They say the definition of madness is repeatedly trying the same thing and expecting different results. But hey, the Malkavians of Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines have lucked into stranger things, so I figure there's at least a chance that one day I'll fire it up and find a whole new adventure waiting. Today was not that day. Tomorrow isn't looking too likely. Yet still it feels like it's our best chance, until someone else finally figures out that urban fantasy is a painfully untapped genre for RPG awesomeness. (Looking at you, Hairbrained Schemes. Still time to ditch that boring Battletech license!*)
Still, while waiting for Shadowrun: Hong Kong this week, I felt that urge to head back to Santa Monica and check out some old haunts. The timing seemed fitting, especially with the launch of a new version of the Clan Quest mod the other week - one of several projects attempting to keep Bloodlines healthy over ten years after launch.
(* Battletech license may or may not be boring. But does it have vampires? No!)
I've dabbled with most of the Bloodlines mods at some point, though none of them have ever caught my fancy. I know, that sounds very dismissive. I don't mean it to be, promise. Modding is hard enough when not working on a game barely held together with sticky-tape, and fans have done a fine job of gluing it back together and bolting extra bits on around the side. Wesp's unofficial patch especially is basically mandatory if you're going to play the regular game. The Companion Mod offered a good taste of the vampire as puppet-master rather than murder machine. And of course, who could turn down the option to represent Clan Chocula, the bloodline you can Count on.
For the most part though, the mods are focused on polishing mechanics that were never going to be that great, adding a few features here and there, and otherwise primarily doing touch-up duty rather than creating whole new after-dark adventures in Bloodlines' style. They've been promised, but rarely actually shown up. Antitribu for instance adds the ability to play as the Sabbat clans and adds a whole load of disciplines to that effect, but its new questline from their perspective is still nowhere to be seen. The whole mod changed hands at the start of last month, so I'm honestly not exactly holding my breath. Elsewhere, The Final Nights claims to be so different from the game as to not warrant keeping the Bloodlines name, but suffice it to say that's... ah... stretching the truth a little. Specifically, think 'orbital bungee cord'.
Clan Quest is the best of the content mods I've played. Now, to be sure, that actual content's been around for years now, but the update is still worthwhile due to its dependencies on other mods. This new version means an update to the Unofficial Patch and Camarilla Edition that it builds on, and being a bit pickier about additions to the base game. You can't beat up the werewolf any more for instance, again having to either escape or trap it, because that goes against the point of the encounter. Likewise, a fairly half-assed tweak that allows the player to work with the Sabbat at the end of the game has just been cut, leaving the ending as it was. The mod also doesn't go crazy with alternate character skins and fan posters and swapping out music in the clubs and all of that stuff. The installer offers a few options to turn on and off as you want, but generally keeps things trim and as the original designers intended.
The meat of the mod is its new quests - one for each of the clans. In theory, it's quite cool that they're scattered throughout the game and appear at suitable points, though in practice I wouldn't have minded them being accessible from very early on (say, arriving in Downtown) or having a quick skip option. Great as Bloodlines is, that's a loooooooooot of replaying for the sake of a single new quest. The Tremere quest for instance isn't available until after dealing with the Gargoyle in Hollywood, while the Ventrue quest comes after Grout's hellish mansion. It's possible to use the console, cheat and jump straight to the relevant maps, but that doesn't necessarily mean the right triggers will fire or the appropriate flags will be set. (He said, having tried.)
Still, get to them and there's a decent chunk of new content and voice-acting, including for existing characters like Jeanette/Therese. Of the bits I've seen, I like those the most. One of Bloodlines' biggest missed opportunities was only giving most of its characters the one thing to actually do, and expanding this helps add a sense of life going on outside your specific hub. The mod also adds a few extra bits outside of its remit to discover while playing, like a robbery at the Hollywood Red Spot, and a quest for evil players where you can work with the CDC to spread poison in the water supply. Do have subtitles switched on before talking to the NPC though, just outside Venture Tower, because he's absolutely incoherent without them. Also handy is that while you can find these things while playing, there's a walkthrough that tells you where each of them kicks off and what point in the story you have to be to get started.
(As a general note here, I wish all mods would offer something similar and be so upfront. Outright walkthroughs are perhaps a bit much, and I'd rather have played Clan Quests new stuff with just a casual pointer, but it gets amazingly frustrating to know that something has been added somewhere in a huge game... probably...)
While most of the mod projects are still ticking on, it seems unlikely that Vampire: Bloodlines will ever get its all-changing Nameless Mod or similar that picks up where Troika left off and the rest of the industry remains frustratingly uninterested in following. It's a testament to the the game though that the lack of that continuation is so frustrating, especially in the wake of firing it back up and being reminded that, oh yeah, while the characters and dialogue and mood are great, goddamn that combat and those sewers and the bits after Hollywood.
I remember being at Eve FanFest a couple of years ago when they showed off footage from the now-cancelled MMO version, and as much as World of Darkness looked nice, just about everyone I spoke to agreed that the best thing in its favour was its use of Bloodlines' music and what that said about the experience and atmosphere that CCP had in mind. It might have been great, it might have been the worst game ever, but I'm still sorry that we never got to find out. And sorrier that the only thing CCP has done with the license on PC since then is shut down the attempted Bloodlines remake Project Vaulderie. Cue a sigh. So much time wasted on Dust 514 that could have been spent making something people wanted to play.
But, anyway. In a year where so many classic RPGs have taken another turn in the spotlight, it seems appropriate to use a brief moment of quiet to head back and remember why Bloodlines remains so beloved. Its tech is aged, its maps are simple, its combat is rancid and you would have to pay me to play the Warrens again - and not just a little money - but behind it all is a real gem of a game that still has much to teach. Even the most advanced mods may not build on it enough to make it a whole new experience now, but they're at least a pretty good reason to go back to find a few new surprises or twists, and relive at least a few cool bits you probably forgot.