First impressions, they say, last. In that case, if you were to judge Vampire - The Masquerade: Bloodlines on first impressions, it wouldn't be a very favourable judgment. The opening cutscene is of critical importance in a game, setting the mood for the entire game and giving the player an indication of the quality of what's to come. I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, that as introductory cutscenes go, the one for Bloodlines sucks (if you'll pardon the pun).
Inexplicably wafting clothing, characters that glide instead of walk, utterly pointless momentary fades to black, and some truly awful video-audio synchronisation. As first impressions go, this is tantamount to visiting your girlfriend's parents for the first time, getting drunk, hitting on her 15 year old sister and vomiting over the Persian rug.
Fortunately, it quickly becomes apparent that despite the technical problems, Bloodlines is a first rate RPG. What also becomes clear, within the first five minutes, is that everything you thought you knew about vampires is poppycock. Bloodlines completely rewrites the vampire rulebook, meaning that you don't have to worry about people wafting garlic in your general direction (though a 12-gauge shotgun is a completely different matter).
You start the game having been newly sired, having woken up that morning a mortal, and having gone to bed that night with someone who wasn't quite as alive as you thought they were. No time is wasted introducing the politics of vampire society, as your initial mentor, Jack, informs you of what The Masquerade is, and also briefs you about the Camarilla and the Sabbat - the two main vampire factions in the game.
This first sequence introduces all the basic elements of the gameplay: from the use of vampiric disciplines, to the use of skills. This is basically an in-game tutorial, but an enjoyable and well-executed one, particularly since it's spent in the company of the very engaging Anarch, Jack. This weight of emotional engagement comes through the use of Half-Life 2's Source engine. Bloodlines utilises its facial animation engine beautifully, and it adds an extra dimension to the character interaction, as you can see precisely what a character is thinking by reading their expressions. Also, all the NPC dialogue is fully voice-acted and lip-synched, making conversations seem genuinely real, and the quality of the voiceovers are uniformly excellent - easily on a par with Half-Life 2. This is a bit of a false comparison, though, as despite the 3D engine, the games couldn't be more different.
Whilst Bloodlines implements both mélèe combat and gunplay, they firmly take a back seat to the story and characterisation, at least until the final stages of the game, which regrettably turns into the modern equivalent of a dungeon-crawl. Like most first-person RPGs, Bloodlines suffers from imprecision and limitations of statistics-based combat implemented into a precision-based engine. Mélèe weapons are, on the whole, better to use than firearms, as the game automatically switches into third-person when one is equipped, which makes damage easier to deal out. Firearms, on the other hand, are best avoided until you reach Downtown and either have sunk enough experience into the Firearms skill to shoot reasonably straight or have acquired the Brokk 17C semi-automatic pistol, which is accurate enough to use at ranges beyond point-blank, where you'd be better off with a fire axe anyway.
With the game's emphasis (for the lion's share of the game, at least) firmly on characterisation and story anyway, complaints about slightly lacklustre combat can be overlooked, because Bloodlines is packed to the rafters with memorable characters: Centuries-old societal rebels, Pole-dancers with a penchant for romantic poetry, Wild-eyed vampire fanboys, Pneumatic schizoid nymphomaniacs, Enigmatic blood sorcerers - Bloodlines practically has it all.
Troika have given Bloodlines a distinctly adult tone, and by that I don't mean Leisure Suit Larry "adult". Bloodlines isn't just adult, it's mature, in every sense of the word. Sure, there's plenty of exposed flesh and gore on show - not to mention Sapphic overtones if you play a female vampire - but never at any point does it seem exploitative, out of place or without a plausible reason. The 18 rating is well deserved; it doesn't shy away from presenting the real world of sex, violence and industrial-strength language of everyday life. There's almost a smug subtlety, a conscious wink from the developers to the player, which is delightfully demonstrated especially in the LAN cafè in Hollywood, where "AWP Whore" and a downwards pointing arrow is scrawled on the wall over one of the PC booths - a knowing tip of the hat to Counter-Strike culture. There are plenty of other similarly observed touches - Troika have taken great pains to make the game world seem as vibrant and real as possible, and it pays off. Similar lavish attention has been made to the script, too. Not only are each of the characters individual and memorable, they all have something particular to say and have distinct points of view and attitudes. The high quality of the voice-acting adds weight to feeling that you're interacting with people, not clichès, too.
At its heights, within the first half of the game, Bloodlines stands shoulder to shoulder with the great RPGs of the last five years - Planescape: Torment, Baldur's Gate 2 and Knights Of The Old Republic. It's an immersive and compelling experience, and the variety in character classes (or as the title suggests, Bloodlines) provides plenty of replay value. It should be compulsory to play through at least the first chapter of the game as a Malkavian; their insight and consequent insanity leads to some positively delightful lines of dialogue ("I don't like dramas - please change your channel to a comedy.") and equally pleasing NPC reactions ("Well *that* was an interesting thing to say!") The lines of dialogue for Malkavians also appear in a deranged font, another nice touch, revealing the kind of mind you are role-playing. Dialogue is similarly tailored for other Bloodlines, and with such attention to detail, I'm not exaggerating when I say that the first 20 hours or so, where you're increasingly immersed into vampire culture and politics, are as good as you'll find in any RPG on any format, ANYWHERE. It really is that good. It's such a shame then, that after the Hollywood chapter, the game starts to fall apart. Not completely, but enough to take the edge off the game, which is a desperate shame.
It's unfortunate, but it's most likely that Bloodlines will be remembered for the bugs and not the array of excellent characters, and some brilliant set-pieces (including a "The Shining" inspired scene in a burnt-out waterfront hotel). It's not surprising, though, considering Troika's reputation for releasing buggy games, and allowing a game to hit the shops that features not only a hamstrung opening cutscene, but also a without-fail showstopper bug (that requires the use of the debug console to circumvent) is nothing short of criminal - and will do absolutely nothing to enhance Troika's reputation. Add this to the fact that neither Troika nor Activision exactly rushed to release a patch - it took over a month for one to appear, by which time several fan-written patches had been released - and that the official patch itself merely papers over the cracks (this is particularly noticeable in the "fixes" to the opening cutscene) rather than address the core problems of the game (though at least it does fix the showstopper), it's no revelation to see Bloodlines sitting on the shelves in several stores at a much reduced price. Troika need to be made to watch an episode of Sesame Street brought to them by the letters "Q" and "A" until their alphabetic silhouettes are seared into their retinas.
It would be a tragedy, however, to write Bloodlines off as a missed opportunity, because it's by no means a bad game. Yes, it has bugs. Yes, I've noticed quite a bit of stuttering sound when starting conversations. Yes, I've been trapped in doors by dodgy clipping. Yes, I've had a couple of "Derek Smart's Desktop Commander" moments. All of these have made this game very hard to objectively score. But then I remember all of the great moments: leaping into a nightclub's mosh-pit wearing a g-string, a cowboy hat and boots, like a deranged Shania Twain; getting scared witless in the Ocean House kitchen; getting erotic e-mail from a pole-dancing vampress; teasing a ghoul bleeding to death on his own couch; beating a Sabbat vampire to death with a severed arm. The acid test when scoring a bugged game is this: Do the bugs make you want to stop playing? The answer here, for me at least, is "No". There's no doubt in my mind that Bloodlines is the best RPG of the last 12 months. It's not without flaws, none of which should be ignored or forgiven, but they don't completely kill the game, and that's the most important thing. The finale of the game is also a tad disappointing when compared to what precedes it, but again, the first half of the game is so outstanding, Bloodlines isn't a game that should be overlooked.