Saturday, 2 May 2009

Dead in Seconds 4: Vampires in Prague

I have commented before how over the years I have often bought games to play on my personal computer as a kind of retail therapy and often ended up not playing them. This was more of an issue in the early 2000s where the memory capacity of computers was less and you could easily fill them installing 8-10 reasonable games. Anyway, now that I have found that my current computer has reached its limit in being able to run the latest games (it can only just get 'Empire Total War' on and then crashes), I have gone back to my stash of old games. Of course, despite all the greater graphics, audio, etc. of newer games, this is not a guarantee of playability and sometimes old games still have certain aspects that still make them enjoyable. I was bemoaning the fact that I can no longer find a computer than runs 'Shogun Total War' (2000). The more recent 'Total War' games may have larger armies, more complex landscapes and so on, but there is still much to enjoy in the first in the series. Aesthetically it is pleasing, especially the music and sound effects and the map on which the action takes place. In addition, compared to 'Rome Total War', 'Medieval Total War', et al, it is more constrained. You are not fighting for centuries across the whole of Europe, North Africa and Asia Minor, you have the islands of Japan and clans with different characteristics. The battling may be less sophisticated, but having the genuine troop types of 16th Japan is interesting for a wargamer, and though the Buddhist warrior monks are strong, they are not immensely more powerful than the average soldiers in the way you get distortions in the other Total War games with troops such as the Byzantine Kataphracts and the Mongol warriors.

Another game I dug out recently and am thoroughly enjoying is 'Vampire: The Masquerade - Redemption' (2000). I have mentioned the later game, 'Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines' (2004) which was one of the most frustrating releases in personal computer gaming. It had an incredibly detailed story background, seven clans you could be a member of with a wide range of abilities, an interesting setting in contemporary Los Angeles and the most scary environments I have ever come across in a computer game, but you had to download 23 patches before it worked and then most players found they had to abandon the game when they came up against particularly strong opponents they could not defeat no matter what skills you had developed or equipment you had.

Apparently 'Redemption' was originally plagued by bugs, but I have a re-release version from Xplosiv, rather than an Activision original, which presumably had all the patches installed. The issue about coming up against near-impossible opponents presumably dented this game's reception as it would later with 'Bloodlines'. Of course finding a computer that runs games from 2000 these days is pretty hard but I am glad I held on to one of my older machines. Of course some of the animation looks rather primitive nine years on, but this is balanced by an interesting setting. In its day, the graphic effects, especially the shadows caused by different light sources, which is quite impressive even now, must have seemed very impressive.

Both the 'Vampire: The Masquerade' computer games are based on the paper-based RPG (role-playing game) of the same name, which was released in 1991. This was a good move because that game's 'World of Darkness' gives a well rounded setting for the computer games, in contrast to the often rather hastily imagined settings that are thought up for some. It is a world like our own but in which there are rival vampire clans, werewolves and vampires. The conflict between different clans gives an interesting basis for stories. However, because the computer games originate in a paper-based game, they are equipped with that machinery rather than, for example, the skills development, the gaining of spells, etc. being set up to work in the computer game's particular context. This means that without a walkthrough you can easily end up developing a character with all the exciting spells and abilities, but who is utterly useless in completing the particular missions you are sent on in the computer game. I ran into this problem and it was only after I read a walkthrough that I realised rather than going for interesting high-level abilities, I should simply stick to developing the vampire characters' ability to 'feed', i.e. drink blood. This makes all the other abilities you can gain seem a waste of time.

I suppose there is always going to be a tension between paper-based RPGs which emphasise players working as a team and each making the most of whatever skills and equipment they have and often using 'work arounds', and computer game versions, which however hard they try, have a difficulty in shaking off a linear path through the game. What I suppose I am asking for is not to have a single solution like one weapon from the whole range you can use, being the only solution. At least give the player a range of alternatives at crucial points. If there is to be one solution, at least give the player the chance to find that out within the game and not having to rely on walkthroughs. Without alternatives or the necessary information, playing the game stops being entertainment and becomes some kind of scientific exercise in trying to work out what the game's creators were thinking. Do not provide a score of potential abilities just for decoration. Either allow them to be able to contribute or leave them out of the game.

