If there was ever a game that exemplified the term “flawed masterpiece,” it’s Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, a 2004 PC title that aimed high and very nearly made it.
Based on White Wolf’s tabletop RPG, Bloodlines was developed by the now-defunct Troika Games, a studio founded by former Fallout designers with a reputation for having wonderful ideas that they were never fully able to execute. With Bloodlines, Troika built a grim world filled with sex, violence and blood and let players loose in it, their own little slice of Armageddon to play in. But for all of Troika’s good intentions, its mixed reputation was well deserved. Many of the wonderful ideas in Bloodlines were weighed down by a plethora of flaws, and while no single flaw ruined the game, they collectively held it back from realizing its true potential.
In Bloodlines, you play a new vampire whose illicit creation breaks vampire law and thrusts you into the heart of vampire politics. As the tale unfolds, your role became increasingly pivotal when tensions between rival factions come to a head over an ancient sarcophagus believed to hold the slumbering form of an ancient vampire. Where the game shined brightest, however, were its varied side-quests, which ranged from tackling the Russian Mafia in exchange for a stake in a club to dealing with a vampire-hunter posing as a erotic dancer and, in one instance – and this isn’t a joke – fighting a wereshark. These quests often had multiple parts, sometimes spanning the entire game, and they changed depending on which faction gave you the task.
Bloodlines was unparalleled in letting players define how they handled the challenges the game threw at them, but it was clear that some options benefited from more of the developers’ time and attention than others. It was possible, for example, to complete much of the game using only its dialogue options, and the characters actually had interesting and unique personalities rather than just serving as ciphers that handed out quests. The smarmy Sebastian LaCroix, nominally in charge of Los Angeles’ vampires, rubbed shoulder with the monstrous information broker Bertram Tung, the beautiful but crazy Voerman sisters, owners of the Asylum Club, the irreverent and itinerant Smiling Jack and more besides. The cast list for Bloodlines reads like a Who’s Who of voice acting, and the game featured sterling performances, excellent writing and wonderfully expressive facial animations that put many modern titles to shame.
Theoretically, if you wanted to kick the snot out of everyone, that was OK, too. But while completing quests by resorting to violence granted you the same number of experience points, the combat itself was incredibly rough around the edges. Players who went down that path had to choose between the underpowered and often woefully inaccurate shooting and the wild swinging of melee combat, with Troika clearly favoring hand-to-hand over gunplay. The melee physics were so broken that they almost became comedic, with opponents reacting to simple knife blows as if they’d been hit by a car. Worst of all, some fights were unavoidable, which was frustrating if you had focused on social interaction; and the game’s last act eschewed the social side entirely, instead focusing solely on fighting.
But if you could forgive the shaky combat, Bloodlines had atmosphere in spades. The game is set in Los Angeles, but realism takes a backseat to the grim feel of the locale – a perfect recreation of the City of Angels was simply not in the cards. Espousing the pen & paper game’s melancholic and fiercely individualistic gothic-punk aesthetic and the morally murky alternate history of White Wolf’s World of Darkness setting, Troika’s Los Angeles was more built up, dirtier and a hell of a lot colder and wetter, with thugs roaming the street and hookers on every corner.
Ignoring most of the real Los Angeles gave Troika a free hand to tailor Bloodlines‘ environment to suit the story. Under the developers care, the city was imbued with a more claustrophobic and oppressive feel. Troika spent a lot of time on the small details in an effort to make their version of L.A. seem like a real and authentic place: They licensed a lot of music for Bloodlines, and posters for real bands adorned the walls of the game’s clubs.
But while the Los Angeles that Troika built may have been conceptually complex, its actual construction was a much simpler affair. Many of the buildings were crude things, with details and decorations relegated to textures on flat blocks, making much of the city look like a painted backdrop in a high school play. Troika tried to hide it where they thought you wouldn’t notice – typically anything above the ground floor – but it was easy to spot, even by a casual observer. Moreover, Troika’s efforts to populate the city fell just as flat. The small number of NPC models meant that you saw the same people, with very little variation, over and over again as they shuffled awkwardly and silently around the city. It wasn’t uncommon to see half a dozen identical hobos roaming the streets, or two identical goths lined up to get into a club with a third walking past. And while this didn’t actually spoil the atmosphere, it certainly didn’t help.
So what actually went wrong? How did a game so clearly unfinished ever see the light of day?
All signs suggest Troika simply needed more time. Bloodlines was made in a hurry, with the team working in almost constant crunch mode just to get the game out of the door. The developers used a prototype of Valve’s Source engine that was still under construction, forcing Troika to write its own code to fill in the gaps. Because of this, Bloodlines was riddled with bugs on release. Some were trivial, like animation and graphical glitches. Others were more severe, like bugs that dumped you out of the game or made it impossible to proceed. When it was released, Bloodlines was still very much a work in progress, and everything from the blocky level design to the wildly varying quality of character models to the plethora of bugs marked a game that simply was not yet ready for prime time.
Troika’s Jason Anderson, who served as the game’s Creative Director, among other things, laid the blame squarely on publisher Activision, saying that Activision took the game out of Troika’s hands without ever giving them the time to test and polish it. It’s true that Activision had a timetable for the game – they even advanced Troika more money so it could finish Temple of Elemental Evil for Atari more quickly and put the whole team on Bloodlines. But Troika has to take some share of the blame for trying to build a complex RPG with too small a team using a brand-new technology.
Sadly, Bloodlines was the last game that Troika would ever make, as the company folded just a few months after its release. With more money, time and manpower, Bloodlines could have been a genuine masterpiece rather than the cult classic it eventually became. But even though it stumbled out of the starting gate, Bloodlines accomplished something great: More than five years on, there is still a dedicated community creating unofficial patches and restoring cut content, a feat that few games – even incredibly popular and well known ones – can boast. Great games may inspire awe, but Troika’s swan song stirred a feeling in players that is just as powerful: devotion.
Logan Westbrook is a news room contributor for The Escapist. Occasionally he updates his blog at http://www.verbscience.com.