Pop quiz time. Identify the following:
"Hello ... my name is Plug One and, um, let me tell you a little about myself. I like Twizzlers, and I like the alligator bob, and my favorite drama movie is "Blood Sucking Freaks," just like yo' mama... ."
If you guessed something like, "That's Contestant Three's self introduction, as featured on De La Soul's breakthrough magnum-dopus-dazzle-wax and audio gameshow, 'Three Feet High and Rising'!" you'd be right. If you're still guessing what hip-hop wunderbloods De La Soul have to do with ActiVision's Vampire: The Masquerade Redemption, then reread the last phrase in the above quote. No, not the one about your mom, the one preceding it. That's right. V:TM Redemption is filled with blood-sucking freaks, and if killer storytelling, incredible graphics, and smooth-as-silk-capes gameplay and camera control still matter, it's going to be a HUGE hit.
With so much to recommend this title, it seems sensible to dispense with the reasons this game gets only four stars out of five from the start. First and foremost, this review focuses on game performance after downloading the Version 1.1 patch. Before this patch was available, V:TM Redemption's most egregious flaw was the lack of any manual save function. When this game first hit the shelves, the only save available to players was the autosave that occured at the completion of each level. Fortunately, the patch corrected this problem, and players can now save at will. Still, instances of clipping appear throughout the game. Now, I no longer remark too much on graphic clipping in reviews because it is such a ubiquitous phenomenon in pc gaming, and it's usually a cosmetic glitch that doesn't affect gameplay. In V:TM Redemption, however, players run into a clipping problem so severe on one level ("London: Temple of Set") that it actually prevents them from completing the level. On this level, players may run their coterie characters through a door that is otherwise impenetrable, thus locking their characters in a wing of the temple from which there is no escape. Of course, if players properly activate the door before entering this wing, then there's no problem. There's not even a problem if one character slips through this erstwhile barrier; other members of the coterie can open the door properly and then follow. Unfortunately, my coterie was strategically grouped, and ran pell-mell through the barricade en masse, only to be trapped in the level.
Another significant problem was the complicated and unreliable multiplayer mode of the game. Because V:TM Redemption is based upon a popular role-playing gaming system, it is ideally suited to multiplayer online gaming. Unfortunately, every time I tried to create a character for multiplayer gaming, my machine would freeze, reboot or die altogether (an ironic set of circumstances in respect to a game about the undead, if you ask me). Admittedly, registering and logging on to the WON servers was easy-peasy. But actually trying to prepare to play on the damned things was another matter entirely. Perhaps I missed some crucial step in the sequence, but after enough failed attempts at multiplayer, I contented myself with singleplayer mode. Still, it is a shame that V:TM Redemption's multiplayer options remained so buggy for this review. If the sourcebook and strategy guide for the game are reliable indicators, then V:TM Redemption multiplayer possesses enough depth and originality to set this game in its own distinctive niche, as well as to warrant a separate review. We'll see. For now, though, discussing singleplayer gameplay will have to do.
As mentioned above, V:TM Redemption is a spin-off of a successful role-playing game series of the same title. To be honest, because of this fact, I was initially reluctant to review this title. See, I was never really into role-playing, and the whole vampire schtick has always seemed a little gratuitous and pretentious. You know what I mean. We all know the Anne Rice fan or two, and the pack of goths who hang out in front of the 7-11, not to mention the bored androgen with whitened skin and blackened eyes and lips who staffs the local Sam Goody or the concession stand at the movie house down the street. All the clothes, all the affectation of evil seems so ... so ... Wednesday Addams. To my surprise and delight, though, V:TM Redemption is all about things far less precious. Indeed, in V:TM Redemption, the very fate of the world, over several centuries, is in players' hands.
Players begin the game as Christof, a French noble and medieval crusader. Initially, he is a human whose vows of fealty to the crusade are fatally challenged by the pure affections of a young Czech nun, Anezka. Very quickly, though, both of our protagonists become embroiled in dark, undead plots that concern the world's well-being. I won't go into too many details, but will venture to claim that V:TM Redemption offers one of the best stories around which a pc game has been structured. What makes the storytelling in V:TM Redemption so good? Namely, it's this continual tension between personal desire and personal responsibility to some greater good. This theme not only serves as V:TM Redemption's leitmotif, but it also provides the most crucial strategic guideline for players who, while maneuvering coteries of vampires through transchronistic undead realms, must retain some of their humanity in order to finish the game. Of course, players can choose to forego their humanity for whatever reason--the necro-erotic spectacle of draining innocent humans of their life essence or the blood-drenched thrill of watching vampires on a slaughtering frenzy--but their game will be severely limited and will end before it should.