One interesting thing is that unlike in some computer role-playing games, in 'Redemption' some of your abilities start off very poor. This is most obvious if Romauld is using a bow and you have not severely raised his Dexterity (which you cannot do as you need to put experience points into his Feed ability). You can be standing firing at short range at an opponent and the arrows keep flying passed, not hitting. Arrows seem incredibly weak and it is best to use them to simply attract the opponent to you to fight. In groups many opponents are unbeatable so constantly in this game, you have to run in then run back out again, getting one opponent to follow. You kill them, then go back and attract another and so on. This strategy dominates much of the game.

The other problem which I have noted before with first/third person fighting games, especially 'Gun', is the 'now you tell me' problem. This not only extends to the kind of skills you need to develop but also the equipment you need to keep or buy. A classic case happens when you are sent to defeat a golem which is rampaging in the Jewish quarter of Prague. The golem has been created by a rabbi to protect the Jewish population of the city, but its control has been subverted by a vampire. To win at least benign neutrality from the Jews, the Brujahs want to stop it. The golem is a very tough opponent and as with many others in this game, can kill you with a single blow. The best thing to use to fight against him is a scroll that summons a rock elemental, a kind of smaller version of the golem. The elemental distracts the golem, fights on almost equal terms with him and allows you to get a decent blow in (running from the cramped area where the golem first appears into a street where both your fighters and your elemental can collaborate also helps). Can you buy the scroll just before you go into battle with the golem? Of course not. You have to have bought it before you embarked on the first mission underneath the monastery, resolving an internal dispute among the Cappodocian vampires, at a time when you had no idea you would be fighting a golem. By the time you come to face the golem, miraculously the shop selling the spell no longer stocks it, though it had it an hour before.

One thing I do like about 'Redemption' is that when on most of the missions, you can break off and head out of the dungeons or caves you are in. This allows you to unload the stuff you have picked up, spend some of the gold and silver you have found on more equipment and even upgrade on the skills you need to complete the mission you are undertaking. This is a fairer approach. Of course, one hazard with this game, is the bulk of the action takes place at night with medieval level lighting, so it can be very difficult to find the particular tunnel you came down to get to where you are. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to get back to the surface and finding yourself literally going in circles. I recommend dropping coins or rags or unidentified objects (which can sometimes be hazardous, especially the bottles of diseased blood) along the way to mark your trail and collecting them when you finally leave. The worst location for this is the Bonn silver mines where you do your first mission, but others can be quite bewildering too.

The options in 'Redemption' are naturally more limited than in 'Bloodlines'. You do not get to design your character, though you do get to develop him. This is Christof Romauld, a French crusader fighting Pagans in eastern Europe in 1141 CE who ends up injured and convalescing in Prague where he is drawn into battles between various vampire clans. Whilst a religious man, he falls victim to affection for the nun who tends him, Anezka. Romauld's defeat of a leading Tzmiscie vampire who has taken over nearby silver mines leads to him being turned into a vampire by the Brujah clan and Aneszka being made into a 'ghoul' a human addicted to vampire blood and empowered with some of their strengths by the Tzmiscie.

In the game as with 'BloodRayne', you have to keep up your blood supply by feeding from people or animals or drinking bottles of blood. You also have to keep your health up and also stop yourself going into frenzy. If your blood level is low or if the opponents use certain spells, your characters frenzy and you lose control and you sit back and watch them get slaughtered or attack other people. The only solution seems to be constant visits to the local monastery where the brothers let you feed on them without attracting the attention of heavily armed soldiers which generally happens if you try feeding from anyone else in the cities. Balancing these elements is fine and interesting but challenging and this is why Feed becomes really the only skill you worry about and you neglect all the other interesting abilities you could develop.

The story had Romauld sent on various missions on behalf of Ecaterina the leading Brujah in Prague and he begins to gather a band of other vampires to help him. This is handled pretty well. As with any adventuring team, they have different abilities. You can jump between the different characters to control them directly and the others follow the one you are controlling, around. I do not know of any other 'squad' game, aside from things like 'Wizardry 8' (2001, but it looks much older; interesting range of races you can play) that are not set in modern warfare from the Second World War onwards. Of course even 'Redemption' ends in modern times. The faces of the squad show how they are feeling and if they are being attacked, which is a nice shot. They reel back from blows in the display at the bottom. You can set your squad to 'defensive', 'neutral' or 'offensive' stance, but as I have noted before in postings, in common with so many characters in first/third person fighting games, they have no sense of self-preservation.

