The Best You’ve Never Played is a retrospective review series on ‘hidden gems’ – games that did not receive the level of recognition that they deserved. Perhaps they were part of a niche genre, or had too many flaws to attract a significant audience – nonetheless they are quality games that deserve your attention (to varying degrees).
One problem I have with remembering the golden days of the first-person RPG is that I don’t actually remember those days at all. I was too young – 8 years old in the year 2000. Granted, I was playing all sorts of games that I shouldn’t have been playing at the time – nearly all of the Command & Conquer series, Diablo, StarCraft, Warcraft III, Counter-Strike, etc. But as a kid I experienced a kind of anxiety associated with single-player games, especially first-person games. So games like Deus Ex may as well have not existed to me at the time. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered the beauty of the first-person RPG. With a retrospective look at this genre, everyone sees the established gems – Deus Ex, System Shock 1 & 2, and Morrowind. Those are the obvious ones. So needless to say, the first time I saw Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, as the awkward mess of a title stumbled upon my lips, not only did I not recognize it, but it just looked like shovelware to me. Every now and then I would hear someone whose gaming opinions I respect – such as TotalBiscuit – refer to this game as an underappreciated cult hit. But I did not have the privilege of experiencing this game when it came out in 2004 – and so at surface level, the game was a bit of a hard sell. How could it not be, when it’s on the same list as Deus Ex or System Shock. But finding it 75% off on steam meant that I had to give it a shot. I had to see what all the fuss was about.
My experience did not start well. After the installation completed I launched the game through Steam only to have it crash immediately. This happened every time I tried to launch the game. Of course after a quick Google search I found the appropriate patch that updates the game to 9.8 (edit: as of publishing this review, patch 9.9 has been released) which not only solved the issue I was having, but also promised to fix a plethora of other issues while also enhancing the game. The patch was installed in a jiffy and I was on my way to the character creation screen.
I was quite overwhelmed at first with the character creation process. It had been quite some time since my last playthrough of a game with this level of RPG mechanics. I have been spoiled by the streamlining and oversimplification of modern gaming. There was the option to create the character based on answering some questions, but I wanted a little more accuracy in determining how my first playthrough was going to go. I had no idea what to expect from this game, and wanted to keep it that way – but at the same time, felt I needed a little guidance with this first step. It was a good thing I did, as people were quick to comment that the Vampire clan chosen makes for a unique playthrough, and that the Malkavian vampires were a good choice for one’s first clan. The Malkavians are a vampire clan characterized as teetering on the edge of insanity, and the developers made it so they have a lot of unique and entertaining dialogue options as a result. These dialogue options are truly entertaining, at times even laugh-out-loud funny, and I highly recommend anyone to try Malkavian for their first time. However I should mention one downside to choosing the Malkavians first is that one will not understand some of the subtle but hilarious references built into the Malkavian dialogue options until they play through with one of the other clans first.
The main part of the character creation process is choosing your clan, as well as a kind of specialization that modifies your character in some way. I went with Malkavian Ninja, which was a class suited towards a melee and stealth build. Most of these specializations are pretty mild, though there are a few that will heavily modify one’s experience.
With the latest patches, the game runs very well, and even looks half decent. Most textures are about what you’d expect from a game released in 2004, but the character models are great, better than what you’d expect from 2004, especially the models for characters that the player can interact with.
Voice acting is also quite good, and starts off on a high note. The intro sequence in the theater, meeting with the other vampires, is fantastic. The tutorial is largely driven by interactions with a Brujah vampire, whom is also very well voiced. There are, however, some parts where the voice acting is atrocious, but they are few and far between, and I don’t think they were part of the vanilla version of the game, but rather added in as part of the Patch Plus version of patch 9.8, which adds some minor additional content. There is a noticeable change in sound and voice acting quality when these modded parts come in. It sounds as though the voice actors are recording their parts over Discord. It is quite jarring, even cringey.
And since it’s halloween, and this is a horror game, I ought to touch upon the horror elements – they are okay. When the game does set you up with a horror or thriller themed quest, it works well, though there are too many jump scares. The atmosphere they create is decent though. In the early game there is a mission involving a haunted mansion which is particularly tense.
The RPG elements are in abundance. There are significantly diverse dialogue options based on various skills – they are not homogeneously clumped together under “speech”. You can persuade, seduce, intimidate, and if you’re a Malkavian, dementate. These dementation skills, unique to Malkavians, also have targeted combat versions which are brilliant. You can cause an enemy to laugh uncontrollably, thereby incapacitating them, or force them to attack their allies, or simply haunt them to death in seconds with visions of death. These were a real treat to play with, as are the other unique abilities featured by the other clans.
