Why do Vampires always hang around in sodding LA, and not, say, Nottingham? LA's permanently sunny and full of beach bums, while Nottingham's mainly damp, cold and grey and populated by three quarters of the world's Goth population. Obviously no one alerted Troika Games to this Vampiric contradiction, because it's only gone and set Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines there.
We'll let Troika off this time, on the basis that it appears to have one of the few truly groundbreaking games currently in production, and, intriguingly, is the first external team to be allowed to use the effortlessly impressive Source engine, allowing the team to take the RPG into previously uncharted waters. What's more, Valve actually approached Troika to use the engine, which is why the team is in the privileged situation of having a head start on everyone else.
A stake through the heart for the RPG
But let's get the confusing stuff out of the way first. Bloodline is not a sequel to the Nihilistic developed Vampire: The Masquerade - Redemption, which slightly disappointed Tom almost exactly three years ago. Troika, responsible for the excellent Fallout and Arcanum, were basically fed up with the lack of innovation in the RPG genre and decided to give it a kick up the arse by putting it in a first person setting.
Sure, System Shock and Deus Ex introduced RPG elements to the first person shooter arena years ago, but Troika is firmly pitching this as a true revolution in the RPG space. "There's been no real innovation for years, and the genre's been in decline commercially, with no updates to the big brands like Baldur's Gate and Diablo in a couple of years.
"Bloodlines is the first game to combine the classic RPG feel with a first person shooter engine, with gameplay mechanics never before seen in an RPG," says Troika's representative.
Wash and go
It certainly looks like a first person shooter at first glance, and the promotional blurb handed out beforehand freely admits that it features "intense first person shooter combat". But let's not get hung up on pigeonholing it. Just think of it as an RPG that's trimmed its beard, bought some snazzy new threads and had a power shower.
So why go first person? "The thing that drew us to the Source engine was the facial animation system. We really wanted to let people talk to NPCs face to face." And the results are mightily impressive. Even at this relatively early stage with six months to go before it's finished, Bloodlines' LA environment is overflowing with detail. The night sky stars twinkle, the clouds move overhead, and the streetside detail is quite something to behold.
Both the exterior and interior are on a par with anything you may have seen in Half-Life 2, but with a darker, grimier, nocturnal edge. Any NPC you happen to come across is not only rendered with immense attention to detail but talks to you with a level of facial animation and lip synching that can't fail to impress. It's certainly a world away from tiny, badly animated characters in an isometric world, and helps the boost the sense of immersion arguably lacking in any RPG ever devised.
The next generation of adventure games?
But visual immersion would count for nought were it not for the narrative, and Troika has also borrowed a long forgotten concept from the world of adventure games: the conversation tree. But unlike the rather basic system of merely asking questions or selecting a response, used for years in old LucasArts classics, Bloodlines incorporates RPG elements into the conversation. For example, your character may have excellent seduction skills, or be part of a specific clan that allows you to ask questions or offer responses otherwise unavailable to you, and these 'special' branches of the conversation will be shown in a different font to indicate this. It's simple, but opens up wonderfully non-linear gameplay possibilities that we hope Troika can deliver on. In this sense, Bloodlines' interaction and narrative makes it look like a subtle reinvention of the adventure genre - a logical progression that LucasArts should have seen years ago, but blundered into a commercial cul-de-sac instead.
Another cunning innovation is the use of 'Blood Points' as a both your character's energy and a currency. For example, in conversation you might have to expend a blood point as a consequence of saying something, while engaging in combat potentially results in some spilt claret. Likewise, using special abilities such as invisibility will also drain your Blood Points. Sure, we haven't played it yet, but it's a multi-faceted system that appears to work very well indeed.
Combat will take place in the familiar FPS style, with knives, pistols, machine guns, stake guns, flamethrowers, vampire powers, skills and traits available to you during the game. But far from being a game of frenzied bloodlust, you can't just go around killing everything in sight without consequences, Bloodlines makes you consider your actions. If you kill people, you lose humanity, and if you get too bestial you'll eventually enter into a frenzied state, which may make NPCs react to you differently and prevent you from accessing areas that you need to.
Drag and drop
Cunningly, even the physics element of the Source engine has been tied into the stats. For example, if your character is strong enough, you can potentially pick up objects and use them to your advantage - such as carrying a corpse to a hiding place quickly. If you're too weak, you might end up taking ages to drag it, and get in trouble as a result. But it's not just your character that interacts with the physics - other characters will also react to the environment based on their own capabilities, so might, say, hurl a barrel at you if they're capable of it.
Real RPG aficionados will no doubt be seduced by the fact that the "world famous" White Wolf gaming tradition has been used to form the foundation of Bloodlines, with each of the game's 14 character classes comprised of Attributes, Abilities and Disciplines. Attributes are further broken down into Physical, Social and Mental; Abilities are broken down into Talents, Skills and Knowledge; and Disciplines are split into Auspex, Celerity and Presence. Each one of these is also sub-divided into three, but that's where it ends, before our head explodes with stats.
Another key element of Bloodline's appeal is its apparent non-linearity. Its strong RPG element should make it possible to play multiple times, and on each occasion experience a completely new adventure. It's been said before, and we'll believe it when we see it, but it's hard not to feel excited about that prospect.
All this and we've not even mentioned multiplayer yet. Troika skirted around the subject a little, but is promising an online, team-based mode, which will apparently allow you to "join in the ultimate battle of light and darkness". You choose your team, either Vampire or Vampire hunter and engage in a "variety of team-based mission objectives", promising us a "unique experience". Sounds great. Let us at it.
Console owners might be in for a long wait, with no current plans in place. The Troika chaps present at Activate, however, said they designed the controls with consoles in mind, so if it's a success on PC it'll be a formality before it arrives. Don't expect it until a good while after the spring 2004 release date.
To sum up, Bloodline is a game that could and should unite fans of FPS, adventure games and RPGs for the first time. It's everything we'd hope an RPG could be, and providing Troika deliver on its promises and weave a decent story in there, we could be looking at one of the true landmark games of next year. It's safe to say we're pretty excited about this one.