Bloodlines: Victory

Woo hoo! I win. I saw the two endings on the Anarch path, and then went on-line to see that the other endings are all, basically, variations of the – well, I won’t spoil it. But they’re all pretty well done endings.

Generally speaking, I found the end-run sequence very satisfactory. I have to be honest and admit that I thought I’d be fighting the Prince after I fought the Sheriff, but I’m glad I didn’t have to. By that point in the game, you just want to advance the story. You’ve killed everything in creation. You’ve proved your worth. There’s really nothing to be gained from a fight with the Prince right after a multi-round battle with the Sheriff.

Speaking of the Sheriff, I didn’t find him to be all that difficult. Sure, he killed me the first time I went at him, but the second time I used one of the rifles instead of my trusty katana; I sat on the stairs and shot at him while he jumped between floors. I don’t know if you’d call it an exploit since I still took a fair amount of damage, but it was definitely easier than, I believe, the designers intended for the fight – since he never used his sword on me. After he switched into the bat, however, I most definitely cheesed him (snarfage!). I ran over to a spotlight and activated it – which is supposed to blind the bat momentarily. But the bat got stuck on it and never moved again. I blasted two clips into him and the fight was over.

Yet another Bloodlines boss fight ended by bugs.

On the other hand, I had a much tougher time in the area immediately prior to the Sheriff. Why? Because of… bugs. Everyone was able to see – and shoot – through the walls and there was no place to hide. There was a computer terminal where I could deactivate the lights, which I’m sure would have helped, but even with a sneak around 10 I could not use the computer without a room full of baddies charging in to disrupt me. Trying to fight everyone from the level at once was definitely more difficult than I’m sure the designers expected, but I guess it all balances out in the end. To be honest, the bugs on that level, and with many of the boss fights in general, made me realize that while there were graphical glitches all over the place (light sorting, mostly, but there were a few other problems) the game itself was relatively clean. Then again, I was using version 6.0 of the community patch. I’d still be able to find a few hundred bugs were I QAing the title, but it was good enough to keep it fun to play through – minor frustrations aside.

So I beat the game, and I went the Anarch route. What else is there to know? Why, you want to know what my next character is going to be. Well, I have to admit I probably won’t play again. The game was fun. I definitely enjoyed it. And if I were to play again I know I would enjoy little deviations here and there – maybe playing as one of the crazies (Malkavians?) to see all the different dialogue or putting points into disciplines instead of everything else – but I think, with a game as long and linear as this, and with the gameplay not quite enjoyable enough to play it in a vacuum (i.e. I’d play GTA again just to drive around, but there’s nothing like that in Bloodlines for me), that I’m at the end of the line.

Bloodlines: Random Four

  1. All RPGs do this so I can’t criticize Bloodlines specifically, but when things go from bad-to-worse-to-ugly and someone is telling you to run, there should be an option to run like Hell. But when you’re in a dialogue and your only response is “Run? Why? Is something wrong?” then it frustrates the player and makes your character look like an idiot – more so when you repeat this step three or four times before you actually get to run. That’s exactly what happens when Nines Rodriguez tells you to run – with the sound of howling all about you, the area engulfed in flames, and the one escape route (a tram) fading off into the distance. “But Nines, it’s just a lot of things going wrong at once. What’s there to worry about?” “Run, what do you mean run? Can’t we just hang out for a while?” “But I was hoping we could talk politics for a bit.” “How about we just blow the fire out? Maybe that would work.” “OK, I guess we should consider the possibility of leaving now.”
  2. Running away from an invulnerable opponent for four minutes isn’t really fun. Figuring out a sequence of events while an invulnerable opponent hacks you into pieces isn’t fun, either. Unfortunately, Bloodlines forces you to pick one of these options when you’re attacked by a werewolf. You can either run in circles for four minutes, which is dull, or you can try to kill the werewolf by crushing him in the observatory door, which is not-at-all intuitive to figure out and made all-the-more difficult by the werewolf’s attacks. I’ve complained about some of the game’s difficulty before, but the Troika folks apparently love making stupidly difficult fights. The best was just prior to this fight, I had to fight a guy named Andrei. I lost to him two or three times before finding an exploit that removed any fun or challenge – but at least got me through the encounter. The exploit? I charged forward and hung out under the dock where he starts. He couldn’t pathfind to me, and I could shoot up through the dock and damage him. *yawn*
  3. On the plus side, I’ve been meaning to comment for quite some time on the music. What a great job! Three tunes in particular, area themes, have actually made it to my iTunes library. The Chinatown theme, the Hollywood theme, and the Vesuvius theme are great gaming tunes. I could wander those areas for hours.
  4. My “ghoul” died. She got killed as I walked into a room. There was never one line of dialogue or anything about it. Nice. 🙁

