When I refer to the mechanics of a game, I’m talking about the game play. If you’re playing a racing game, then the act of driving – steering, accelerating, braking, etc. – is the core of the title. For most RPGs, combat is one of the core mechanics and so I think it only makes sense to dedicate an entire post to the combat of the game I’m currently playing, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines.
When I started Bloodlines, I was kind of disappointed at how little combat there was – but I was so impressed with everything else that I generally overlooked it. You might even say I was enthused by the change-up. I loved the modern-era setting, the simple-but-effective graphics, the character customization options, and the focus on the story line.
Besides, I was fairly certain there would likely be combat a plenty before long.
The first fight I remember is one where you have to duel an Asian vampire/spy. And boy was that a shocker. In a small storage area, I had to deal with a guy who leapt from the ground to the tops of crates to a catwalk that spanned the building’s interior. He quickly switched from crossbow to katana, and interrupted my attack sequences.
I went through that fight dozens of times, slowly starting to believe it was an impossible fight. Eventually, I started cheesing out the game, playing until I got a few hits in without taking one in return – and saving the game. If things went bad, I re-loaded. If they went well, I saved again. And it got me through the fight.
From there, I was sent to blow up a warehouse. This meant picking off small groups of humans on the way in – and solitary werewolves on the way out. I didn’t have much trouble getting through this area, though I’m not sure if it was because it was easier or because I pumped up my fighting stats so much after the vampire fight.
There wasn’t much fighting for a while, but then I had another one-on-one duel with a plague-bringer – complete with me running large circles through the sewers to buy myself time for healing. This was about as bad as the vampire fight – and led to another wave of leveling my fighting stats after the fact (and a lot more save/reload cheese during the fight).
Since then, I’ve fought another couple of plague-bringers (finishing off that story line) and also went through a quest to track down some information on a sarcophagus. And then there was the trip through the crazy vampire’s house. None of this has been very difficult.
Right now I’m torn. Was combat too tough during those few fights because of poor balancing? Because I made poor decisions on character creation? Because I hadn’t fought much early on and needed practice time with the mechanics? Or was it made to be intentionally tough because of who I was fighting?
Personally, I have to consider the fights intentionally too-difficult since the tough fights occurred off the critical path. That is, they put the stuff to challenge the hardcore/completist gamers in a place where the more casual gamers wouldn’t have to deal with it if they didn’t want to.
But… I also think these combats were difficult because the mechanics are somewhat poor.
You can block, but it’s not very effective nor responsive. The best defense seems to be moving, but you leave yourself off-balance after making an attack – which makes it more difficult to bob-and-weave. The game encourages you to diversify your attacks, but I haven’t seen that make any difference yet. And then there’s the strafing, something I haven’t seen since the early 2000s (thankfully!).
Strafing is that annoying tact where you move in a small circle around your opponent. The computer sometimes spins around you, forcing you to spin while simultaneously trying to get hits. I’ve seen something similar in World of Warcraft, where opponents jump through one another, spin, go for a hit, then jump through the opponent again. The hope is that the other player will have poor reflexes or make mistakes and miss you because of a mis-aimed attack. I don’t mind it in WoW because the other player can mess up just as easily while jumping about. It’s more annoying in contests against computer opponents since they never miss. In Bloodlines, a cop doesn’t even have to be looking in your direction to spot you peek around the corner and head-shot you.
So what’s the alternative? Standing toe-to-toe with computer opponents? I know it sounds silly, but with some good blocking-and-dodging game play it works. See – well, just about every RPG and RPG-esque title out now, from Assassin’s Creed to Grand Theft Auto 4 to Fable 2 to the Witcher.
A lot of games in the late 90s and early 2000s used strafing to prevent human players from doing the same to them – but the reason it’s not needed now is the same reason it wasn’t needed in Bloodlines: the computer will hit you whether you’re running in circles or standing still – just as often, and for just as much damage. So really, there’s no point to it.
All that said, as my character has progressed and my comfort level with the game has grown, I find myself getting more into the combat areas. And the aforementioned sarcophagus level? I was told to keep the body count low, but I kind of got carried away in the other direction. The level felt more like a chance to really come to grips with the combat, and I took advantage – often much-too-boldly attacking large groups in open areas. It was fun.
I guess we’ll see how much of this is accurate as I continue on through the game to the end.