Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption Review

When I first played a demo of Thief, I thought "Who are they trying to kid with this cereal box engine? Why is my character so inept? Who drew these textures? Are you seriously telling me that any guard would speak like that? Right -- this sucks. Get thee from my sight!". I continued with it, and before too long it dawned on me just how excellent the game was. When Thief 2 was released I purchased it without hesitation. Vampire is exactly the opposite. A great start, excellent graphics and a promising storyline. Unfortunately it doesn't take very long before things go wrong ... and badly.

The main character is Christof Romauld, a member of the Swordbrethren (a Crusader) who is injured on the battlefield and sent to recover from his injury in Prague. Prague, as well as being the smallest, emptiest city ever seen in a computer game, is effectively under siege from demons who have taken over the local silver mine. Although Christof's not even able to walk properly, the archbishop in his infinite wisdom and silly beard sends him out to sort out the demon and vampire problem. Who said the Church wasn't compassionate? As opposed to doing what any normal guy would do and say "Hey, have you noticed this really deep, painful wound in my side? Why not put that staff of yours to some actual use for a change?" Christof agrees because of a strong sense of duty, his burning faith and a serious crush on his nurse, Sister Anezka. Unfortunately in clearing out the silver mines Christof brings himself to the attention of the Kindred -- vampires who have been around since the days of Cain plotting against themselves in a never ending Jihad and who are concealed by an elaborate Masquerade. That's straight from the intro, folks -- and you should be grateful that at least I didn't start with "It is a world ... of darkness!"

Vampire is flawed in almost every single possible way. The gameplay can be thought of as Diablo, in 3D, with smaller areas and a better story. Almost without exception missions consist of charging in, waving swords or whatever around, smashing skulls, collecting keys and finally killing a boss. Did anybody watch the first series [or "season," if you prefer] of Babylon 5? There is a point coming here, albeit slowly. The program started with the usual science fiction mumbo-jumbo and then had the line "Babylon 5 was our last ... best hope for peace." The makers of the intro clearly thought that the best way to demonstrate this would be footage of Babylon 5 ships blowing the crap out of another squadron. Perfect. Vampire's manual is (perhaps unfortunately for Nihilistic) partly dedicated to the gameworld. One of these sections details the rules (Traditions) for vampires ... I quote: "Thou art forbidden to destroy another of thy kind."

OK, Nihilistic -- here's the $64,000 question. I can see that killing a vampire on your first mission isn't a problem -- you aren't Kindred and you're doing your duty, that's fine. The problem is also the point of the game -- you later become one. So why is it that your first operation with the Brujah (your sect) is to go into a Cappadocian base, kill about five zillion vampires and then top it all off by taking out yet another one (albeit a traitor)? Wouldn't, oh, I don't know -- an infiltration system have worked better? Avoiding detection? In short, not mass genocide against a sect whom you have good relations with? As far as I can see, and I admit that I don't know the tabletop game at all -- the Vampire universe is one which is principally political, sects constantly struggling to get the upper hand through plotting and manipulation. Actual tooth and nail fighting seems to be the last resort, not the first response -- especially since you're a member of one of the "good" sects! Heck, if we're going to be pedantic about this how about we cover a couple of the other rules too? "Thou shalt not reveal thy true nature to those not of the blood?" Did I miss the part which said "Unless you have the hots for her?", because Christof isn't exactly enigmatic when talking to Anezka. Even if you say that Christof wouldn't know them, and I don't recall Ecaterina (his Elder) telling him at the start, surely Wilheim (his partner) would have told him!

Basically, the game universe is absolutely appalling -- it couldn't be more artificial if you could nip behind the buildings and see the stagehands having a quick cigarette between takes. The "cities" are full of doors, of which about 3 actually open, 90 are just painted onto the walls, and the rest are mysteriously locked until you need to go through them. You can smash barrels open to get various objects, but mysteriously not all of them. If a barrel has something inside it then it flashes red when you move the cursor over it and a mouse click smashes it open. If it's empty it just doesn't register at all. You can't talk to most characters, and even those which do respond are there only to further the plot or tell you the best way to defeat the next puzzle (hint: hit it over the head with a sword!). How bad is it when you can't even buy a drink at the local bar?

The townspeople in particular win the Al Bundy Award for Most Apathetic Characters In History Ever. It was said in criticism of Diablo that if the townspeople were that bothered about the monsters why did they stand around in the open instead of making the slightest attempt to fortify their town? In Vampire things go one step further -- early on in Prague the monsters are actually IN the town, and the townsfolk just amble about as normal. Perhaps they found that their front door was really a painted wall and they were trapped outside -- who can say? The guards in particular are hilariously funny -- bite somebody in the town and they dash over to, as I believe the term goes, get Dark Ages on your ass, but standing in front of them casting magic spells doesn't bother them in the slightest.