Bloodlines: The Better You Do…

(part of an on-going, fluid review of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines)

While touring through Hollywood, I stumbled across the “You Only Die Once a Night” plot. This is probably the most broken quest, in any game, I’ve come across in a long while. I’ll get to why it’s so broken in a moment, but I’ll start with some background.

A cemetery caretaker says that zombies sometimes try to escape the graveyard at night. He needs a 5-minute break and asks you to watch things for him. In typical fashion, zombies rarely ever appear while he’s in charge, but the second you take over there are dozens and dozens of them.

The mission’s structure is straight-forward. There are two gates from which zombies may escape the grounds. It’s your job to move back-and-forth between the two gates to prevent the zombies from destroying them and escaping. There is some distance between the two gates, so trying the mission a few times helps you find the quickest route between the two gates.

Although I was excited about this quest at first and thought it was set up well, I went through this mission a half-dozen times and failed spectacularly every time – becoming more frustrated along the way. Now matter how I played, with about a minute left the zombies always escaped.

I tried every strategy I could come up with from spending 30 seconds at a gate before moving on to focusing on one gate to clearing every enemy at a gate before moving on to just picking off the zombies actively striking at the gate. I used celerity. I also tried using the gun you’re specifically given for the quest (but I found that I’m just not very good with guns. It’s quicker for me to spam the left-mouse button and take a few swipes with my katana than to steady and aim for a head shot. Besides, I can mow through multiple zombies with ease using the katana, and don’t have to worry about re-loading or using up all of my ammunition). Regardless of my strategies there were always too many zombies and there was no way for me to protect both gates.

It was when I jumped on-line that I discovered “it’s not me, it’s you.” The quest is broken. Yes, the better you do the harder the quest becomes. Do too well and it effectively becomes impossible. In other words, I was failing so badly because I’m too damned good. Ha! 🙂

The solution? Get this: the solution is to hide. Proceed into the back corner of the cemetery, far away from either gate. And stand there. Many people said that they were able to stand there for the duration of the quest and achieve success. Others mentioned that they stood there for four-of-the-five minutes, then spent 30 seconds running to the rear gate and guarding it for the last 30 seconds – achieving near-universal success. I tried the latter approach and it worked on the first try.

Wow. Just… wow. It’s one thing to come across a poorly-designed quest, but this is a quest that rewards you for ignoring it. How much worse does it get?

Troika really should have thought about this one. It’s obvious they didn’t because the only things they did right were to keep the quest off the critical path and to allow you to fail and move on. It’s fine to make things more difficult for better gamers, but the simple solution is to put a cap on the number of spawned zombies – a cap that keeps the quest possible, but very difficult. There should never be a situation where a gamer is forced to putz around or hide in a corner in order to achieve victory. I’m sure Troika received no twinkies from Ernest Adams [designersnotebook.com] on this one.

Bloodlines: Combat

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.

Bloodlines – Haunted House

I’m still playing away at VtMB (Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines). I’m still loving it.

