Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines is something of a technological marvel of what you could do with the source engine back in 2004. Just watch the trailer and see for yourself.
I do have a couple of issues with the game so brace yourself. This is going to be "one of those".
The game takes place in modern Los Angeles. You are a human who have just taken home some smoking hot company, but it soon turns out that it isn't your genitals that get themselves a satisfactory turnover but rather you bleeding throat. The company you brought home turned out be a vampire and you wake up later with her sitting in a chair ready to introduce you to your new place in the world when suddenly the door gets kicked open by two thugs who drives sticks into your chests. When your stick is removed you regain consciousness and wake up in a place where several figures have gathered. It is led by a vampire by the name Sebastian LaCroix and unless you have previous knowledge of the world of "The Masquerade" you're not going to understand what he's talking about. Basically he's annoyed that your sire didn't seek permission with him before embracing you into the Vampire organization. He straight out executes her with the accusation that she didn't follow the law of The Masquerade. He's about to execute you as well until he gets interrupted by Nines Rodriguez. After the outburst of Nines the entire audience starts whispering and talking in disarray. After a few seconds of pause LaCroix changes his mind and let's you live. He gives you a very brief introduction to The Masquerade which he very poorly explains (borderline doesn't explain at all), and sends you off with the task blow up a warehouse. Right outside the door another vampire named Jack waits for you, and he wants nothing else than dragging you off on a couple of tutorials. He's a far better teacher than LaCroix and if you're new to the game you should go with him. You can also refuse him or just get a brief explanation from him on what the story is about.
When you're done with Jack you appear right in your apartment in Santa Monica (still in LA). Your first mission is finding LaCroix's assistant Mercurio, who's supposed to give you explosives which you'll use to blow up a warehouse full of Vampires with. While roaming the streets of Santa Monica you're forced to uphold the law of the Masquerade which means that you're not allowed to reveal that you're a vampire. You get 5 Masquerade points and when those are depleted you lose the game. As they go down Vampire hunters start to appear in the streets and you'll have to fight them if they catch you. You reveal that you're a vampire by being seen drinking blood of mortals or by otherwise revealing your secrets to the mortal realm. You can regain the points by protecting the Masquerade meaning that you cover up traces of supernatural beings in quests or side quests. There's a couple of things you'll have to do before being allowed to blow up the warehouse. First you must get the explosives, next you must talk to one of the local leaders in Santa Monica and do a few tasks for her and when you're finally done with that you can talk to the contact which takes you down to the Warehouse. This is where it gets tough because you'll face off against several vampires alone and I'll explain why later in this review but when you've blown up the warehouse you get to meet LaCroix in his fancy building and finally gets some real answers.
The world of VtMB is extremely dark and twisted. The experience is nothing like in other games where you'll run around dandy and happily. Here you'll get taken aback over the events in the game. The story of the game is solid in the first part of the game but improves as time goes by. During the end of the game it does however seem like it has trouble wrapping things up. In the last events in the game your world and Camarilla will collapse all over you. It's extremely confusing and there seem to be no reason for it. There was also a bug that hindered me from progressing at the larger stages of the game, but there's patches that fixes that out right now.
The RPG Elements
The RPG elements in VtMB is nothing short of fantastic. You get to choose a clan out from 7 choices in the game. They all seem to be classified into different categories in all sorts of cases. Either a character relies on his innate abilities or his disciplines. I would divide it into Brujah, Gangrel, Nosferatu and Toreador into the ability needing clans and Tremere, Malkavian and Ventrue as the disciple needing clans. Disciples are basically magical powers that enhance your character during combat (in most cases) but they can have practical use outside of that. Also these different clans also follow something of a stereotype: Brujah = Brute, Gangrel = Loner, Nosferatu = Stealth specialist, Toreador = Socializer, Tremere = Sorcerer, Malkavian = Madman and Ventrue = Leader. They also fit different players as well. A player who prefers good combat abilities would want to pick a Brujah or Gangrel. A player who wants a challenge or plays through a second time would want to pick Nosferatu or Malkavian. A player who prefers interacting with NPCs would take Toreador or Ventrue. The game has a almost perfect spectrum between these clans where they tend to overlap in a good way. They all have different strengths and weaknesses throughout the entire game and during the start of the game you get a more well rounded character, and that's the best part of the RPG system in VtMB.
