Probably the best PC adaptation of the classic World of Darkness series of tabletop role-playing games, Vampire: the Masquerade - Bloodlines is notable for being the first game to use Valve's long running Source engine (and as a result Valve refused to let it be released until after its own Half-Life 2) as well as being the last thing that Troika, its developer, put out before ignominiously going bust. On release in November 2004, it was critically acclaimed, but nobody bought it.
It's since become a cult classic, though. I was recommended it by a fellow headbanger recently and it didn't disappoint. Although to get it working properly on modern PCs you will need to download the long-running Unofficial Patch (which also restores a fair amount of cut content).
Well, it's something like this. If you haven't played any of the cWOD tabletop games, then basically they're set in the real world but a version of it in which the monsters are real, and the players are all of a certain variety of monster, be it vampire, werewolf, wraith, fallen angel, or similar. They are all theoretically in the same continuity but this is a bit difficult due to the often contradictory nature of co-ordinating eight or nine games' worth of fluff, not to mention their different editions and expansions. But I digress. Basically, it goes like this. You, the player, are some ordinary veck from Los Angeles who succeeds in pulling one night and goes back to that boy/girl's place. Anyhow, s/he then says that she "wants to show you something," turns out to be a vampire, and turns you into one of them.
Needless to say, according to the rules of vampire society, turning people without permission from the powers that be is a serious misstep, and you and s/he are captured by agents of the local head vampire, Sebastian Lacroix, and s/he is condemned to death. You, however, are spared so long as you work for the Prince and do his bidding (although, as later will be discovered, this is basically his attempt to have you killed off on a number of suicide missions). With that, you are thrust out of the door and into the small hours of the scungier parts of LA.
Before you can do any of this, however, you have to create your character, and this is done in two ways. Either you can have a standard character sheet and fill it out yourself, or, you can have the game decide what sort of vampire you are by answering a series of questions. There's several varieties of vamp, known in-game as "clans," of which you can be one of 7 (sorry, but Camarilla clans only; if you want to be a Tzimisce and superglue your enemies' arseholes shut, then you can't), and yes, it is not just a cosmetic choice, or even a choice which sets out your skills and attributes, but the game plays in different ways according to which clan you are. If you're a Brujah then you get super strength and super speed but you're prone to completely losing your rag at the mildest provocation and entering into a frenzy twice as often as other clans. If you're a Gangrel then you also frenzy more often but have the ability to turn into a beast form where you shrug off damage like anyone's business. If you're a Malkavian then you're fantastically smart and can go almost anywhere undetected as well as having incredible insight and intuition but you are also irretrievably mad, which is manifested by speaking in riddles, hallucinations, wonky text in conversations, arguing with stop signs, and voices in your head. If you're a Nosferatu then you have unparalleled stealth skills as well as being tasty in a fight, but you're so ugly and deformed that people run screaming whenever they see you or even attack on sight, which makes entering public areas tricky. If you're Toreador then you're a fast talker and fantastically handsome but not particularly bright and prone to turning emo. If you're a Tremere then you have arse-kicking magic powers but are a bit fragile physically. And if you're Ventrue then you are the ultimate fast-talking social engineer and have the ability to warp peoples' minds but you have the downside of not being able to consume the blood of the riff raff without being violently sick. Furthermore, the clan you are will affect how different characters react to you as well as how much they may or may not like you.
For the record, the first time I played this, I did the questionnaire 20 times and 17 times out of 20 I was recommended to be Malkavian, one time I was Nosferatu, and twice I was Ventrue. I'm pretty sure this says something about me but I don't know what it is.
Anyhow. While you do have stats and ability scores and similar, they, thankfully, don't impede too much your gameplay. Rolls to attack or to do things are dispensed with and replaced by your own skill as a player. In combat, one adopts a first-person-shooter style perspective for ranged weaponry and a third-person perspective for melee combat. As such, your abilities are kicking bottom are determined by player action rather than dice rolls. You also can sneak about, and how likely you are to be discovered is a function of how well lit your current position is, whether anyone's looking your way, as well as the number of points you've ploughed into it. At any time you can deploy your special vampire abilities (known in both the tabletop game and this as Disciplines) using the mouse wheel to scroll through them and the middle button to fire them off. You also have to juggle all this while keeping tabs on your current level of hit points (thanks to a gauge on the left of the screen) and also how much blood you've got, and the latter is important because that is what powers all your abilities.
Obviously, the titular Masquerade of the title is in full force and a big element. Failure to uphold it can result in monster hunters ambushing you at inconvenient moments and they are often annoyingly heavily armed, and if you do it too much, then you can suffer a non-standard game over as the powers that be consider you too much of a liability and have you chained to an east-facing wall and left for the sunrise. You also have to square within yourself the fact that you are now a blood-crazed danger to life and limb and have a Humanity score accordingly, which it is also important to keep up by not killing innocent bystanders, shafting people unnecessarily, or similar, otherwise you devolve into a brute beast and go around mindlessly murdering your way through the city (also a non-standard game over). And, of course, coming to the attention of human law enforcement (i.e. by nomming down on people in public areas) is also best avoided, although usually because infinitely-respawning hordes of cops with large guns then come along and shoot you to pieces unless you can hide from them for a given period of time.
