this game.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      And here I thought “lore” by itself was a ridiculous misused term for worldbuilding in videogames. Now it’s an actual job title, great.

  6. TillEulenspiegel says:

    Oh man, cyberpunk vampires is one of my I’ll-never-get-around-to-making-it game ideas. Too bad it didn’t quite work out here. It’s not an inherently silly concept; just read Barbara Hambly’s “Knight of the Demon Queen” for some really dark cyberpunk demon stuff.

  7. jezcentral says:

    Oh, Microprose. I miss you so.

  8. Emeraude says:

    One of those games I thoroughly love yet would never recommend.

    There’s something I really miss from a design perspective in games like this one. They don’t live up to their systemic aims, but they try try and the failure is more beautiful than so many perfectly calibrated and utterly boring products that never breaks.

  9. Anthile says:

    Do Cybermage next!

    • Niko says:

      Oh yes! Cybermage is such a weird game. I remember it having NPCs and vehicles, and quest, and all that on top of an FPS.

  10. Seboss says:

    I have good memories of this game. And yes, I remember how terrible it was at the same time. Sure it looks extra cheesy today, but for 14 yo me it was so dark and cool back then. Like those other games, Dreamweb and Darkseed. They’re worth reminiscing I think.

  11. Laurentius says:

    Also to clarify my strange admiration to this game i have to share with my wierd experience of playing it. When this game came out I was already huge cyberpunk fun and as a side note huge fun everything Microprose was realeasing. Prior to buying this game though I read excellent narrative driven walkthrough in video game mag I was buying back then. It was during summer months so i read this walkthrouh numerous times because it was just glorius: cyberpunk, vampires , wierd graphics, drugs, etc. Finally month later I lay my hands on this game, in a way it didn’t live up to my expectations as it has obvious flaws and yet it served it purpose as excellent supplement to this glorious walkthrough. Such is a power of written word.

  12. newton says:

    And the fucking sound when your bloodlust reaches a critical a level. That fucking sound. First time I heard it, it scared me like nothing else in gaming ever since.

    Also, the character portraits were b r i l l i a n t. Haven’t played the game in ages but still remember the likes of Rymma Fizz, Lenora Major, Chuck.. gosh, I love that world so much, even though I’ve always hated the whole vampire thing.

    Also, I like the music! A LOT. It’s quirky, but ace. Menu loop and Renfield theme’s ftw.

    I’d suck blood for a proper remake.

  13. horrorgasm says:

    Aw yeah. I played this again not too long ago myself. Never could finish it as a kid, but was always utterly fascinated by it. Busted out the old pen and paper and took notes and even then, still had to look some things up because the game flat out doesn’t tell you some very important things that you cannot win without knowing. Finally beat the damn thing though. I don’t know that I could argue if someone were to call it a broken game, but I still love it. It’s funny to see others describing it in so similar a manner here…”love it, but would never actually recommend it to anyone”.

    One random complaint about the game: the god damn bio-weapons. They sound so awesome and I spent so much money building them and having them attached to everyone’s heads, all to find out they really are just worthless and you really should just load up on cheap shotguns like this article suggests.

  14. Snowyflaker says:

    I loved this game back in the days but even I recognized how utterly halfbaked it was. Hell, aren’t there skills that aren’t even used in the game? The fact that your character will never be a better cyberjockey than your followers kind of funneled you into a typical thug build if you wanted Stark to be somewhat effective. Nevertheless, I still adore the premisse of the game and wish that we’d see more of it’s kind in these Kickstarter heavy times.

    • newton says:

      On one hand the uselesness of Stark was beyond frustrating, on the other I kinda enjoyed his friends were more talented than him. It made the ‘hero’ unusually believable – and strengthened the whole friendship arc Vega elaborated upon. While the game direly needed balancing, I’d keep Ransom ‘nerfed’ and maybe just heighten his senses / reflexes or something like that, to reflect his vampirism.

  15. Monggerel says:

    Ah, cyberpunk.
    Like all varieties of [noun]punk, it’s all crap. But it can be such heartfelt, earnest, exciting crap. It warms the cockles of my synthacardium.
    Crap as high praise. Crap as superlative. Brb I need to reinvent a German linguist.

    Which is something missing form the recent Shadowrun games (much as I like Dragonfall). It’s like… as competence increases, people get less of a high from working on their own beloved ideas? And it shows? Or some shit. Y’know, man? Maaaaaaaan.

    • Premium User Badge

      Harlander says:

      “It’s crap, and that’s what makes it great.”

      I can dig it.

  16. Foosnark says:

    All I remember from Bloodnet is a character calling you “Sssshhththtthark” in a way that suggested she had an ice cube in her mouth during her perofrmance, recorded in glorious 5 bit audio. And also crashing unrecoverably even earlier in the game than Daggerfall did.