Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Masque of the Final Death

I’ve finally finished my run of “playing games other than RPGs”, and am now entering my new phase of “Okay, let’s play more RPGs again!” The first, and so far only, entry on the list is a throwback. Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines: Hey: Let’s Get More Colons In Here While We’re At It is fairly ancient, having come out in 2004.

V:TM:B was developed in the Source engine simultaneously with Half-Life 2. It was the last entry by Troika Games, and is the first game of theirs that I have played, although I have gotten an impression of their reputation: much like early Obsidian, they made very original and deeply flawed games that acquired rabid cult followings after their unsuccessful releases. Unlike Obsidian, though, which has typically worked in the well-trod genres of fantasy and science-fiction, Troika was a bit more out there. V:TM:B is, as you might imagine, a modern urban horror setting, while Arcanum was a steampunk-flavored entry.

My introduction to V:TM:B reminds me a lot of my intro to Planescape: Torment. I’ve heard about it for years, usually in the context of some online discussion about the “best games”, “best stories”, “most unique settings”, or some such. I’m a bit of a reactionary when it comes to new franchises, and have a knee-jerk reaction to ignore any new game, but after enough superlatives I can be eventually worn down. In this particular case, I was reminded of it after Cannot Be Tamed, one of my favorite YouTubers, started a Let’s Play of the game. I haven’t actually watched any of those videos yet because, y’know, spoilers; but I really like her taste in other games, and the fact that anyone would spend dozens of hours in a twelve-year-old-game is a very encouraging sign of its quality.

I haven’t finished the game yet, but have been loving it so far, and wanted to capture my initial impressions after getting decently far into it. I’ll probably follow this up with one more after-victory post that summarizes my thoughts on the plot and characters. This one will be more focused on the technical aspects, with some nods to the atmosphere and my early thoughts on the setting.

First, some housekeeping. V:TM:B has a very vibrant and active modding community. As per my usual policy, my initial playthrough is fairly light on mods: I’m just using the Unofficial Patch, which seems to be the gold standard for fixing the game’s myriad issues. (It was famously unbeatable on its initial release, and the final path before Troika folded left some serious game-breaking bugs intact.) I opted for the “basic patch”, which attempts to keep the game experience as close as possible to the original while fixing the bugs. I’m enjoying the game enough that I expect I’ll have at least one more play-through in the future, which will probably prompt me to choose the Plus version of the patch, which also restores lost and unfinished content (much like the famous “Unfinished Business” mods for Baldur’s Gate). I’ll probably also pick up at least a couple of cosmetic mods, which seem like they can significantly upgrade the appearance of the player character and others in the game.

With that mod, fortunately, I’ve had a very smooth experience so far: no game-breaking bugs or crashes or anything of the sort. So far I have just a handful of purely cosmetic complaints:
  • The audio sometimes stutters. It seems like this happens when a new sound is playing for the first time, and the game itself will freeze for a fraction of a second.
  • Quicksave is fairly fast, but temporarily stops all sound and freezes the game while in progress.
  • Sound mixing is sometimes bad. In particular, there are a couple of spots where it's very hard to hear an NPC because the ambient audio is so loud.
And… that’s about it! I don’t think any of those are the fault of the patch, it’s just how first-person games from 2004 used to work.

Graphically, I’m pretty happy with how things look. Much like Lord of the Rings Online, the environmental design holds up REALLY well: walking through downtown Los Angeles or on the Santa Monica Pier or other SoCal locales is fantastic, looks amazing and realistic and beautiful. With the patch installed, the game can play in widescreen on my nice huge monitor. Textures are about what you would expect for that era, so if you get up close to those posters on the wall you’ll see some gnarly pixels, but from a distance they’ll look great.

The most interesting aspect is probably character models. On a technical level… well, again, it’s a twelve-year-old game. It doesn’t have as many polygons as we’re used to. However, the art design and the character… I don’t want to say “animation”, but “direction”, is incredible. In some ways, this seems like the best character interaction I’ve seen in a game yet. People will lean in to make a point, quickly glance to the side as they collect their thoughts, cower in fear, or just smoothly and serenely watch your reaction. It’s slightly exaggerated, but in a good way, like… well, like what you would expect in a vampire movie. The individual characters don’t have as many graphical details as you’d see in, say, Dragon Age: Inquisition or The Witcher 3, but they’ll seem much more engaged during your conversations, drawing you in with their body language in a way that other games rarely attempt.

