A toothless action RPG facade conceals an immersive and imaginative adventure.
There is a certain burgeoning philosophy that I and several others are starting to embrace regarding how much "game" modern video games truly require in order to succeed as entertainment. In slightly less ambiguous terms, how necessary it is in this enlightened modern era of video games to include the type of scenario where the game might momentarily halt its narrative flow to indulge the player with an extended sequence of non-stop action before coming back around to an interchange with a boss character or some such dialogue-driven encounter. When a game includes sequences of this type for the sake of nothing more than some perceived mandate of being necessary to qualify as a video "game", it can be difficult for developers to implement this apparently crucial level of interaction in such a way that it melds seamlessly with the story they are trying to tell. Ludonarrative dissonance and all that.
I mention this because this dissonance is the chief flaw of Troika's Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines. The venerable Vampire: The Masquerade campaign setting--one of several in White Wolf Publishing's World of Darkness universe of table-top RPGs--is chiefly concerned with cunning and duplicity. While there is plenty of focus in developing a character's martial prowess and situations where armed conflict is the only recourse, it is a setting that favors a player's ingenuity and resourcefulness in talking their way out of problems and keeping to the shadows whenever possible. Indeed, the very conceit of "the Masquerade"--a code of conduct vampires are to follow in order to effectively hide in human society--would appear to embody the notion that discretion is the better part of valor in this world.
Given all that, the Vampire the Masquerade setting seems like a curious choice to adapt for a video game. The systems involved tend to be far more geared towards core role-playing - that is, pretending to be another entity and making decisions to determine your role in the story, rather than simply rolling dice and letting random numbers decide your fate. Experience is meted out only for achieving primary and secondary quest objectives, with occasional bonuses for difficult accomplishments, but none at all for defeating enemies or lockpicking or any other minor instance of flexing a skill; the game simply wants you to achieve its objectives and does not mind how you go about doing it, though there is frequently a preferred path. In this sense VtM:B is far more like Deus Ex or Alpha Protocol than a traditional RPG of the Dungeons & Dragons archetype: the player can often choose between paths involving stealth, brute force, diplomacy and deception to reach their objectives and can customize and develop their character's skillset to emphasize one or more of those avenues.
Unfortunately, it would not be inaccurate to say that the combat of VtM:B is absolutely the worst element of the game: it is sloppy, it is stiff and the difficulty of the boss encounters fluctuates wildly from case to case. Likewise, the stealth system - the alternative the game provides for getting through its many "combat zones" - can be equally ungainly in how poorly its in-depth detection system seems to relay necessary information. Conversely, the script is fantastically written by someone clearly very familiar with the source material and is able to adroitly draw from the many contributions that talented designers and writers have made to the fiction during the many years of its existence. Dialogue with the game's many named NPCs feels natural (or as natural as talking to vampires and demons can get) and each has a personality and perspective that is so well-defined that you will even want to occasionally revisit them for more flavor dialogue after major story events. There are a few highlights outside of interacting with NPCs as well involving a couple of missions during which the game's horror setting is brought to the forefront: utterly eerie scenarios created for no other reason than to engender some scares and tension. These instances are lamentably few and far between, but still manage to generate some of the game's most memorable moments.
VtM:B is graphically serviceable, though it is slightly disingenuous to make a value judgement almost a decade after its original release. The NPCs have a lot of animated character to their faces, though the animation for bodies is relatively lacking. Superficial flourishes can be found everywhere in the game, from font changes for ability-enabled dialogue choices (such as the flowery pink cursive that signifies an opportunity to use the player's Seduction skill) to the many ultimately immaterial messages, newspaper headlines, emails, radio shows and other background details. It all demonstrates some effective world-building, as do a large amount of unrelated history lessons NPCs will provide regarding the wider universe of Vampire: the Masquerade and its denizens, and gives the game a lot of its unique character.
It is a shame that Troika felt like the game needed to include so many areas filled with enemies that the player must either ineffectually chop and gun down or awkwardly try to sneak past. Without these sequences the game would be far shorter and be almost entirely focused on conversation, and given Activision's involvement it is easy to understand how that hypothetical product would have turned to ash in the light of day. An unfortunate reality for many larger games that suffer from this "games need to be more gameplay than storytelling" paradigm, though I suppose there is no real excuse for why the combat sequences could not have been better. Equally inexcusable are the many bugs in the game that occasionally break missions and necessitate restarts, though the game's generous auto-saving feature ensures that you never have to go back too far. As sympathetic as their situation was to try and craft a big RPG that was more focused on roleplaying than combat in a medium that greatly favors the opposite, Troika's far from blameless for why this game failed to achieve what it set out to do.
Overall it is hard to recommend this game to a casual audience and proponents of the loot-driven, combat-focused games of the CRPG genre should steer clear. The sort of RPG enthusiast who appreciates a good story and an immersive, unusual setting can find a lot here to sink their teeth into, however.