PERSONALITY Werner Spahl
NUTSHELL After three years of development and wrestling with the Source engine while it was still in Beta, Troika was compelled to release their game early and unfinished. But then a German chemist decided to embark on a vision quest to see it restored to glory...
Bloodlines was a disaster. Like so many of the games I write about in this column, it tried to be more than what the technology of the day made possible. Except not really - this time, the missing parts and broken scripting events were the result of the team at Troika running out of time. And they ran out of time because - aside from obvious corporate skulduggery - they simply wanted to do too much.
This outing in White Wolf’s World of Darkness RPG universe took two important “second places”. It was the second Vampire: The Masquerade game, following Nihilistic’s Redemption in 2000. And it was the second Source game, released insanely on the SAME DAY as Half-Life 2. It basically disappeared under Gordon Freeman’s HEV-booted foot.
Yet back in 2000 Redemption too had been a flawed project. Built on its own 3D engine before anyone knew what the hell was going to be the standard, it ran badly on PCs with less than 128MB of RAM (snigger) and only benefited Glide-compatible 3D accelerators rather than anything using OpenGL or Direct3D (as DirectX was once known). It had pathing problems, and scripting issues.
But it also had a loyal following thanks to its compelling gameworld - which both games owe to a pen-and-paper RPG - solid writing, deep gameplay, and a funky “game master” multiplayer mode. So it made sense for Activision to have another go at White Wolf’s IP, this time with a hot developer and even hotter new 3D tech.
The Source engine had debuted at E3 in 2003, showing astonishing “physics effects” (throwing a mattress in water and seeing it float, various barrel tricks) and emotive facial animations on the characters. This would be perfect for a dark vampire story full of political intrigue and shocking reveals.
So Troika got its access to Source before Half-Life 2 came out, and quickly learned that trying to build a game using a third party engine that’s still in Beta was more than a challenge.
Development dragged on. Redemption, the first game, had been completed in two years by a small team. This was a much bigger production. It was hugely ambitious, even in a world where Deus Ex existed.
There were four main level hubs each with many smaller levels branching off them. The combat system had 25 weapon options and let players specialise in ranged or melee fighting. It had a sophisticated stealth system. And taking a leaf from a book that wouldn’t be written for at least a decade, there were nine playable races, seven classes, and a special kind of crazy vampire clan (the Malkavian) with totally different dialogue trees and choices.
It was huge. Sure, today we’ve got Divinity: Original Sin 2 coming out and The Witcher 3 has hundreds of hours of gameplay and thousands of scripted events, but back in 2003 the tools to create these kinds of things were unsophisticated, and anything but ergonomic.
So Activision ran out of patience and gave Troika an immovable deadline. The team crunched like they’d never crunched before, but the end result was a bastardised version of their great vision. Quests, characters and even entire levels were excised. The endgame became little more than a sprint through a sewer. The players who noticed the game at all in the middle of the Half-Life 2 fanfare could SEE that there was something special here, it just needed to be, and pun intended, resurrected.
One man took up the challenge. Actually, that’s unfair, a whole community took up the challenge, but one man made it his obsession. Werner Spahl, an analytical chemist from Munich turned his love of tinkering with games into a decade-long mission to see Bloodlines become the game it should always have been.
It was the videogame equivalent of restoring an oil painting by a 16th century master that had been infested with mould. Clues to the game’s true form were buried in the data - extra character models, outlines for levels, hints as to how missing quests should play out.
Spahl’s real inspiration was to harness the passion of the Vampire community to help him on his quest.
From 3D modelling to voice-acting, the community has worked on the game ever since - the latest release of the patch that adds in missing content (rather than merely fixing what came in the box) was released in March this year. There’s every chance that it will never be truly finished, such is the scope of this sprawling, many-threaded Vampire epic.
These days we take for granted our ultra-content-stuffed games. Our Steam libraries are filled with RPGs and indie adventures that many of us will probably never finish or “beat”, if you want to use the more irritating expression.
To us, infinite worlds and endless procedural generation are considered de rigueur. Scripted sequences that make whiteboards burst spontaneously into flame are the very least we expect. Check out our Divinity: Original Sin 2 preview: that game is the interactive equivalent of the Wheel of Time novels. Probably. Certainly it’s much bigger than the actual Wheel of Time game (a future trip down memory lane). And over in console-land you have JRPGs like Persona 4 Golden, which fans say doesn’t really pick up pace until “after the 20th hour”. Sheesh.
Spare a thought, the next time you run through a $30 million digital playground full of NPCs and monsters and seasons and weather and environmentally reactive music, for those small teams back in 1998 and 2002, all crammed together in one room, just trying to make something they could be proud of.
And being beaten, time and time again, by their own ambition.