Of course, the character graphics are just an entree to the most famous aspect of V:TM:B: the dialogue and story. It’s a famously sprawling and open-ended game, with a huge level of player agency and latitude. You’ll quickly connect to these NPCs, and be drawn into their stories, and be motivated to shift your own personal story in response.

That sense of personality may actually give this game an edge over the game which it most reminded me of: the original Deus Ex. V:TM:B is the first game I’ve played since then which has captured that same sense of wide-open possibilities, with significantly varied options for approaching and solving the obstacles you encounter. I don’t want to over-exaggerate the point; in particular, it isn’t possible to complete a pacifist run of V:TM:B. But it’s still a wonderful feeling, and makes me feel a sense of loss. After such amazing, ambitious games at the turn of the millennium, it feels like AAA development has taken a step back into safer and, frankly, more boring designs. The Deus Ex sequels are a good example: while Human Revolution was a really fun game (I haven’t yet played Mankind Divided), it largely simplified the game into a series of levels, each of which supported either stealth or combat options. There’s no longer that sense of living in a fully-realized world where your actions are only limited by your imagination.

Okay, again, I’m probably over-exaggerating this… any game can only support the ideas its creators put into it. But still, this one does a fantastic job at giving the impression of freedom, which is what I crave.

Shifting gears slightly, some mechanical notes on my build and strategy so far:

I LOVE the character creation process. It’s like a funhouse mirror version of the awesome system from the mid-to-late Ultima games, where you answered a series of moral quandaries posed to you by a fortune-teller gypsy and received a class as a result. Here, you are posed with some slightly askew scenarios. How do you make your way into an exclusive nightclub: slip in the back door, pose as a Hollywood star’s manager, or bribe the doorman? How do you get rid of a dead body? What do you do when confronted with a lover’s spouse?

As a result of these questions, you are assigned your vampire clan. Each clan has its own unique strengths and weaknesses, and the most immediately visible effect is the allocation of stat points on character creation. However! Their uniqueness goes quite a bit further than that. Each clan has a completely different appearance, from the bestial Gangrel to the deformed Nosferatu to the elegant Ventrue. Male and female player characters will also have different starting outfits to express their look. Other vampires will react to you differently based on your clan’s reputation, and you will have different dialogue options as a result. V:TM:B goes further than most RPGs, though, and your clan doesn’t only affect your stats and dialogue, but can affect your core gameplay as well. The Nosferatu are very powerful and intelligent, but are obviously monsters, and so they cannot walk around in the streets like other vampires lest they attract attention; instead, they move about through the sewers to avoid being seen. Malkavians are completely insane, and speak completely differently from everyone else. You also have access to completely different special powers, which could include things like blood magic or heightened presence or super-speed.

I’m playing as a Toreador, the clan of artists and actors. Unlike most vampires, who tend to shun humans or prey upon them, the Toreador delight in the company and adulation of mankind, and tend to cultivate followers among humanity. I’m enjoying the role-playing that comes along with this, playing as a vaguely decadent and casually benevolent creature.

The game’s stats reflect the glory days of RPGs where non-combat skills got as much attention as fighting ones. I’m primarily pursuing the social skills, boosting attributes like Charisma and Appearance, which helps increase my Persuasion and Seduction abilities. I’m now up to about 8 in both of them, which I think is the effective cap for in-game benefits. I’ve completely abandoned my core physical attributes of Strength, Dexterity, and… the other one, leaving them at my weak starting levels of 1 point each. These are mostly just used in combat, which I generally try to avoid. You can’t COMPLETELY avoid it, and in particular you are forced to fight maybe half of the boss-level characters you encounter; but the “Bloodbuff” ability will immediately set all stats to the max level of 5, so I just activate that ability on the occasions when I need it.