In general the artificial intelligence is terrible -- after returning from my first mission with Wilheim he, for no apparent reason, decided to start stabbing the townsfolk. The guard came over and killed him in one swift move. I just told Christof to bite him and waited -- I'd noticed long ago that if you drain somebody dry you lose Humanity, but milking them down to the very last drop and then stabbing them doesn't seem to bother anybody at all. Thanks to the very generous (hah!) Auto-Save system and the fact that I couldn't find any Awaken scrolls to bring Wilheim back to life (which frankly I'd have expected a Haven to have an unlimited supply of!), I had to do the next mission solo.

Basically, Vampire has been made very sloppily and with the most appalling disregard for the gamer. Even cut-scenes (how can you screw up a simple "Encounter" scene?) are ruined -- no matter where you are when the scene starts you teleport back to the "official" start once it ends. Compare this to Deus Ex! Oh, and Nihilistic's art and design team might be interested in a little course that I'm running. It's called "London: It Doesn't Look Like Mary Poppins".

All of this could have, and would have been forgiven had the game been really good fun to play. It isn't. It's not bad enough to warrant a bad vampire pun -- they suck -- but it cannot be described as good. The plot is so linear that it might as well be an interactive movie -- you go straight from Point A (briefing) to Point C (objective) because Point B (preparation) is so pointless. Because of the urban nature of the game hubs there are no monsters to hunt down to level up, and while you can pick up objects from the shops if you like it is generally easier to harvest them from your enemies or find them lying around (along with, comically, flasks of blood!) in corners and under tables. There's quite a wide range of them, but it doesn't really make a lot of difference in terms of playability -- just select one and click repeatedly. The minor monsters could probably be beaten off with a paper towel, which leaves only the boss to deal with.

The bosses are really where the game falls apart, although this should be rectified to some extent with the patch. The second of them, Mercurio, has an insanely powerful attack which creates a huge mass of poisonous fumes. A lesser reviewer would insert a bad joke here. Basically, this attack will wipe out your coterie (party) in about one hit -- and the guy himself is powerful enough to finish you off if it doesn't. Oh, and he can (and does) recast it. Healing takes aeons and as soon as you finish he just cracks your head open again anyway. Where's the fun in being repeatedly killed until you find a vaguely effective weapon? Where's the enjoyment in listening to the guy's tedious speech over and over again (hit space to bypass lines, but you can't skip the entire thing)? More importantly -- what's the point? Kill him, and after another brief round of "Where in the Seven Hells Is Sister Anezka Sandiego" you'll just be doing the same thing again in another location....

Ultimately the game gets boring within a few hours gameplay and most people won't even bother to finish it -- it's not as though the plot has any major twists. You already know that the game takes place in two eras, and that it's mostly taken up with an attempt to destroy the latest monster from Villains R Us (complete with "Mwah-ha-ha" laugh!) and Christof's search for his beloved. Gee, how do you think a mortal woman is going to survive for several hundred years? Think, think, think....

The situation is not even saved by the multiplayer option, although in fairness it could have been and when it works it works absolutely incredibly well. Put simply, you and your party of other players work your way through a storyline, levelling up with persistent characters, solving puzzles and basically playing it as an online version of the tabletop game. It was an inspired idea, but ... like almost everything else ... the execution is badly flawed. Read this article at MPOG for the technical reasons. There aren't all that many gameplay issues which need covering -- even a Diabloesque clickfest game can be entertaining with friends, and wrapping it up in a story is very exciting. If, and this is a big "if," you are playing with reasonable people. I played several games using this system, and in all but one the Storyteller either:

As a result I just didn't have much fun. The game which was played well was superb -- a lot of in-character chatter, plenty of combat, a Storyteller who possessed the NPCs to make them talk ... but unless you get a Storyteller like this you are left with pretty dull levels filled with monsters. I don't think that Vampire will live for very long as a multiplayer game as it stands, so I really can't recommend buying it for that, and the single player game isn't worth purchasing. Yes, it's a vicious circle -- if nobody plays it then there won't be anybody to make any additions for it. Too bad, I still can't recommend it -- if you want to take a chance on it then I wish you well. I'll be over here with Deus Ex.

Redemption is a real shame. The background is excellent, the graphics are superb and there is so much that could have been done -- so why the developers chose to ruin such a great license with this lacklustre game is frankly beyond me. Put it against Black Isle's superb game interpretation of Planescape and it's practically a crime. Nihilistic? Perhaps it's time to care a bit more...

-- Richard Cobbett