Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is pretty much everything I’ve ever wanted in a video game.
The best way I can describe the game’s genre would be “role-playing sandbox.” The game allows you to pick a character type (different types have different powers available to them), and then gives you five areas of a city to play through. Throughout these areas, you find an assortment of side quests and story missions. Each mission generally involves a combination of dialogue options with major NPCs, and attempting to either play stealthily or fight your way through some enemy-ladened territory. At certain points in the story, you get the ability to progress to other sections of the city.
So, Sandbox. However, Bloodlines is based on a tabletop role-playing game, which means it has incorporated an experience system. Befitting a sandbox, it doles out experience and money only at the completion of a mission. It doesn’t allow you to grind, and the choice of certain dialogue options or gameplay decisions will often cause a mission to no longer be available. This means that you have to plan your experience spending and your purchases. At the same time, it gives the player real freedom in how they approach the game.
For example, one of the first story missions involves getting into a house full of thugs, getting explosives, and getting out. You could decide to play a stealthy game, sneaking around the thugs and through the house. You could also choose to beat the thugs with a baseball bat. You could even try to convince them through dialogue options to let you in and simply give you the explosives, perhaps having a late night snack of the gang leader before you go.
The game is short, and the players affect on the plot is less important than it seems at first. In addition, some skill or item purchases are clearly more “correct” than others. Guns, for example, don’t become useful until you buy a high enough Firearms rating, and having to buy ammo means you have less money for blood bags to feed your vampire magic. However, because the act of grinding is completely removed, the way you spend your experience and money feels like just as much a part of the gameplay as the combat or dialogue options. Being unable to beat the last boss because you didn’t save up enough money for blood is just as valid a loss scenario as lacking the skill to tackle an extremely tough boss in an FPS game.
By making a game where player choices feed gameplay, and allowing the player to play out dialogue with major NPCs in a way that allows them to role play (if in a very limited form), Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines is just about everything I want in a video game.
I got my copy off of Steam, but you will likely need an unofficial patch to play it on current computers. Even so, it’s worth the price of admission.