When you start the game and has picked your clan you can put points into different categories where your starting abilities are determined. You can specialize sort of but you will always start with a character that is relatively well rounded because depending on your clan you have to spend a very specific amounts of points into a category of abilities. You get a number of abilities to spend in your traits, skills and lastly your talents. It's cordoned off so you cannot sacrifice physical prowess for hacking skills, but you can sacrifice strength for agility or intelligence. Or people skills instead of computer skills. Skill points are scarce though and you'll have to spend them wisely in order to get the most effective use out of them. When you get them later as you level you won't have the limitation that you had in the start of the game and that's just brilliant!
The Combat and Stealth
VtMB is set in the modern day and thanks to that fact there's plenty of weapons variety to choose from. You can use your fists to punch people, use a melee weapons (like a knife or baseball bat) or shoot a gun in order to defeat your opponent. There are also disciplines which you can use during or outside of battle. You only have 4 different disciples to choose from at any time and these 4 disciples are determined by your vampire clan. If you're a Brujah for example you will only have access to different buffs. If you're a Tremere you will have access to disciples which affects the opponent more directly like forcing them to throw up blood or leeching blood from them. All other clans works between these two extremes. Either you affect yourself or your opponent. Also the different clans have different amounts of dependency on their disciples. A Brujah might never really have to use them mostly because their massive physical abilities will make the disciples somewhat redundant while a Tremere or Malkavian will find them far more useful because their physical abilities (initially) aren't on par with Brujahs and their disciples are much less redundant.
Stealth is also core to the game. Especially as you will face off alone against large numbers of opponents to get to your goal. The stealth system feels clunky though and when (not if) you get discovered; all the enemies that physically can get to you will start attacking you. This is incredibly punishing and with the addition of unskipable boss fights and powerful melee opponents. So when you get discovered you will either be forced to fight a boss or have trouble hiding because you're being chased by a angry vampire with a baseball bat.
This game does also have boss battles. These boss battles are of the kind of where you're trapped in a room together with the boss you're supposed to fight and take down his HP to zero. There's no freebies or tactical advantages. As far as I remember, almost all of the bosses are melee oriented and supernatural.
Sadly the game is designed so that supernatural enemies take less damage against bullets and you will be fighting enemy vampires or monsters of different kinds if most cases and these will also be your most powerful adversaries. Humans are either a minor annoyance or cattle for you to feed on (with the exception of vampire hunters). This will not make ranged weapons entirely useless but will punish those players that choose to specialize in them with a lot harder boss battles.
The Dialog and World
The dialog in the game is very good. All characters act realistically and the voice acting is superb. If you've picked a clan where you have good people skills you will be surprised over what you can really talk people into. If you're a Malkavian you have some kind of "seer" like ability which allows you to hint at what's coming up next. As far as dialog go, this game is excellent. The world of VtMB seems be filled to the brim with stuff to do if you know where to look. There's plenty of sidequests and computer terminals in the game where you can read a massive amount of uninteresting e-mails. At one point I managed to find a terminal where I saw that a doctor had an affair with someone but he didn't want his wife to find out so I blackmailed him about it. There's just loads of content in this game and I have pretty few pockets of times where I didn't have anything to do next.
In the end. Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines is a truly special game. It does a lot of things really well but also a lot of things horribly. Sadly the combat and stealth in the game is horrible! The dialog is superb and the story is solid. Thing is that the combat and stealth will probably take up at least 75% of the time even in a dialog heavy game like this and during this time you will have to live with the poor gameplay decisions of the developer. Also the endgame is extremely confusing and that's almost right after the game started to get good. I would like to say that this is a good game but it really isn't. It's a poor game (2/6) due to it's many problems. I took a lot of time writing this review and I rewrote it once so I respect this game and what it tried. Sadly it didn't make it's most core mechanics solid enough.