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Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines

We sink our teeth into Troika's dead-good RPG

With the recent hype and euphoria surrounding the release of Half-Life 2, it's been all too easy to overlook the 'other' game which uses Valve's sparkling new Source engine. That game is of course Bloodlines, a free-form RPG based on the White Wolf rule set. And while it may not quite be up to Half-Life 2's standards, it still proves to be a hugely impressive game.

Set in a fictional version of LA that's packed full of dark, sinister locales and imaginative yet clearly psychologically unstable characters, you play a newly sired Vampire who must somehow get to grips with their new, undead way of life. However, it's not long before you become entangled in a complex web of intrigue and conspiracy that sees your kind's very way of life put at risk. During your adventures you must uphold the Masquerade - a vampire code of conduct which forbids you to commit vampiric acts in public, so as to maintain the human-held illusion that the undead are a myth. And if you do get spotted committing a Masquerade Violation or a bog-standard crime, then police will be on your case in no time.

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But before you hit the streets and start sinking your fangs into soft warm flesh, you've got some important character creation choices to make. With every stat, attribute, skill and discipline directly influencing how you can play the game, it's paramount to find the setup that best suits your playing style, as you can approach quests pretty much any way you want. The same applies to conversations, with extra dialogue options made available depending on whether your character is charismatic, seductive or brutish. It's also important to choose the right vampire clan (there are seven to pick from) as some suit certain playing styles better than others.

The game starts off fairly slowly, with the first couple of hours proving to be by far the weakest in the game. But it's not long before things start to heat up, and you'll quickly find that you're utterly engrossed by the sheer magnitude of the game's options and merits.

As well as the main plot, LA is simply spilling over with believable characters who posses their very own back story. Most of these will either offer you missions (and of course rewards), or somehow be directly involved in the seemingly infinite number of sub-quests on offer. However, LA's less important denizens aren't quite so convincing, often milling around with little purpose other than to provide you with a handy source of blood when your supplies run low, and making the city look populated.

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Graphically, Bloodlines is certainly impressive, but again, never reaches the heady heights of Half-Life 2, with characters displaying fairly convincing facial expressions but lacking the blemished-skin details which made its cousin's characters so believable. The physics system though, is fairly unconvincing.

Clipping and sound are also problematic, both sporting their fair share of glitches, but the soundtrack is consistently superb, proving a perfect accompaniment to the unsettling, sleazy world around you.

Perhaps the game's biggest shortfall is the third-person melee combat, which is clumsy, unbalanced and fairly unsatisfying. While the first-person shooting sections are entertaining and challenging, - though very occasionally enemies won't respond when shot - these third-person encounters feel utterly out of kilter with the rest of the game, and for some strange reason, melee weapons are often more effective than guns.

Perhaps Bloodline's strongest attribute - along with its irresistible charm and ocean-deep immersion - is its script. Rarely has a game so masterfully told a tale, so convincingly portrayed characters and so accurately provided them with such lifelike personalities and dialogue. But the script's strengths don't stop there. Turn on a radio and listen to the hilarious radio show phone ins and commercial breaks, or flick on a nearby TV and watch as the news reader reports major events that have taken place in LA - most if not all linked to your actions - and you'll see just how much detail and thought has gone into creating a believable, captivating world and story.

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