There is a plot, all of which revolves around a supernatural artefact known as the Ankaran Sarcophagus which everyone and his mother seemingly wants to get their hands on. There are four different factions you can side with in your travels, or you could just blow them all off and be your own master. These form the main quests in the game, but there's a whole host of side quests and things that you can toddle off doing.
But this is all very standard for modern RPGs, isn't it, I hear you ask. So why is VTMB so highly regarded?
The answer to that is, of course, atmosphere. It feels like an actual, living, breathing, world out there. You can wander round the streets of the scungier bits of LA and just watch things happen. Businessmen working late make excuse-laden phone calls to their wives about how they'll not be home that night. Gangs of ne'er-do-wells rob passers by. Drunks fall out of bars and clubs. Late night revellers go into bars and clubs and dance. Iffy looking drug deals go down in back alleys. Indeed, you yourself can go into said bars and clubs (several of which are, of course, owned by fellow vampires, natch) and try to pick up women (though all this means is that you get to nom down on their necks to refill your blood meter). Almost every character that you can have a detailed conversation with has something interesting or useful to say or do with you. In addition, there's the set decoration, if you will. There's plenty in-game advertising, most of which is ripping the piss out of real life advertising (my favourite is the campaign billboard for Senator Robert Thorne - "A candidate NOT accused of being a murderous child pornographer!") and also, unlike many games of this ilk, you get a home. Granted, at the beginning its a horrible shite-caked room over a pawnshop in Santa Monica, but it's still home, and you can sit on the bed and turn on the TV to watch the news (and note how the items talked about are all things that you have, are, or will be involved in, for the most part) or flick on the radio and listen to "The Deb of Night," a talk radio phone-in session where cranks air their conspiracy theories and on two occasions get it absolutely right. You also have a laptop computer and can pick up new jobs via e-mail as well (and, if you're the right combination of clan and gender and do one side quest in a certain way, receive bad love poems from Velvet Velour, the vampiric boss of a Hollywood strip club.)
There's also a lot of variance in the different quests and most of them can be done in multiple different ways. Granted, you could simply go to Fat Larry the unlicenced arms dealer, buy a big gun, and rampage through to your objective, killing the fuck out of everyone you encounter, but this might draw unnecessary attention. Or you could level up your stealth, lockpicking, and Obfuscate discipline (which doesn't make you invisible but does make it so that people looking for you would not see you), slip in to your objective, grab it, and get out like a spent nob. Or you could boost Persuasion and Seduction, put on a low-cut dress, and talk people into giving you the thing you've been charged to get (and your four ranks in Domination wouldn't hurt either). In addition, doing some of the quests in certain ways will alter folks' perceptions of you. Though there are certain other quests which can only be done by shooting, sneaking, or speechifying as well.
Which brings me to the only really significant complaint I have with VTMB. The last 10% or so of the game. Maybe Troika were running out of time and budget, because the final few quests are all a bit dull really and almost all of them are massive combat-fests. You have to shoot your way through a fortified manor house to rescue an archaeologist, shoot your way through a coven of Sabbat vampires, survive a blood hunt, escape a rabid werewolf in Griffith Park (one of the most annoying parts of the game because the werewolf is faster than you once he gets up to speed, has an arbitrarily large volume of hit points, is 99% resistant to all forms of damage that you can bestow, and can kill you in three or four hits), then shoot your way through the bases of one or two (depending on your path) of the four factions and then blow up the big boss of said factions. And if you've built your character to be a sneaker or a talker then you may have difficulty here. And the ending sequences themselves all seem slightly, well, rushed. However, that is executive meddling for you (fuck you, Activision.)
The soundtrack is also worthy of mention. Most of it comes from where you would expect to hear sounds and music in real life; the only concession is in the streets, where they have some fairly atmospheric ambient tracks. The soundtrack is a melange of gothic and industrial metal and electronica, and includes songs by Tiamat, Ministry, Lacuna Coil, Genitorturers, and Emileigh Rohn.
I do heartily recommend that people get it. It is faithful enough (apart from making Caine, first murderer and father and god of all vampires, a cabbie) to the fluff of the classic World of Darkness that veteran tabletop players will appreciate it yet it's not inaccessible for n00bs to pick up and have a go at. And it's only £11.24 on Steam right now, although, as I have said you may need a spot of googling and use of the Unofficial Patch to get it to work on modern PCs that run Windows 7 and 16:9 aspect ratio monitors. And because it's almost ten years old, most current machines should be able to run it with no problem. However, a sequel is unlikely due to Troika's going bust soon after, and Tim Cain (designer of Fallout) and Chris Avellone (designer of Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale) going their separate ways.