This becomes a very serious problem when you are sent on a daylight mission in St. Stephan's Cathedral in Vienna. You creep through the shadows, but there are certain sections in which you have to go through sunlight which burns up the vampires. Do they run for cover in the shadows? No, they stand in the middle of the sunlight moaning how it is burning them. If you try to ferry them across by controlling them yourself, one at a time, this fails as the others, even those who have reached refuge come back to where you are, back in the sunlight. It is not impossible to do, but it is very difficult. Always dying because of a single blow or because your troops are suicidal undermines the gameplay experience. Dying because you made a mistake is fine, but arbitrary death especially from stupidity among people you cannot control is no fun. The 'hit and run' strategy is difficult when you have four people all trying to get through a doorway together, literally bumping into each other, and then try to get back out of the room quickly before the whole gang of opponents starts stabbing you in the back. It soon leads to disaster and frustration from the game player. I suppose this shows the game's age and the weakness of NPC (non-player character) A.I. (artificial intelligence).

What I like about this game, despite these flaws and knowing that my characters can turn a corner and be dead before I know what is happening, are the settings. The equipment the characters use is generally correct for the period, though the halberds (in peak usage c. 1315-1422 CE), three-head warhammers (particularly popular in the 13th century), the claymore (late 15th to early 17th centuries), poignards (14th-17th centuries) and platemail armour (from 14th century onwards but only in the form seen in the game in the 15th century) are rather before their time in being used in the 12th century. The 'bastion' seems to be the name of a polearm only found in RPGs and the historical equivalent would seem to be the glaive (which is first mentioned in the 16th century), or alternatively a bill (used from the 10th-16th centuries) or hache or a vouge gisarme (from 12th century) but without the spike or hammer on the back. However, the round shields, the kite shields, the leather and the chainmail armour and nose-guard helmets all fit; as does, to my surprise, the Moro dagger, which appeared in Europe from 600 CE onwards.

The adventures in Vienna have more anachronisms than those in Prague, notably the Teutonic Knights in full platemail armour. The Teutonic Order of knights was not formed until 50 years after the game is set, in 1192, though as a purely monastic order it had been developing for a few years by then. Its headquarters did not move to Vienna (where they remain today) until 1809. The Order of St. John (commonly known as the Hospitallers), whose knights appear in the Prague setting, is appropriate as it was established in 1099. The arms and armour these knights are shown wearing seem suited to the mid-12th century period supposedly being portrayed.

The city environments are excellent, obviously compact, but, if like me, you have visited Prague, you will recognise locations such as the castle, Golden Lane and the Jewish sector and they where they are in relation to each other even today, though the 21st century city is far larger than its 12th century antecedent. The same applies to Vienna, though to a far lesser extent as the medieval walls were demolished to allow for the ring of streets. However, St. Stephan's is as you would expect.

It would be nice to see more 'Vampire: The Masquerade' computer games made, because in terms of setting and story, they are excellent. The flaws of 'Bloodlines' in terms of programming are going to make it unlikely. I would beg anyone designing this kind of game or something like 'BloodRayne' who does not want to antagonise potential purchasers by thinking about the dynamics of the game. Okay, there should be tough opponents and challenging puzzles, but no-one enjoys having to start again because they did not know to pick up a particular scroll before the preceeding mission. Also, can we have non-player characters who do not constantly strive to commit suicide. It is frustrating when you set up some complex plan of attack to have your friends run in to firing line with no sense of caution. I recommend 'Vampire: The Masquerade - Redemption' but also suggest that you read a decent walkthrough before playing it, then you at least stand some chance of not ending up repeating the early stages again and again in order to find the right combination of skills and equipment to pass the halfway point of the game.

P.P. 04/05/2009: I doubt there is anyone out there still playing this game, but if there is anyone I can provide a few hints that differ from some of the things you will read in online advice that remains available.