The ‘open’ world they’ve built is decent. Of course it’s not a truly open world as there are loading screen segments separating some of the set pieces. But what is there is pretty good. There are plenty of people walking around and some of them can be spoken to. Unfortunately the city itself doesn’t feel particularly alive or authentic. Their idea of creating a gritty concrete jungle included sprinkling a liberal amount of hookers and homeless people in the area, and the residents tend to walk around aimlessly. One of the main character mechanics in this game is the blood level. Vampires require blood to to use their abilities – in this way it functions a lot like Mana in a traditional RPG. But instead of drinking a potion, you need to find something living to munch on in order to restore it. Rats are free game, and plentiful in the sewers, but only restore one point of blood per rat. A human provides much more blood, especially if they are of a ‘higher class’; the game features its own social hierarchy and deems certain residents to be of a higher or lower class, which I find amusingly arbitrary – but I digress. Additionally, if a vampire is caught doing vampiric things by non-vampires, they betray what’s known as ‘the masquerade’, and lose a point of humanity. Humanity is measured on a scale from 0-10, and if a vampire reaches zero, they completely lose their human composure and succumb to their true vampiric beastly nature within. So feeding and certain other abilities must be done away from the city or subtly in the shadows, and one must never drain a human completely and kill them, lest they lose a point of humanity. Considering this central mechanic, I did not have many opportunities to feed on hobos or other residents of the city without being seen. When completing quests there are enemies galore to take a healthy sip from, but not much in the way of fast food in the city between quests. One time I caught a guy taking a piss near a dumpster and chomped him real good. But that was only one time, and I don’t know if dumpster-pissers are worth all that much blood in the Vampire social hierarchy. There was, however, a lone doctor in a room in the blood clinic that I munched on almost every time I needed blood. The guy he was operating on didn’t seem to mind.
The RPG mechanics in this game are much deeper than one would expect from a more recent iteration in the genre, and this is one of the greatest things about the game.
During one of my playthroughs, I had the urge to boot up Fallout 4 (FALLOUT 4 minor spoilers ahead). I was completing the quest involving the Mechanist, being led through a very linear robotic factory, eventually leading to a large room where the player faces off against the Mechanist and their horde of combat robots. Completing this quest, after playing Vampire: The Masquerade for many hours, left a really stale taste in my mouth. And the reason was simply that the games in this genre have become far too linear. In Vampire, as with Deus Ex, and other masterpieces in the genre, there are several ways to complete any given objective. This was part of the beauty of the level design, and tied into the skills as well. Having so many skills to invest points into means more skills to use in game, and thus more ways to complete an objective. A terminal can be hacked, a lock picked, an NPC persuaded or tricked, a door blown up, etc. Meanwhile, Fallout 4 led me through endless corridors until I reached a bog standard horde mode boss fight. Stealth was pretty pointless as the game essentially became a corridor shooter, not to mention that I was stuck with a robot companion. And this was just one mission, granted, but it was indicative of the entire game. Vampire, with its fantastic quest design, was a breath of fresh air in comparison.
A big difference between a game like Fallout, and a game like Vampire, or Deus Ex, is that the former is focused upon how one can get improved items, while the latter are focused upon improving one’s abilities; upgrading gear, or upgrading skills. Of course upgrading an ability is not as tangible of an upgrade, and thus for many not as gratifying an experience, compared to upgrading an item or item slot, and so this may be one reason why many games opt for the former. The procedural generation of many of the item drops in Fallout 4 make it feel more like a looter shooter, a la Borderlands, rather than an RPG with FPS mechanics. Consider what are perhaps the worst inclusions to both Fallout 3 and Fallout 4 – giving the player power to create a forced cinematic experience. It was pretty bad in Fallout 3: one of the quests in the early game leads a player into the ruins of downtown Washington D.C., where they are promptly equipped with a Fat Man nuke launcher and nudged in the direction of a super mutant behemoth. The Fat Man is the most devastating weapon in the game, besides the MIRV, which is simply a Fat Man that launches five projectiles rather than one. So yeah, such a weapon ought not to be divulged to the player so willy nilly. Imagine if, in World of Warcraft, you start a new expansion and every player automatically receives a legendary weapon. Oh wait, cheeky me, that already happened. This is not good game design. A proper RPG has to establish a logic with regards to player items – it does not make sense for certain powerful items to be divulged so early on in an experience. At least in Fallout 3, one does not readily receive anymore ammunition for the Fat Man until much later on in the game. This is a good thing. Fallout 4 is flat out more egregious in every way. Firstly, the player not only receives a minigun, but also a suit of power armor. These items used to mean something in earlier iterations of the series, but they are given to the player immediately. It doesn’t make sense from a design perspective, but neither does it make sense considering the narrative. The player has been awakened from a cryogenic slumber trope and is almost immediately accepted into a group and given an arsenal of advanced futuristic weaponry, and is inexplicably able to use it. Both the suit and minigun are there for use afterwards as well. These moments create exciting, action packed cinematic experiences, but this kind of design philosophy makes for a shallow RPG. Vampire, being an example of an FPS RPG before the watershed moments of Fallout 3 and Skyrim, subverts this issue.
For anyone who missed out on some of the great FPS RPG’s of years gone by, look no further than Vampire. But the main point here is that the FPS RPG and RPS genres need a Renaissance. There have been some signs of a return to form with more recent games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution or even Dishonored. Hopefully CDProjektRed’s Cyberpunk 2077 lives up to the immense hype. And hopefully other developers take note and look to games like Vampire for inspiration for their next titles. It’s a real possibility. We’ve already had a renaissance of the old-school single player FPS as of late with the Shadow Warrior, Doom, and Wolfenstein reboots. Let’s hope that future titles can infuse some well-needed life’s blood into this genre, as the most recent iterations have left it’s pulse flatlining.