The best time I’ve had pretending to be a vampire was playing Blood Omen 2, the weakest game in a series about vampires. It had pallid block-and-lever puzzles, and its combat felt constipated, but it had a trick up its sleeve. It revolved around the vampire Kain (voiced by Simon Templeman), an ivory-skinned aristocrat with hair like a thick curtain of cobwebs, who would expect nothing less than to be revolved around – ‘We are gods,’ he says of his kind, before adding, ‘it is our duty to thin the herd.’ Playing Blood Omen 2 was like watching an anaemic stage play carried by a thrashing thespian.
The early hours, in which you make your way through the slums of a Gothic burg, are fleetingly perfect. You kill who you like, melt into mist, swoop across rooftops, and drink blood not with a clamping of your canines but by snatching it telekinetically, as if people were merely taps to be turned on and off. Just last year, another nocturnal creature called Jonathan Reid crept through similar digs, in Vampyr; only, he scurried and scratched about, seeming more akin with the rats at his feet. Kain, on the other hand, was stooping to conquer. He was having fun.
It should be legally enforced that any developer setting out to make a game in which you play as a vampire should be made to watch The Lost Boys, and to pay close attention to the last words of its tagline, which should serve as a video game commandment: ‘It’s fun to be a vampire.’ It bloody well ought to be. But all too often vampire games get swept up in syrupy melodrama or, worse still, vampiric politics. I blame Anne Rice, whose ghouls form a kind of bloodless beau monde, swanning off to the opera and nipping the necks of high society. Kane wouldn’t be caught dead with the likes of them.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines 2 was announced last week, and the good news is that its developer, Hardsuit Labs, seems to have at least glanced at the first five minutes of The Lost Boys. The trailer opens on a ferris wheel, lit up against the night sky; the camera, like a bat, glides over the water towards it, mirroring the film’s opening shot. Are we to take from this that we’re in for a lark? Or perhaps – given the wave of blood that floods a corridor toward the trailer’s end, just like the one that spilled out of The Shining – the developer just likes movies.
After a troubled development, the coffin door swung open on the first Bloodlines, in 2004, and the game shriveled up like a vampire who’d mistakenly set the alarm for 12 midday. It was full of unfinished quests, missing areas, and gnawed at by bugs. It needed a transfusion, in the form of a fan-made mod, to survive. Hopefully the sequel won’t suffer the same fate, though there is an ominous line in the trailer that brims with irony that can’t be intentional. ‘You will come to despise it as much as I do,’ the narrator says, ‘but I’ve waited so long to see it again.’ It’s accompanied by the image of a red tsunami sweeping over the city. Talk about a blood omen.
You know who else has waited a long time? Thirsty fans. For me, any excitement I feel is tinged with trepidation. The first game – despite its dependence on plunging necklines – was laudable for the richness of its world and the wealth of its role-playing freedom. The only trouble was the order and rubric of its mythology. The masquerade of the title referred to the veil of secrecy cloaking vampires from human attention, and a lot of time and texture was given over to the structure and infighting of its numerous clans – the Brujah, the Malkavians, the Nosferatu, the Toreador – all of different breeding and temperament. It resembled Crufts, only with more bite. But it meant the mystique – and some of the life – was drained from the vampire myth.
This doesn’t have to be the case for the sequel, however. You can still have fidgety factions without sacrificing fun. Take The Darkness, for instance, which dealt with another hierarchy bound by blood and rigid rules and operating underground: the mafia. That game’s hero, Jackie Estocado, was part of a pale clique of pleasure-seekers that could ditch their pistols and their New-Yawk patois and hop into the pages of a Rice novel, livening the place up a bit. Mob politics dripped down and stained the story – in a masculine but musty and unsexy word – but there were other, more present pleasures to take in: the first minutes are spent fanging through a tunnel in a top-down car, blasting a shotgun at the police in hot pursuit.
When you gather your senses soon after, you find yourself the owner of a set of brand new tentacles – inky and black, as if an octopus were perched on Jackie’s back. To any protesting vampirologists, I know that The Darkness isn’t, strictly speaking, a vampire game, but what it did, better than most proper vampire games, was to make Jackie an object of fear – to puncture the mob underworld with a different kind of terror. And crucially it was marvellous fun flinging people into walls with snake-headed tendrils, tearing out gobbets of flesh and glugging down hearts.
All of which Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines 2 is fully capable of delivering. Despite the trailer not featuring any gameplay, there was plenty of puckish fun on show: the summoning of a sledgehammer for some cracking violence, the long leap towards one’s prey, and the promise of choice in the adventure. The trick to a good vampire game isn’t just a power fantasy – that much is easy enough to get your fill of elsewhere. It’s about the imperious swagger, the mischief, and – if at all possible – a dash of sex without lowering to the leery. Blood Omen 2 came out in 2002, and I hope that Bloodlines 2 can provide a similar strain of fun. I’ve waited so long to see it again.