Chests and Barrels: Walkthroughs often say that you will get a particular item if you break open a chest or a barrel in a specific room. However, what you get is very random. If you replay sections you will find you will get a wide assortment of items popping up and different each time. One time you might get rags, the next very valuable chainmail armour coming from the same location. I suggest that you save game after you get a valuable item. If it is bulky then take it somewhere where you can collect it later on. You need as many Bottles of Vitae and Blood Stones as you can lay your hands on for when you do the daylight raid on the St. Stephan's Cathedral in Prague so save them up as much as possible on early missions. Take back any weapons and potions you find even if they are useless for you as you need to build up thousands of gold pieces of savings if you are going to be able to equip your four-person coterie ahead of going to Vienna by which time they all need the best armour, helmet and weapons that you can buy.

Storage: While I advise storing Bottles of Vitae and spells, especially scrolls of Awaken, do not leave things in the Vault at the University Haven as they are likely to disappear from there. I do not know if this is an element of the game or just a bug, but it can be very frustrating when you find your three carefully marshalled Blood Stones have disappeared. Instead I tend to leave them in a corridor in the Petrin Monastery and they seem perfectly safe there. The three monks there are also a useful supply of free blood which does not attract the attention of the Knights of St. John when you drain it, so I make a visit there before I set off on any mission.

Equipping Wilhem: Wilhem is the German vampire (his accent suggests he is from northern Germany, probably northern Saxony) who is the first one to join your coterie. He is a good fighter and comes with a halberd. Now two-handed weapons look good because they inflict so much damage. However, look at the speed of usage. Also bear in mind that most of your missions occur in cramped corridors and rooms with three or four of your characters battling for space. You can hear Wilhem's halberd smashing into the wall as he tries to bring it to bear on your opponents. Without a shield he also takes more damage. Get him equipped with a decent sword and a shield as soon as you can, either found or bought and sell off his halberd. He will then be a much more useful fighter in the kind of places you have to go and will survive longer.

Sharing Out the Magic: The temptation is always to give Romauld the spell books you find, notably the Thaumaturgy one from the Chantry and the Domination one from St. Stephan's. I advise against this, spread them around especially between Wilhem and Serena who both have good intelligence levels. I usually give Thaumaturgy (Blood Magic) to Wilhem as it allows him to attack opponents with blood drain. Romauld has more than enough abilities to work on, getting more does not help and giving them to his support team can be useful in melees later. Even if the A.I. leads them to run into dangerous situations, particularly sunlight, it seems far better at having them use their spell abilities unprompted.

Blood Rage is the Level 1 Blood Magic spell, and may seem quite weak, it makes opponents expend their blood pool. However, being a low level spell you can raise it quickly with the experience you gain. It proves particularly useful when facing a group of enemies, such as the clutches of Tremere in the Haus der Hexe in Vienna. If you hang back and fire it repeatedly at one of the vampires you find he turns on his fellow vampires and starts draining blood from one of them, sometimes to the extend that he kills them. As it is, this ties up two of the vampires in gang who otherwise would be attacking you. You can trigger this off with a couple of pairs of vampires and if you have Theft of Vitae too (though you need it at quite a high level to be effective against many of the Tremere, but once they are weakened by other spells or blows it can work) you can kill a couple of the vampires and having them weaken their comrades without having to strike a blow.

Serena and Fire: In walkthroughs you are advised to wait before spending any experience until Serena can learn Lure of Flames spells and then put her experience into trying to learn Fire Storm, the Level 5 spell. I tried this strategy as advised, but found it far more effective to pour all her experience into the Level 2 Lure of Flames spell, Fireball, raising this up to the 4th or 5th level of ability makes a powerful distance weapon which proves incredibly useful at St. Stephan's especially in taking out Dark Hunters and guards that are the other side of a patch of sunlight.

Ardan's Chantry: This is the mission located at the top of Golden Lane where you fight the Tremere clan. The little patches of flame provide random outcomes and these are more varied than is said in walkthroughs I have seen. Yes you might get the very useful blood stones out of them or you might get the annoying Hopper creatures that always seem to be carrying quite a lot of money. However, and this is the bit that I have not read before, you might get a huge rock elemental that resembles the Golem and is tough to beat. You may also, more rarely, get a Dark Hunter, a tough wraith-like creature. So, be very careful before approaching these little purple flames. Bear in mind when you complete this mission you are teleported back to the University so before you enter Section 4 of the Chantry make sure you have gathered up any items or put them into your store, otherwise you will have to go back through the whole place to retrieve them.

1 comment:

Rooksmoor said...

'Vampire - The Masquerade: Redemption' is now available for download to play on Windows 7 from