Speaking of abilities: so far I’ve left Celerity at 1, to avoid Masquerade violations. Presence doesn’t seem all that useful, so I’m leaving that at 1 for now. Auspex, though, I’ve taken to 4 and will shortly bring to 5. This will allow a Bloodbuff-style boost, increasing my Wits and… Intelligence, maybe, by 3 each. After crunching the numbers, it’s quite a bit cheaper to bring Auspex to 5 and leave those at 2 each than the other way around. This does require expending some blood power, but so far that hasn’t been a huge problem… I can pretty easily recharge between missions, and I rarely need to use Auspex more than once in a given run.

All in all, I think I’m getting close to nailing down my desired social skills. I think I have a fair amount of game left, and will probably get a fair amount of more XP (along with more skill books). I’ll probably divide any additional points roughly equally between security (lockpicking), computers (hacking), stealth, and melee, with maybe a little unarmed combat.

Speaking of which: I’ve been focusing on hand-to-hand combat, and am quite happy with the knife as a weapon. It’s very fast, does good damage, and seems effective against a range of characters. I avoid fights when I can, but when I can’t, I can still often sneak into range and either stealth-kill (against humans) or initiate combat from close range (against monsters). Against bosses, I’ll often active all 4 of my blood powers, rush in, and can often take them down before the powers expire. Bosses sometimes have unique mechanics that require more strategies, but I can often figure it out during the initial fight; if not, I’ll usually have a handle on it by the second time.

If I can generalize slightly: human opponents tend to be physically rather weak, but very perceptive. Stealth is difficult to pull off: you’ll need to pay attention to their movements, orientation, and your own level of illumination as well as how much noise you’re making. You can easily take down a human in hand-to-hand combat, even if they’re packing heat and you’re using bare hands. However, there tend to be extra rewards for completing missions without killing humans (even enemies), so it can be worth the extra effort to find the pacifist path.

In contrast, monsters tend to be much more physically threatening. They can take a lot of damage, and, more worryingly, they usually deal “aggravated” damage to you, which hits harder and takes longer to naturally heal. However, probably as a balance to this, they are almost ridiculously oblivious to their surroundings. As long as you stay in stealth, you can usually avoid combat, even if they’re staring straight at you from six inches away in direct light. And this is with me just having a measly 2 points in my stealth skill.

Avoiding fights is generally the way to go. As in most well-designed games, you don’t earn XP from defeating enemies, and you can even sometimes earn bonus XP by not killing anyone. Enemies will occasionally drop weapons, but you can’t carry more than one of any kind and so there’s not much of a benefit there.

If you DO fight, though, it tends to be relatively fun. The controls aren’t exactly amazing by modern standards, but they’re much less frustrating than I would expect. I think it’s actually one of the better-feeling melee-combat systems of the era; I would rank it far above Morrowind, for example, or crowbar-combat in HalfLife 2. Selecting a weapon can be a bit awkward - you need to tap F1 multiple times until you cycle to the one that you want - but if you stick with one weapon all the time that doesn’t matter. You attack with the left mouse button, unsurprisingly. What’s kind of cool, though, is that you perform different styles of attacks based on the directional keys you’re pressing while attacking. For example, with the knife, attacking forward will jab; attacking to the side will slash them with the blade; and attacking will pressing back will actually trigger this cool leaping attack where you jump up and then pounce down on them. The animations for these moves are actually pretty impressive (again, for a 12-year-old game), which lends a lot to the stylish feel of the game.

I’m fairly used to the tedious bookkeeping that comes along with many RPGs, like returning home or making camp to heal after every combat, visiting the blacksmith to repair damaged equipment, and so on. V:TM:B has some cool innovations here that tie in well to the lore and also lead to fun gameplay. Health is an obvious one. You are, after all, an immortal being who cannot ordinarily be killed. As such, you naturally and automatically heal all damage done to you over time. This happens at a slow rate, so you can't rely on it during combat; but you also don't need to think about it too much, since usually you will have regenerated by the time the next combat rolls around.

