Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines 2 received a very enthusiastic reception when it was announced earlier this year, but that enthusiasm was also accompanied by 15 years of expectations and rose-tinted memories. It's one of the reasons Paradox Interactive and Hardsuit Labs decided to delay the launch. The team wants to match those memories, says narrative director Brian Mitsoda, rather than the reality.
"From the beginning, I knew people's expectations were going to be high," Mitsoda tells me. As one of the original designers of Bloodlines, he knows what state the game was in at launch, but a lot of players have brushed those memories aside in favour of all the things it did very well.
"Everything was amazing and perfect, and characters looked so lifelike," he says. "It's happens with anything where people have this game they've played years and years and years ago, and it's so perfect in their minds. We knew expectations were going to be super high, so we have to hit that bar. Even if it's not truly the case—if you go back to the old game there are lots of flaws, and there's a lot of stuff that would not fly today."
The extra development time gives Hardsuit Labs the chance to polish up the animations and quests, hopefully getting it up to a quality that's higher than its buggy, rough progenitor. Initially, the plan was to release Bloodlines 2 in early 2020, but as the game started to come together, it became clear that hitting that deadline would require some compromises in quality.
"Generally when you're working on a game, and all those pieces start to come together, it's then when you realise that there might be aspects that you want to spend more time on, or that you could complete the game but it might be at the expense of some polish, or you might have to make some deep cuts. With the kind of reaction we got to the announcement of it, we wanted to spend more time polishing the game and really just delivering the best experience that we can."
The demos we've seen so far have been a good showcase of Bloodlines 2's writing and introduced us to some colourful characters in Seattle's undead underground, but there's still something a bit awkward about the animation, especially in combat, where you flail at enemies while they just stand there and take a beating. Most of these fights pit a supernatural killing machine against puny humans, so they're not meant to be challenging, but they could probably try a bit harder to survive.
"Everything goes in stages, and especially with combat animation it's a process," Mitsoda explains. "We control a large percentage of the animations for dialogue through a disposition system where we assign an emotion to that character, and then we use stock animation and footage that makes them seem like they're sad, for example. When you're dealing with a character face to face and you're staring at them for long periods of time, you start to run into things where you immediately notice when something's off with the characters, especially in this game, where they look more realistic than they did in the previous one."
The team also hasn't decided how much it will let you see your character. It's first-person only, but you can see your vampire boogieing away in the nightclub, feeding on humans and making supernatural leaps—stuff that's "too cool not to show," says Mitsoda. But some of that might be scaled by, or the duration of the scenes shortened. They really need to look good enough so that you don't mind seeing them over and over again. Hardsuit Labs picked first-person because it thinks it lends the game a more immersive quality, which is the same conclusion fellow RPG developer CD Projekt Red came to in Cyberpunk 2077—it will be almost exclusively first-person aside from when you're driving.
While more Bloodlines 2 demos before launch aren't out of the question, Mitsoda says they're a lot of work to put together. Hardsuit Labs was going to be showing off a new hands-on demo at PDXCon, Paradox's annual convention, last month, but that was cancelled. The original GDC demo was shown off instead.
"We've made two demos and we've spent quite a lot of time on them. If we had made a playable demo specifically for for PDXCon, then we would have been taken down for maybe months to make a demo, to polish up a specific level, specific animations and all that. Getting something to final quality means doing the work to get something to final quality, and that's why final quality is typically something that comes at the end. You've got everything all together and you've had time. To take the team down to do another demo this year would have to delayed it a little more. Rather than do a demo again, we wanted to spend our time making the game."
It's hard to get a feel for a choice-laden RPG like Bloodlines 2 when a developer playing, but I suspect most prospective players would rather Hardsuit Labs had all the time they needed to get it up to snuff. Bloodlines developer Troika was under a lot of pressure from publisher Activision to release before it was ready, which resulted in a brilliant but ultimately unfinished game at launch. It had been delayed too, but the lack of resources or even key things like a producer for its first year meant it never really had enough time. Hopefully its successor will have a different fate.
Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines 2 is due out next year.