Every once in a while, an RPG comes along that defies industry trends, creating a new play experience that helps the genre as a whole. Bloodlines is not that RPG. It does however win the award for making me use the most number of colons to date in an article title, and is still a competent game in its own right.
Bloodlines was released in 2004 and was developed by the now defunct Troika games. These are the same people who made Arcanum, and the first 3.5 edition DnD game, Temple of Elemental Evil. After Bloodlines was released Troika closed up shop, never to be heard from again. Although this may be an indication of how the game sold, it's not completely the fault of the game's quality. Bloodlines had the utter misfortune of being released on the same day as Half Life 2, and when given the choice between an RPG based on a pen and paper system that wasn't DnD and Half Life 2, the majority of consumers' wallets voted for Dr. Freeman.
Bloodlines takes place in the World of Darkness setting created by White Wolf. In this world vampires, werewolves and other myriad creatures of the night all exist, and in fact live among human society for the most part. Bloodlines allows you to either pick your starting clan, or to answer a series of questions which determines your starting character for you. Being completely unfamiliar with the World of Darkness, I opted to answer the questions, and wasn't too upset with what I ended up with.
As the game begins, you are starting out as a newly created vampire, thrust into the streets of Santa Monica to survive and earn both standing among important vampires, and money and other essentials. Your choice of clan affects both your abilities and your appearance, as well as opening up some side quests unavailable to the others. One negative point is that it completely decides your appearance, with no chance for customization other than gender.
As a vampire, you will have to follow the rules of the society. Along the right hand side of the screen is a meter used to show blood level. Using your special abilities will drain this meter, and you will have to replenish it, lest you be taken over with a mindless uncontrollable rage called Frenzy. However, you need to be discreet about this. If a human sees you feeding in plain sight, it will be considered a violation of the Masquerade. Five violations gets you an instant game over, although there are some ways to regain Masquerade points. Using powerful abilities in front of normal people is also considered a violation, unless the area is specifically a combat zone, in which everything goes. It's always, well, dark in the World of Darkness.
The game is built on the Source engine, and although not nearly as impressively detailed as Half Life 2, it still looks fairly decent and holds up well over the past three years. Because of this, Bloodlines is played from both the first and third person perspectives depending on the weapon equipped. Melee weapons bring you to the third person perspective when used, and holding down a directional button will launch a different style of melee attack. When using firearms, the view shifts to a first person perspective, and is fairly familiar to anyone who has ever played an FPS game before. The outcome of any attack however, is based on die rolls behind the scenes, so the mere act of hitting someone is not enough to deal damage if they're heavily armored and all you have is fists. It slices, it dices, it makes julienne fries!
Experience points are awarded for the completion of quests, or major parts of a quest, and mindlessly killing enemies will get you nothing more than satisfaction if that's your thing. These experience points can be spent however the player chooses, boosting different abilities which translate over to feats. The bottom line
Bloodlines is not going to change your mind if you hate everything by White Wolf, and it would probably help to know a bit about the games before you dive in. That said, as a complete stranger to the World of Darkness, I find myself having at least a somewhat fun time with the game thanks to some well crafted scenes and interesting characters. Not to give away spoilers for anyone who may be interested in playing, but a certain scene with the owner of the club in Santa Monica, and the entire quest that takes place in a haunted hotel are some of the high points in just the opening parts of the game.
One major criticism of the game that is normally cited is that there are some fairly decent bugs, although I have not yet experienced anything game breaking. The Source engine does seem to have issues with a certain club-goer's dress though, and it regularly flips around all over the place when she makes even slight movements. Funny to watch, but definitely a bug.
As far as value goes, when last I checked, this game was going for $9.99 on Steam, which is why I picked it up in the first place. At that price, even if it was only decent, at least I wouldn't feel burned.
As a final note to anyone who may be interested, make sure to play through the game at least once as a Malkavian. It'll be a blast.