After successfully vanquishing a hideous vampire queen as a mortal, Christof is "embraced" into a vampire clan, the noble Brujah, who from time immemorial have fought to preserve the delicate relationship between the living and the undead. Rival clans, especially the twisted and arrogant Tzimisce, continually seek to destroy this balance through the ages. To reflect this eternal conflict, the game begins in Central Europe in the middle ages and concludes on New Year's Eve 2000, NYC. (Dick Clark, we're on to you now, man!) As suggested above, though, what makes V:TM Redemption such a fantastic game is the fact that this larger spiritual war serves as the sinister backdrop to Christof and Anezka's tragic romance. But this sub-plot is only one rich layer of the satisfying complexity that makes up this game.
As Christof proceeds through the game, he joins forces with and battles against various representatives of the thirteen vampire clans, all of whom either support the Tzimisce or Brujah cause. Indeed, by the time Christof awakens in the twentieth century, the clans are either extinct or have allied themselves with one side or the other. While all vampires possesses the same Traits (like Strength, Charisma, and Wit) and can learn the same families of Disciplines (like Dominate, Obfuscate and Presence), different clans have affinities for particular traits and disciplines. One of Christof's early allies, for example, is Serena the Cappadocian. The Cappadocians are the quintessential students of death and masters of necromancy. As such, they are not very strong or quick, but they more than make up for this lack of brute force with their exceptional intelligence and wit. Also, the Cappadocians are renowned for their mastery of the Mortis Disciplines, which are powerful necromantic spells allowing players to raise the dead or spread powerful, soul-choking contagion. As Christof (and other characters) gain experience, however, players can allocate points to Traits and Disciplines as they desire. So Christof might end up as powerful a necromancer as his Cappadocian ally by the time players reach the end of the game.
One of the truly remarkable features of V:TM Redemption is the capability to play several characters at once, up to a maximum of four characters in a coterie. Initially, I thought this feature sucked; I was content to maneuver Christof alone through a traditional FPS (here, the "S" stands for "slasher") scenario. But as Christof gains allies, one of the truly challenging aspects of the game becomes players' ongoing attempts to preserve their coterie's humanity and to restrain them, if possible, from becoming frenzied. When characters go into frenzy, then they run the risk of submitting to torpor, which effectively removes them from play until another member of the coterie can once again awaken them. Indeed, coterie play is fun and rewarding precisely because it allows players to lead with characters other than Christof, and depending upon the species of vampires and monsters that populate a given level, players must choose who will prove the most resilient and effective leader in a particular scenario. Of course, players can switch coterie leaders at any given time with the click of the mouse, which makes gameplay dynamic and at times chaotic.
Admittedly, once players get the hang of the coterie interface, then gameplay is pretty consistent: lots of running interspersed with intermittant combat that finally concludes in a brawl with some big baddie. Despite this archtypical pattern, what seems to keep players playing V:TM Redemption is the exceptional story that drives the game. In addition, the house that developed V:TM Redemption, White Wolf, deserves a fat, phat bone for designing one of the most beautifully rendered, textured and fully realized 3D games currently on the shelves. While V:TM Redemption's gameplay, at least as I've thus far described it, probably sounds remarkably like Baldur's Gate or Diablo, what sets this title apart is the fact that players can actually see characters and combat. Indeed, in what is surely an exception in the industry, the game actually looks better than the cut scenes, although there is an admirable visual continuity between the environment and character rendering in the movies and in the game itself. And the camera in V:TM Redemption is astounding! The last game I played that attempted such smooth and versatile camera control was Prince of Persia 3D, and it was one of the most embarrassing components of that game. In V:TM Redemption, on the other hand, the camera control is effortless and effective, and actually affects player strategy and gameplay in ways that may revolutionize HCI. Not only can players see action and environments on the monitor, they can actually control how the V:TM Redemption world appears to them, and in so doing, they become game designers in their own right. The game's worth getting for its camera alone.
Finally, I must admit that V:TM Redemption's several window interfaces--Quest, Discipline, Character, and Inventory--seemed daunting at first. But the interface is actually very logically designed and accessible. Players quickly learn how to navigate between windows in part, no doubt, on account of the game's exceptional AI, which is always helpful and very seldom intrusive. Other than that, the levels of complexity offered in V:TM Redemption are nothing Diablo and Baldur's Gate players haven't seen before. In short, V:TM Redemption utilizes and improves upon these now standard pc gaming components in such a way that players can enjoy a remarkably visually and narratively cohesive, thoroughly immersive gaming experience. So while it would nice to close with some cutesy, predictable pun on "suck" or "sucking" in reference to V:TM Redemption, it would be misleading to do so. Nope. It comes down this: You want riveting, unpredictable storytelling? V:TM Redemption's got it. Graphics that will impress even the most cynically hardened SGI jock? V:TM Redemption's got them. Camera control that actually allows players to immerse themselves in brilliantly conceived and rendered 3D environments? V:TM Redemption's got that, too. Just like yo' mama.