There's something uniquely satisfying about being evil. Evil gets to play with the best toys, listen to the best music, wear the best clothes and generally be sinister, introspective and cool. In game terms, being evil also means that you get to do all the things that make the good guys wince, like bursting people with blood-magic or biting them in the face. Vampire - The Masquerade: Bloodlines is the latest excuse to be deliciously evil. From developer Troika the game takes advantage of both the rich heritage of White Wolf's role-playing game, and Valve's spanking new Source engine, which powers Half-Life 2; an undeniably exciting concept.
In practice the game is a thrilling merger of RPG sensibilities and frenetic, brutal action...with just a dash of stealth and lateral thinking thrown in for good measure. The player takes command of a fledgling vampire in the dangerous employ of Prince Le Croix - the vampire overlord of Los Angeles. Like any good RPG, Vampire allows you to choose an avatar for your character from a number of different models, both male and female. The species of vampire you choose will, to some extent, dictate what sort of player you'll be in the game. Action fans will probably be at home with the more physically powerful vampires such as the Brujhar, whose natural instincts for combat will confer increased power and accuracy. More conservative or cerebral players may prefer to outsmart or out-magic their opponents - there's even a chance to play as the sanity-challenged Malkavians, which leads to some unique conversations and scenarios.
You can choose to play from either the first-person, like a traditional shooter, or to view your character in the third-person, which is useful for melee combat or to judge jumps. There's no great emphasis on any one aspect of play - combat or puzzle solving - and the fact that experience points are rewarded for completing missions rather than killing enemies means that players are invited to explore as they see fit, and solve problems in a manner of their choosing. Skillful players are able to sneak past sentries, or talk their way past an opponent. Or they could just choose to pull his head off. There is a huge variety of weapons, both ranged and melee to experiment with, as well as a great implementation of `Thermaturgy' - vampire blood magic.
Like other games such as Morrowind, or semi-RPG action games like Grand Theft Auto, there are central plot missions that need to be completed in order to really progress through the game. However, the giant sandbox world that Troika has crafted means that there's seldom a dull moment in between times, and sub-missions are often just as fun and rewarding to undertake.
Visually, the game is a treat, with the Source technology really shining through. There is a realistic physics engine that allows in-game objects to react to the players' (and other characters') actions - gun fire may dislodge boxes, doors and walls can be smashed apart...in a more gruesome touch blood and viscera has a tendency to splatter and stain the environment. Aurally, the effects are crisp and detailed. There is a huge amount of spoken dialogue, with multiple variations depending on who you `are' and what you say - coupled with multiple endings this game has oodles of replay value.
System-wise, you'll need a decent rig to play this game. I've recently upgraded my system to cope with Half-Life 2, and this game runs smoothly on what I would consider mid to high settings - 32bit color depth, 1280x960 resolution, mid-range sound etc. My system is a P4 2.6 with a gig of ram and a 9600 pro graphics card. If Doom 3 proved completely unplayable on your system then you'll find this over your head as well, but the game seems a little more scaleable than Doom, with more allowance for the average machine. One thing you will need is plenty of free hard drive space - a gig+ if you like to have as much as possible on the drive.
In the spirit of great games like Deus Ex, this game is going to appeal to both straight up action and RPG gamers, as well as any fans of the 'Vampire' series, who'll flip for the great attention to detail and the immersive visuals. It's difficult to suppress a smile when you're slinking through alleys, vaulting over high walls and slitting the throats of your vampire and supernatural foes, or going in gun's blazing with your Uzi and katana combo! This is certainly not a game for either kids, or the faint hearted; but for anyone who thinks having a taste for claret and no pulse sounds cool, this is the game for you.