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The party's over, so now take off your face
Vampire: The Masquerade, Bloodlines is set in a gaming universe where Vampires are very real. Before you start thinking similarities with Sookie Stackhouse, the Masquerade predates it by a decade. It is also one of the best RPGs ever made. If you have a PC and like Vampires, you absolutely must have this game - dated or not.
In it, not only are vampires literally everywhere, they are organised. They have taken up battle lines, usually against the other Vampire clans. The Camarilla are the largest clan and they operate by a strict code; The Masquerade. The making of new vampires is strictly controlled. The rules for feeding on humans (don't be seen doing it and don't kill 'em) and displaying vampiric powers to the general public (don't) are enforced by game mechanics.
Kill too many - innocent - humans by feeding on them till they die and "the beast" inherant in all Vampires takes over for good. Humans that are part of combat missions are fair game. Be seen using powers costs you a masquerade point. Loose 'em all, and Vampire hunters will take you out.
There are other clans out there. The Anarchs, who unsuprisingly don't like rules. They're not the bad guys though. Think noble bikers and against-the-establishment types, often disillusioned former members of it. The Camarilla live by rules, each clan within the main clan ruled by a Vampire Elder, one of which in each city is elected Prince.
The main bad guys are the Sabbat. They operate like packs of rapid dogs, consider Humans fair game and revel in revealing their power to anyone around. Although the Camarilla and the Anarchs keep their numbers fairly constant, the Sabbat adhere to no such constraint. They are making new Vampires all the time, and although the Camarilla and Anarchs win most encounters, they face increasing numbers and a war of attrition has begun as they attempt to conceal the worst of the Sabbat Atrocities from Humankind.
Wolf, Nobleman, Blood mage or Nutcase?
To begin with, you have a choice of seven vampire bloodlines. You can choose directly, or the game can choose for you based on your answer to a series of questions. Each bloodline is believed decended from Cain, and each has unique powers. As the game does not award experience on kills, just achievement of objectives, you are not tied into any one type. Each bloodline has a unique appearance based on sex and a number of "upgrades" based on clothing.
Brujah - Usually members of the Anarchs, Brujah rely on brute power to get the job done. You can stack powers such as unnatural speed (Celerity), Potence (Strength) and Presence (Supernatural Charisma). They get a bonus to unarmed combat, but are more likely to frenzy in combat, which means you lose active control.
Gangrel - Loners and wonderers, Gangrel have animalistic traits. They tend to hunch over and the guys (even white) have dreadlocks. I love these guys. Their powers include summoning (Animalism), Fortitude (Damage resistance) and Protean (Claws and infravision, leading up to a kick-ass animal form). They also frenzy, but gain huge bonuses when they do.
Malkavian - Fruitloops, nutcases, a few gunmen short of a posse. Malkavians are genetically insane. In the game, this manifests in your interactions with people. There's a lot of talking in the game, and your choice of responses can be utterly hillarious. Street signs also talk to you. Sometimes you will get helpful hints this way. Sometimes you will get rubbish. The character on the game case, Jeanette, is Malkavian.
Their powers include Auspex (perception), Dementation (cause other people to go insane) and obfustagate (Invisibility). You also get access to some truly trippy outfits.
Nosferatu - What it says on the tin. These guys look like Nosferatu. The mere sight of them by humans in a non-combat situation casuses an automatic Masquerade violation. As a result, while other bloodlines can walk among humans, they spend most of their time in the shadows or underground. It can be challenging because of this to play as one.
Their powers include Animalism, obfustagate and Potence. They also get more blood from feeding off rats (yes, really) than other bloodlines do. Their appearence can never be greater than zero. No charming humans into feeding off them. No chance to talk your way into information. You will have to resort to lock picking and hacking.
Toreador - The pretty vamps. Think Brad Pitt in Interview with a Vampire. Other bloodlines often find them horribly pretentious and as shallow as a puddle. Their powers include Auspex, Celerity and Presence. Humanity rewards for protecting humans are doubled. Costs for killing innocent humans are also doubled.
Tremere - Blood mages. Warlocks. Generally untrusted and feared by other bloodlines for their unique power, Tremere can be a hoot to play. Powers include Auspex, Domination (mind control) and the almighty Thatamurgy that can cause those about them to vomit blood or even explode. None of their physical stats can rise above 4.
Ventrue - Your traditional I-Vant-to-Suck-your-blood Vampire. Usually of noble birth, they can be haughty and spoiled. They tend to be the rulemakers and are never far away from positions of influence or power. They are unique among the bloodlines in having no powers that will cause a masquerade violation. They have Dominate, Fortitude and Presence. They are also the most likely gaming choice to resort to guns. They cannot feed off rats, and feeding off vagrants often causes spontaneous vomiting.
There are a whole host of skills that you can also invest points in aside from powers. You can boost your unarmed or armed skills, firearms, dodge, standard perceptive skills, hacking, finance (lowers item costs) and others including appearance. Books are also scattered throughout the game.
Your powers cost blood. You can replenish it through buying (or finding) different grades of blood bags or feeding. If in a non-combat situation, you must not be seen feeding. You can ambush someone or charm them into willingly letting you, in which case people assume heavy petting!
Dead by dawn
You begin life in L.A., sired by a Camarilla member with no permission to do so. Your first waking hours are spent in front of a council debating whether to execute you or not. It is no spoiler to say that they decide against it. You may think this a long review (the longest I've written), but I've barely scratched the surface. The game is extremely violent. When it says 18 on the cover, it means it.
The plot is excellent, the characters you encounter well thought out with some marvellous voice acting. It has great, atmospheric locations with some great jump out of your seat moments, and varied quests. The graphics were wonderful at the time. They are still servicable now. The score is good, if not great. The length of the game is very generous, even before you factor in the myriad subquests. It also has multiple endings.
Released in 2004 on the same day as Half-Life 2, it was eclipsed by that Game's huge success as well as some intial bugs that were subsequently fixed. It never got the recognition through sales that it and the talented team behind it deserved, though it has gone on to become an absolute classic.
New physical copies tend to be expensive (£60!) though used copies abound for under £20. If you are worried about getting a duff disk set, Games downloads direct offer it for the same price.