Upon its initial release Vampire - The Masquerade: Bloodlines was such a rushed mess that it put its developer, Troika, out of business. Let me give you a little example to illustrate my point: Its physics engine allowed you to pick up various objects and throw them around. Among these objects were bottles. The problem is, the bottles wouldn't break when they hit the ground. In a way this was almost a metaphor for the whole game. Bloodlines was an unfinished product. The bad news spread like wildfire, sales went down, and the official patch, that at least fixed the gravest problems, was released when it was already too late. Troika, one of the most dedicated development teams in the field of RPGs and responsible for such landmark titles as Fallout and such gems as Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, was out of business. I'd love to think that it wasn't their fault. But that's not true.
Some flaws still remain today. The physics engine is still very irritating on occasion, and loading times, even between relatively small areas, will test your patience. But aside from all its problems Bloodlines is a great game. The dialog is outstanding, giving each playable and non-playable character a unique tone. Spoiled upper class vamps express themselves in a rather sophisticated way, while tough street thugs sport a limited, in-your-face vocabulary. This, accompanied by the great voice acting and superb facial animation, adds a great deal to an already very immersive and open storyline, which sees the player in the middle of an almost Shakespearian plot of opposing factions, each trying to pull him on their side. In its best moments Bloodlines absorbed me almost completely into its sinister world of violence, filth, intrigue, and sexual tension, creating one of the most grown-up gaming experiences I've ever had.
And as pure gameplay is concerned, I have to disagree with Matt. His argument that someone who just likes vampires can't pick up the game because he needs knowledge of how RPGs work can be adapted to almost any videogame genre. No one who likes spies but has never played a videogame in his or her life can't just pick up Splinter Cell either. The medium of videogames tends to demand a certain degree of knowledge about its inner workings from its players, which can only be achieved by...well, playing. And in comparison to other titles, I thought that Bloodlines set of rules was transparent and easy to understand.
The amount of attributes and skills the game features is quite limited, and each one translates directly into gameplay. One crucial point in this regard is the exclusion of kill-related experience rewards. This allows nearly every level, stage and quest to be approached in a violent or non-violent, sneaky or conversational fashion. This keeps Bloodlines from becoming just another hack-and-slash. Some players, as Matt mentioned, might be put off by the fact that freedom of choice always comes with the need to exclude. I, for one, appreciated the opportunity to play the game the way I wanted to play it. And that is, on a larger scale than choosing between an axe and fireball to kill stuff. Sure, to fully grasp the complete depths of its features Bloodlines has to be played more than once. But isn't it a good thing when a single-player game offers enough variety to make me want to come back another time and try a completely different approach?
Although a small but very dedicated fan-base just released a new user-generated patch to fix some of the remaining bugs, it just might be too little, too late. (For Team Troika it is anyway.) Troika's designers are scattered all over the industry, and today Bloodlines stands as a prime example of how sloppy programming can ruin an ambitious effort, which—had it been done right—could have taken the medium a step further in the right direction.