I don't think 3D RPG's work. The number-based systems of old pen & paper games have not transitioned well into the realm of three dimensions. Back in the days of 2D these number systems still made sense, but now they just get in the way. Games like System Shock 2 and Morrowind might be critically acclaimed, but they don't really solve the problem of how a number-based world and a physics-based world can coexist. Fun or not, these are still games where you can walk up to someone, stick a sword through their brain, and it only amounts to "attack power + weapon power = damage" when it should amount to dead body on the ground with a sword sticking out of its head.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not claiming that abstract stats in realistic 3D worlds can't work. I've just never seen them work. I've never seen a game that solves weird anomalies like the one described above. Even the better ones, like Vampire – The Masquerade: Bloodlines, tend to be enjoyable on the merits of story rather than gameplay.
Bloodlines is the latest in a long line of Vampire – The Masquerade games, which began in pen & paper but have recently moved into the PC. Unlike some other games under the Vampire license, Bloodlines is not an epic. It doesn't take place over hundreds of years or span the globe. It takes place in and around present day Los Angeles, so you'll experience the colorful underworld of blood suckers strictly from the perspective of Southern California. The game begins when the protagonist, whom the player gets to name, is "sired" into vampirism. New to the undead lifestyle, the player is given a quick run-down of the vampire do's and do not's before being let loose in L.A. with a thirst for blood.
You can forget about party members and complex battles with complicated strategy. Bloodlines is a single player RPG in the "three pronged" gameplay style of Deus Ex. Depending on which vampire "race" you choose and which skills you decide to hone, you can expect a handful of different solutions to any problem, usually falling into the stealth, violence, or subterfuge paradigm. Want to charm information out of people rather than fighting? Practice the art of vampiric seduction. Want to sneak up on your opponents? Hone your vampiric ability to move silently and blend in with the shadows. Want to slash your way through people and suck blood by the bucketful? Spend some time with your various weapon skills.
Yes, Bloodlines is one of those games with a "solution matrix." You know that most solutions to problems fall into the same basic categories, typically ranging from stealth to frontal assault. Your stats determine where you fall on the solution matrix, which sounds cool but in practice it actually means you are prevented from trying out many solutions. For example, if you want to sneak past someone near a warehouse you might actually be screwed because fours hours ago you decided to spend your experience points on marksmanship instead of sneaking. Some people like this, but I find it strangely frustrating. This kind of "freedom" is always a double-edged sword, because with every skill you gain you invariably close off a handful of others. The result is a game that needs to be played multiple times to really experience the true "freedom" it has to offer. The moment-to-moment gameplay is usually straight-jacketed by the invisible numbers that dictate what you can and cannot do, often in awkward ways.
The taste of enjoying the artificial constraints heaped on me by stats is one that I have not acquired. Bloodlines takes place in a detailed, hyper immersive 3D environment. This isn't some overhead RPG about being once-removed from the reality of the story. Bloodlines is about being there. It's about being a vampire, skulking around rainy urban landscapes, and seeing the world of L.A. through the street-level eyes of a supernatural stalker. When I'm given that kind of visual immediacy, I expect there to be a level of consistency in how I can affect the world. Unfortunately, the stats trip this up. Firearms, for example, make little sense in Bloodlines, since apparently, as a superhuman, I aim a gun as if I was suffering from advanced Parkinson's. Trying to hit a parked car at two yards is a challenge, unless your firearm skill is at maximum, in which case your aim is steady and your bullets do more damage. How better marksmanship makes bullets more powerful is anybody's guess, but it's all part of the stat system, so you just have to roll with it.
A limited solution matrix and some awkward skill systems don't make an RPG unfun or uninteresting, at least not necessarily. But it is important to explain what traditions Bloodlines is falling under and why it might not gel for certain players. I personally find it a shame that there is so much original content in there that many gamers (and non-gamers) might enjoy if it weren't for esoteric genre conventions. When I look at a game like Bloodlines, or Morrowind, or Fable, I'd like to believe that they promise the experience of playing a role intuitively. I'd love to think that someone who just likes vampires could pick up Bloodlines and enjoy it. But this isn't the case. You've got to like crunching numbers first. Second you've got to understand the logic behind RPG stat systems. Third you've got to understand the genre of stealth/first-person shooter games. Only after you meet all those other criteria can you simply be interested in experiencing the unlife of a vampire, and even then you've got to accept how it is limited by said constraints.
Forgive me if my tone is whimsical. I don't mean to somehow hold Bloodlines responsible for the failings of an entire sub-genre, but those failings were foremost in my mind while playing the game. Maybe it was the superb story that brought them out. Bloodlines has some excellent writing and memorable characters. Troika, Bloodlines's developer, has always been talented at creating detailed and highly intelligent fictional worlds. No doubt they jumped at the chance to take the Vampire license and exploit it for subtle meditations on politics, ethics and psychology. This they do well, without pretension, and it is the reason why Bloodlines stays engaging. I applaud Troika for their ability to do something that's actually meaty and thought-provoking, but it isn't enough to make me forget the awkward framework one must accept in the meantime. The ideas and situations in Bloodlines are so rich they deserve more than just being abstracted into an unwieldy numerical system that can only roughly approximate the nuance of a world so vivid.
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