I’ve just unlocked the taxi cab. For those who have played, you understand that means I can now travel about the region. I quit-and-saved shortly after arriving at the new location (downtown. Downtown where? Uh… LA?) so I don’t know much about the new downtown area, but what I want to take a moment to comment on is the haunted hotel you visit in Santa Monica. What well done horror! I was completely on edge as I played through the level.

For those who haven’t played and don’t mind spoilers… vases fly through the air at you, flashes of light go off around you, doors slowly open or slam shut, the floor gives out, you see people running off in the distance, you hear voices warning you (“Watch out! He’s coming!), and there are old newspapers scattered about that tell the story of the hotel (a jealous husband killed his wife there) – to name but a few items.

To name one more, at one point I wandered down a long hall to a door but found the door locked and barricaded shut. My attentions had been focused on that door so when I turned around to backtrack across old terrain, I didn’t assume anything would happen. Except – there was a man standing behind me. I think I hit every key on my keyboard while simultaneously squeezing (crushing?) my mouse. My character in the game lurched forward, sword drawn, hitting just about everything in site – everything except the man who disappeared as quickly as he arrived.

Awesome. Just pure awesome.

I’m going to wrap this up by commenting on two things this horror level makes me think:

  1. Horror doesn’t work if you die. If I walk around a level and am constantly beheaded, then I am constantly re-loading and losing tension. The horror dissipates. The illusion is broken. Horror works best when – even if the player knows nothing really bad will happen, he believes something just might. Of course, to accomplish that you effectively are removing all challenge from the level and turning a game into a movie. But I’m fine with that. I don’t mind short, essentially non-interactive mood enhancement. Speaking of, Myst is a good example of this; you knew nothing would jump out and kill you, but you always worried it would happen.
  2. Story-based RPGs are like an escalator. These is an illusion that your decisions are progressing the story, but there are no alternatives. You can only move forward. In Bloodlines, I’m told to enter the haunted hotel and retrieve a locket. I can’t “get scared” and leave, returning to the quest giver and saying “I can’t do it!” I can’t refuse the quest and, in fact, once I’m in the hotel – I can’t even leave it. At that point, the only choice is moving forward triggering every horror sequence until the mission is complete. It works here because the mood is so well done, but it’s always a risky move.

Bloodlines – Continued

(today’s post: 750 words)

There are many ways to sub-categorize RPGs, but for the sake of this post I’m going to refer to the commonly-used “linear” and “non-linear” genres.

By linear (since these words are *not* intuitive) I mean games that are story-focused with little emphasis on activities outside the story or deviating from expected solutions. To better aid your understanding here, I’ll use BioWare’s titles as my example. Non-linear titles, sometimes, by some people, referred to as “sandbox” (again, consistency in regard to definition is uncommon), have a story but it can be largely ignored in favor of “running around and having fun”. Bethesda is a great example of that type of game, in my mind. Both have flaws and strengths and, as an equal fan of both (ha! Diplomacy for the win!), I’d love to see each borrow from the other.

I say this to lead into a couple observations on VtMB (Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines), the game I am currently playing – and which we’ll call a linear RPG.

In the game’s opening, you leave your apartment and walk down an alley toward the main street. Before you get there a cutscene steals control from you in order to show you a bloody mess-of-a-man stumbling into his apartment.

I like this and I don’t like it. I like it because it sets up a mystery. Why is he bloody? Who is the man? What’s the importance? It raises curiosity. It sucks you into the story. On the other hand, I dislike it because its passive entertainment. Non-interactive, like a movie. There’s a desire to skip the cutscene and get back to actually *playing* the game.

But it’s a greater failing in a game like Bloodlines because it doesn’t need to be there.

  1. There isn’t a lot to look at when you arrive on the main street. The chance that you’ll spot the guy is pretty high, especially since he’s moving awkwardly and making grunting noises.
  2. There is blood leading to the apartment complex from a poorly-parked car in a nearby lot. If you miss the guy entering his apartment, you’d have to be blind to not notice the mis-parked car and blood.
  3. In your apartment, where the game starts, you have a laptop. In your e-mail account, you receive a note saying to meet [the bloody guy] in his apartment – so you knew you had to go there eventually, anyway.
  4. The game doesn’t advance until you enter the building and speak to the bloody man.

