Monday, November 22, 2004

AWESOME REVIEW: Vampire: the Masquerade - Bloodlines

When was the last time you played a good adventure game? I mean a really good one that made you think and really made you sit and consider for a few minutes what the outcome of your actions will be? When was the last time you were given a quest, an investigation, and had to actually FIGURE OUT WHAT WAS GOING ON?

For me, it was approximately 10pm on Friday, November 19, when I finally intimidated my computer into running Vampire.

On my system, the game sometimes runs fine, and sometimes it's like a slideshow. Whenever it accesses a new line of VO in dialog it skips. Yesterday, for some reason, it got really chuggy (we're talking seconds per frame) when I looked at a particular building in Downtown LA, but quitting and restarting the game fixed it.

But man. The game makes me feel smart, and it makes me feel like I'm doing my own thing, and that, if not for my own personal intelligence, the world of the vampires of LA would be kaput.

I suck at investigation and puzzles. I'm the guy who, when stuck in an adventure game, tries the old "Use everything in my inventory on everything else in my inventory" trick, even though it never works. Ah, so I can't glue the paper clip to the old man's toupee to create a trigger for the magnet-gun I can probably make by combining the battery with the lead pipe? Okay, fine. Off to the FAQ I go.

Many other games, especially Xbox ones, take the opposite approach. You get brain-steaming quests like, "Go to the cabinet on the left, open it (the combination is "hidden" on the side of the cabinet in big spray-painted letters), take the third pentagonal-shaped medallion on the right, and go place it in the appropriate divot on the side of the organ in the basement." The plot giver usually tells you everything you need to know in these, and the biggest leap of logic is figuring out the gaming equivalent of "The square peg goes in the square hole."

Vampire, on the other hand, is a happy medium. Here's an example that is probably filled with spoilers. You're asked to go look into an outbreak of disease, because it's likely there's a vampire behind it, and if mortals look into the cause of the mysterious outbreak, they might figure out that vampires exist. You're told to look for this one guy, who lives in this apartment building, or to talk to homeless people around town.

You go to the apartment building. You don't know where the guy lives, really. If you're observant and a little smart, you'll check the mailboxes and learn that someone with a similar name (If his name was Sean M., you might see S. Molloy on the box) lives in apartment 4. You can also find this out by hacking the apartment manager's computer, in which case you also learn that this guy has been visiting an upstairs neighbor who, from the personal notes left by the manager, is a bit of a slut. Interesting. Now we know that our contact, who may have mysteriously contracted the disease, has been seeing a slut in the same building. You go up to the apartment, and you find a corpse, but there's a message on the answering machine--it's that slut, thanking the man for a good time. And she seems sincere. Note that the message doesn't mention where she lives, just her name and the passcode to her door. You have to actually go find her apartment number on the manager's comuter. So you go to her apartment, using the passcode in the message, and you look around. You find the woman, who tells you about another woman whom she thought was a bit weird. She tells you the woman's name and where she thinks the woman lives. She then shares her concern for the man, your contact, who is dead two floors down from the same disease this chick has. Wanna lie to her and tell her he's fine? She seems worried that he might not call her again....

In case you can't tell, this is AWESOME. If this had been almost any other upcoming RPG, the quest would have been different. You would have gone to your contact's apartment, found his corpse, and run into the woman on the way out, who would have told you about a mini-boss fight in an apartment nearby.

For some reason, there is a culture of stupid built around upcoming RPGs. Vampire pierces through that by not only giving you compelling dialog choices (Do I side with the bitchy Baroness of Santa Monica or her cute but insane twin sister? Whichever one I don't support is likely to die, and they've both done good and bad things for me in the recent past) but also making you use that god-given gray noodle in your head. What good is putting a puzzle in a game if there's an NPC standing right next to it going, "One of the doors always lies, and the other always tells the truth. The answer is 'The one on the left.'"? Why not just give a "Solve Puzzle" button?

The concern is that the player might give up if it's too hard, and then he might not see the story. Well, Vampire solves that problem by not having one. Well, not really. The difference between Vampire and Morrowind is that Vampire is actually pretty linear, but it seems nonlinear because you can follow several different lines at once. It's more like "Multilinear." You can follow the Prince's plot while you look into the disease and try to track down a guy who escaped the local bounty hunter. You can look into why everyone hates the Thin-bloods even as you look for clues as to the identity of a serial killer who is on the loose. It feels like you're writing your own story, because the game is like life: There is never one single epic storyline going on at one time. Instead, you're following your own agenda, agreeing to the Prince's mission whenever you're ready, and doing things in the meantime like taking out a Russian mafia leader so the local bar owner will include you as a silent partner or trying to find the Tremere Chantry given only an extremely cryptic clue only minutes from beginning the game.

A lot of games have small side-quests branching off of a main storyline: You are the chosen one, setting out from an unassuming village to stop an evil bad guy from ruining the world. There's a twist, and then you keep on going. The story is the incentive, and the twist is there almost because it's expected to be there, like in an M. Night Shyamalan movie. In Vampire, there is twist after twist after twist, and they're all cool and logical, and they're not of the "Oh shit, it turns out my face was my ass THE WHOLE TIME!" variety. They're subtle quirks in character, gentle twists of fate, and good ol' fashioned climactic moments that don't rely on kicking you in the balls with their twistiness just to get you to pay attention. It is so awesome to be part of an unfolding story, rather than just a performer skiing in the wake of an epic tale written by the developers. Because, damnit, as good as some of these RPG stories are, they're never as good as the one I can tell on my own terms. Vampire doesn't let me tell my own tale the way Morrowind was meant to, but it sure does a hell of a good job making me feel in control.

And it makes me feel smart. I feel smart for noticing the mailboxes on the wall, which didn't have some kind of damn glowy effect on them to show me that they're important. I feel smart for finding the Tremere Chantry. I feel smart for following a trail of clues from a man's bail bond reciept to a female vampire whose guilt pangs made her leave her newly Embraced lover before he could figure out what he had become. Damnit, I like to feel smart just as much as I like to feel awesome, which this game also does. Because my Ventrue can make people die by looking at them. That's about as awesome as it gets.

So yeah. Vampire is awesome. It runs like crap on my machine, which is an Athlon 1.34 with 960 or so RAM and a GeForce 4 card, but whatever.

For every letter in the game's title, I give this game an 8. That makes the final rating a 240 or so out of 10.