When Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines first launched in 2004, it was lauded for the quality of writing found in both the main story and character dialogue. Critics called it a flawed masterpiece with one of the main flaws being how stiff, unresponsive, and nonsensical the combat was throughout the game.
Ranged weapons felt frustrating since accuracy was based on skill points instead of the player's actual aim, knockback felt unfair and happened often, and combat scenarios with multiple targets often ended in death for the player. Truncated development timelines, which also led to a hefty amount of bugs, didn't help the situation.
"They tried to do many things at the same time. Thanks to the Source engine, there was a rather competent shooter laid on top of this third-person type of perspective, which I think they had a hard time getting right," Florian Schwarzer, senior producer at Paradox Interactive tells Gamasutra. "That was on top of what this essentially a short distance wrestling system with the feeding mechanic on top of a fully articulate stealth game. I think if you do something like this today, you're going to have a hard time. I think back then it was almost impossible."
Now, more than 15 years later, a sequel to Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines is coming in 2020. While the writing is still the primary focus for a big part of the fandom, the teams at developer Hardsuit Labs and publisher Paradox Interactive are trying to rework the combat into something better while still keeping in line with the essence of the original game.
Feeling a bloodlust
"The combat system in the sequel is primarily focused on the idea that you are the weapon," Schwarzer said, adding that the feeling of being a vampire is the whole point of the game. "You are not a counter-terrorism specialist that needs to strap on a lot of gear, you are the badass."
Schwarzer said that that mindset led to a focus on forward motion, speed of movement, and the power imbalance between humans and vampires. Playing a vampire, even a weak one when you first begin your adventure, should make fighting humans somewhat trivial. Coupling your characters strength with quick movements based on forward motion, helped instill a feeling of power in the player.
Vampires are more durable and much stronger than humans, and the combat design reflects that. You'll deal more damage with melee weapons, like a crowbar, than humans and ranged weapons deal less damage to you due to an inherent capability called soak. Vampires absorb a set amount of damage before they start to get hurt. Dealing with humans, who often come in numbers, will be different than fighting another vampire.
"So attacking a vampire enemy with a ranged weapon is good for slowing them down," Schwarzer said. "But it isn't immediately as effective as going into close range, for example, and cutting them."
Schwarzer mentioned having different strategies and some approaches wouldn't be as effective to certain enemy types, like using ranged weapons against other vampires, but the player could always default to some of their vampire abilities, including the ability to drain an enemy's blood.
While Hardsuit Labs is trying to have a more focused approach to combat, by keeping it limited to a first-person perspective, they still want to offer the variety the original game had. The original game's enemies were simple, as they combat scenarios with them had to work for players who valued stealth, others who preferred melee combat, those who wanted to get in gunfights, and other types of gameplay.
"You got into that place where melee combat encounters would almost always feel very similar to the last encounter," Schwarzer said. "That's because your enemy behaviors couldn't be that complex because they also had to work in shooter scenarios," Schwarzer added that the team is still going for a similar variety, but is working from a base where you can always play the fall back on your vampire abilities if something else isn't working against an enemy.
We're not flying a kite anymore
On top of addressing the issues fans had with the first game, Hardsuit Labs needed to make first-person combat fresh for a player base that's used to a new standard of quality. "Something we focused on very early in development was making sure that your attack would always go hand-in-hand with movement," Schwarzer said after I mentioned other games with first-person combat. "Kiting, that thing where you run a backpedal and keep hitting enemies as they come at you. That is one of these strategies that a lot of players form because it works, but it also makes combat feel quite floaty in the end.
"If you've ever done martial arts, you'll find that your body moves in the directions of your attack," he added, later adding that Hardsuit Labs was inspired by Dishonored's fast-paced combat systems. "That's been something we've taken into consideration from the beginning."
The development team wanted to avoid the typical pitfalls of first-person RPG combat, backpedaling shouldn't be a needed strategy since strong moves use that forward movement. Some moves may be more difficult to connect, but each movement is more meaningful.
Another big part of kiting is enemy attack behavior. In the original Bloodlines and other first-person action titles, enemies rush you all at once and bunch up right in front of you. "No human, even if they try to gang up on you, will behave like that because they have a chance of hitting each other," Schwarzer said. "Your AI needs to reflect that." He believes that AI is better this time around, but they are still working on it heading into 2020.
Other typical pitfalls also include poor animation and sound design that can lead to attacks not connecting in a way that gives the player satisfying feedback. Schwarzer believes those issues have been solved by having an extended development period for Bloodlines 2, giving the team more time to look at how they can improve the combat camera.
"The majority of combat in Bloodlines happened in smaller environments and you had a third-person camera, which you couldn't switch from in melee combat, that was usually three steps behind you," Schwarzer said. "So it usually had a lower angle and if you have that setup, with a melee combat system, you're body starts obscuring things and making it harder to see what you're fighting."
Most combat, outside special moves that move the camera in third-person, will happen in first-person in Bloodlines 2. Hardsuit Labs wanted to make sure the player could always retain an orientation and sense of their surroundings.
"It's one of those things where you focus on a thing and make it good," Schwarzer said. "It's another set of challenges that you don't have to take on if you decide to make one thing really good." Even though you don't see your legs and torso throughout the story, the body is fully animated for the entire game. So those combat animation should be more established, even if you aren't seeing them all the time.
Fantasy isn't about statistics
Bloodlines and Bloodlines 2 are both built on the White Wolf's role-playing game Vampire: The Masquerade and many of the tabletop rules that come with it. The first game featured a progression system where players would level up different abilities, attributes, and vampire disciplines. Skill points spent on attributes and abilities meant improving the effectiveness of skills like lock-picking, brawling, and ranged weapon usage.
"You can't just try to translate everything. My favorite example here is that if I add another point of dexterity in the tabletop game I get another dice in my hand and that feels good because it's more control in my hand," Schwarzer said. "If I get a similar XP investment in our game and it gives me a plus ten percent better chance to hit, which is mechanically the same thing, it's not going to feel good. I'm pulling the trigger, I should be able to hit that."
Hardsuit Labs had a back and forth over how to adapt the mechanics 5th edition of Vampire The Masquerade tabletop game. They wanted to have the progression of a role-playing game but did not want to translate everything to areas like combat in the sequel.
"So instead of percentage base boosts on accuracy, a lot of the role-playing based progression systems give a passive bonus to improve marksman abilities," Schwarzer said. "They also plan to have active bonuses but don't have specifics on those set in stone yet."
Schwarzer couldn't get into too many of the weeds about what specific passive abilities they'd be including. He didn't want to commit to something they were currently working on that may or may not make it into the final build of the game next year.
"It's more about you unlocking additional abilities as a vampire who's decided they like using guns," Schwarzer said. "The same thing would happen if you were a vampire looking at more melee weapon options. The idea is to open more opportunities and more options as you gain experience."