The only way I think I’d “approve” of the cutscene is if it were based on your character’s Perception skill. At least then, you could tell yourself that the cutscene was a reward for how you created your character.

But the truth is that the game wants to tell its story and it wants to tell it in its way. And that’s sort of the main separation between “pure” linear and non-linear titles.

Another separation is that time often stops in linear games – waiting for you to “trigger” the next jump in time. Back to our apartment scene…

  • You catch up to the bloody guy in his living room. He’s sprawled out on the now blood-soaked couch. He’s hurting. You can offer to call an ambulance but he refuses. Just get him some morphine, he says. That’s all he wants.

So what do you do? You go back to your apartment and check your e-mail again, then wander around the hospital for a while – giving up when you can’t get to/find the morphine. You wander down to the beach and onto the pier to catch the crime scene. Then you head to a club to dance for a while before getting a mission to chase off some Asian guy. You complete the mission and check your e-mail again – only to remember the morphine. But at the hospital you find a couple other items of interest and that distracts you some more.

When you finally get back to the bloody mess, it’s as if 5 minutes have passed – even though your actions would have taken hours, if not days. In other words, the game was kind enough to wait for you. Just try to do that in a game like Oblivion. The guy would be long dead and buried. But again, that’s the difference. In a non-linear game, retrieving morphine is just a side mission. If you miss that the guy went into his apartment, no big deal. If you don’t get him the pills in time, no big deal. He dies. You move on to another mission.

I’m loving Bloodlines as much as I loved Fallout 3 (non-linear). But I think it’d be cool to see RPGs try to hit that middle-ground.

Bloodlines – First Impressions

(today’s post: 483 words)

I’ve started up a new game, “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines” (generally referred to as VtMB).

I’ve put about four or five hours into VtMB, including the tutorial, and I’m really enjoying the game. After all of the hours in Fallout 3 and the Witcher (back-to-back!), it’s nice to play a game where I can walk around on normal looking streets, check my e-mail, dance it up to modern music at a goth bar, visit a diner, or listen to talk radio – without worrying about super mutants, ghouls, or cockatrices.

Anyone who’s played the game is probably wondering what character class I chose.

From what I understand, the game can be played in a lot of different ways but the primary factor in determining the available choices is your clan. When you start the game, you have a choice to manually create a character or, what I did, answer a questionnaire. My answers tagged me as a “Toreador”. Toreador are the most human-like of the vampires, and Wikipedia says that “Their attraction to beauty is so strong that they have to force themselves not to stop at the sight of an aesthetically appealing work.” One of my primary powers is charisma, meaning that I can charm the pants off of just about anyone – which has turned out to be a good way to keep me full on blood.

I haven’t done a lot so far. I’ve been trying to help some surfers track down this girl Lily. I got some morphine and explosives for this guy Mercurio. And I’ve been spying on cops at a pretty cool murder scene that I first read about in the newspaper (and later caught on TV).

Troika (and the unofficial patch?) did a lot well with this one. There’s a lot of actual color in the game – something I always appreciate. And it’s not affected by limited view distance. Graphics (with a widescreen-stretch hack!) are more than good enough to impress me and get the point across without killing my processor. The starting area is small but packed with stuff to do. Combat is fun, albeit rare. I got into a fight at a beach house that was pretty exciting and seemed packed with ways to resolve the encounter. Load times are quick and infrequent. And the story/setting is doing a good job of hooking me.

Side note, the inspiration to give this one is a go was the news that the unofficial patch hit version 6.0. And the story there is that the original developer, Troika (now out of business), was rushed in their creation of the game. The final version was buggy and incomplete. The fans have been polishing this gem ever since. Version 6 included not only a ton of fixes but a lot of content the developers intended to implement. The game is now supposedly pretty close to original intentions. In a way, I’m glad I waited. 🙂