Interestingly, your "blood power" (a rough equivalent to stamina or mana in another game) does not naturally regenerate. I often refill this by visiting compliant humans I have previously seduced, but depending on my location I might just bite the neck of a convenient victim, or suck the blood from some delicious rats. You can also carry around blood packs in your inventory, which can be used instantly at any time, even mid-combat, to regenerate both blood and health. Blood packs, in turn, can be found in the world, provided as rewards, or purchased from disreputable bloodbanks.

I don't have much to say about the economy in the game. So far I've picked up a couple of skill books and bought some better clothing (which gives slightly better armor stats). I've very slowly accumulated a little over a thousand dollars in cash, and not much in the current stores appeals to me much. The next tier of armor starts diminishing my dexterity, so I'll probably stick with the light gear for now. I think that if I was focusing on firearms, I would want to buy at least some ammo from the stores - I've picked up a bit in the world, but depending on how flexible you are with your firearms, you might want to stock up on more of a favored type of bullet.

So, we'll see. I'm hoping that there are more money sinks later in the game. I haven't even bothered selling any of the items I've picked up yet, like watches and rings. There is a "Haggle" skill in the game, which I haven't leveled yet. If it looks like money will be useful, I'll probably raise it a bit before pawning my trade goods. Heh... I only recently discovered that there is a maximum limit to your inventory, but it's a very high limit. I'd been playing for well over a dozen hours by that point, and had, uh, probably at least 20 or 25 items.

In many RPGs, your money sinks are housing or businesses. Neither has really been a factor here, though. You acquire upgraded housing as a reward for progressing through the game. I've loved the one business I'm involved in so far; I acquired a partial share by assisting the owner with some... business, and regularly earn money from it (which, again, I do not have a use for).

I'm getting dangerously close to talking about story, so let's shift gears and talk about the music!

It's awesome! It's very moody and varied. There's a mix of diegetic and non-diegetic music. Walking around in some areas has really fantastic atmospheric music, reinforcing the idea that you are an isolated creature in a dark world, trying to find your way.

Where it really shines, though, is in the club music. Which, first of all: nightclubs! I love them! I think I've mentioned this before, but nightclubs might be the reason I got into Shadowrun in the first place, and I'm constantly longing for nightclubs in more games. I feel delighted whenever I discover that a new game has a club. Well, so far V:TM:B has FOUR distinct clubs, each with its own unique architecture, clientele, mood, proprietor(s), and, most importantly of all, music.

If nothing else, I would love V:TM:B for introducing me to Chiasm, who created the above track. I hadn't heard of her before, but was so struck by that song that I went looking for her other stuff, and was delighted to find that she's produced a lot of awesome albums.

The music in V:TM:B spans multiple genres, but it's particularly strong in industrial music. I haven't historically been a fan of the genre, but have really come around to it in the last couple of years, thanks in large part to Invocation Array's fantastic debut album and a newfound appreciation of Trent Reznor's ouvre. V:TM:B's music belongs to a very specific era, which I love: it feels very grounded in this particular slice of depraved, alienated culture.

Okay! That's graphics, gameplay, and music. I hereby declare this initial post complete. Of course, I have been taking a lot of screenshots as I play, and have a fresh new album up for your perusal. It contains light spoilers for the first, oh, maybe ten hours or so of the game. And now I'm gonna dive right back in. Amongst other things, this is one of the more addictive games I've played lately, to the point where I've been missing my bedtimes. Totally worth it! Even if my dreams turn darker, it's because things are so interesting.


  1. This game is so amazing. I get nostalgic for it all the time. Two warnings: a) guns are way overpowered, as I recall, compared to other forms of combat; and b) the game gets a lot simpler and less dense as you get into the final levels (after Hollywood, basically), it feels like the developers (just as with System Shock 2) simply ran out of time and money.

    1. Thanks for the warnings! I'm already seeing both of them come true. The last couple of boss fights have seemed impossible with melee weapons, so I ended up needing to use guns anyways, even though I had almost no points in it. Close combat is just so stylish, though! I've loved sneaking around and stealth-killing foes with my katana.

      And yeah, the game definitely is starting to feel more linear from Chinatown onward. Less "wander around and experience unsettling stories", more "get to the end of this level and then kill the boss". There also doesn't seem to be as much narrative freedom as I'd hoped, although I'm holding out hope that there will be cool options near the ending.