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Bloodlines meets the Source Engine (05/30/03)
by Dan Van Crone

I had the pleasure of watching the extended Source engine demo from E3 a few days ago. If you're wondering what pertinence this has to you then you should be reading more of the previews. The Source engine was developed by Valve for use with Half Life 2 and has been licensed by Troika to power Bloodlines.

I realise not everyone has the bandwidth to download a 600mb file so I just want to ramble for a little while about some of the things in the Source engine reel that really stood out, especially where they relate to their potential use in Bloodlines. Maybe it'll be interesting and maybe it won't, but at least you're not tied to the seat so feel free to pull the plug at any time. :)

The demo reel from E3 runs for about 20 minutes and weighs in at just under 600mb. As you can imagine it makes for a fairly comprehensive exposé of what the new engine from Valve has to offer.

Let me just state for the record that of late I've become something of a very ungrateful, jaded gamer. I think it has something to do with having been a gamer for so long it's now at the point that a game developer has to try incredibly hard to impress me. If they make a quantum leap in graphics for example then all I think is "Good. Anything less and I'd be disappointed." - and with a mindset like that to compete with you know they have to try damn hard.

I can't remember the last time I was offered something by a new game that made me gape in slack-jawed disbelief at what was playing out before me. In fact, probably not since the first time I saw a Voodoo card running Wing Commander Prophecy in Glide have I been what I would term 'gobsmacked' by a game.

Vampire is all about role playing so I feel the most important thing where Bloodlines is concerned is how effectively characters in the game can "act". This is where the Source engine comes through as a big winner. During the demo the presenter mentions that the models use 40 separate muscles to create facial expressions and were designed with the assistance of a research psychiatrist who no doubt specialises in such things. We're presented with a close up of the evil G-Man from Half Life and the developers run through a series of his facial expressions. Each expression is captured perfectly. You can guess what the character is thinking just based on his countenance. The eyes also have an eerie lifelike quality which I realised made me concentrate on maintaining eye contact with the G-Man while he spoke, as I would with a real person. Most cool.

When the character speaks, their lips do their best to emulate the words being spoken. The lip-synching isn't perfect but it's a lot better than anything I've seen before in an in-game context and definitely on par with the kind of synching one expects to see in a rendered cut-scene where the models are animated to match a script.

One can assume that if the Source engine is used to good effect by the folks at Troika then Bloodlines will be the most immersive RPG experience yet. All the tools are there for a rich, convincing story telling experience. If they can combine good models with voice acting as strong as that in Redemption I think everyone will be more than happy with the result.

Next comes model articulation which is going to be really helpful when it comes time for characters to perform. It would appear the models are fully articulate, right down to the knuckles of their fingers. Some of the acting in the E3 demo came across as a little melodramatic but there may be legitimate explanations for this. Perhaps the developers did it deliberately to accentuate the degree to which their models could perform and in doing so over-emphasised a few gestures. Then again they may have just not gotten around to polishing that part of the demo up. Either way the models still look and behave magnificently and ultimately how well they perform in Bloodlines rests in the hands of the developers at Troika, not the ones at Valve.

Also throughout the demo there are several instances where characters fall, get struck by some flying object or find themselves right next to something explosive. When they do the results are very impressive. Watching a body convincingly rag-doll as it gets blown across the room and smash into some crates is always entertaining, but especially so when it's done well. All of the objects in the world react brilliantly to any kind of outside forces, but I'll come back to that in a moment.

Apart from the obvious benefit of having fluid and convincing characters acting in Bloodlines, this will be also good for those "Holy crap!" moments. You know what I mean - the sort of scripted sequences where you run around a corner just in time to see half a dozen of your allies get smacked by a giant Vozhd. They fly off in all directions, smash through an assortment of miscellaneous scenery and finally come to a rest in several crumpled heaps.

That's when you say "Holy crap!"

Now let's move on to less role-playing oriented features.

It appears that literally every object in the game world can be manipulated - and I don't just mean that if you walk into a box it will slide, either.

If you hit a barrel for example, it will move. Hit it hard enough or in the right place and it will fall over. Then it will roll away. It will roll until it hits something. That something might also fall over. That something might even have things on top of it that then fall off and scatter. Then some of those things might hit something else and start off another chain reaction. I think you get the idea.

One thing I can't do in this write up is try to explain in any sufficient terms just how realistically objects behave. In the demo we see the player shooting away pieces of an up-ended cargo pallet. The wood splinters like you'd expect wood to splinter, bits fall off just like you'd expect and then finally, when there's not enough substance left to the pallet to hold itself together it collapses in a heap breaking in all the right places.

In short, just imagine you really are watching someone shoot bits off an up-ended cargo pallet. THAT'S exactly how it looks in the game. :)

Moving along.

The AI we see in the demo is most impressive. During the demo we are shown some footage of the player engaging an armed soldier. Upon sighting the player, the enemy begins to attack by firing and advancing. At this point our character is outclassed so he runs into the protection of a nearby building and closes the door behind him.

Then the cool stuff happens.

The player pushes a table covered in some random items in front of the door. He then steps back and waits. After a few seconds there door starts rattling as the enemy soldier tries to force his way in. When it's obvious the door is blocked the enemy soldier gives up and immediately moves to a nearby window where he begins firing on you again. Brilliant!

Allied NPC's also behave very intelligently. During a running battle sequence in an urban street setting the friendlies move around (as we're told by the presenter) not according to a scripted sequence but according to what their AI determines is the best course of action to aid you. One very cool touch I noticed here was that if a friendly AI ran up to a corner, instead of just standing there planning his next move he would take up a position with his back up against the wall, just as you'd expect to see soldiers behave in a movie.

Finally I'd just like to touch on a few small things that beg mentioning but perhaps not a few paragraphs of ranting.

First, at one point in the trailer we get to see an assortment of surface effects that can be applied to models and scenery. Among them was a rippling water effect which they go so far as to place on to a character model. What we get as a result is sort of Predator-esque type transparent effect. Straight away when I saw this I thought of some kind of application with the Obfuscate discipline.

Also - and while not very important it deserves a mention because it's so damn sweet - during the trailer a car gets blown up and a flaming tire rolls straight past you.

I just thought it was the coolest touch ever. :)

If you've made it this far I hope it has been a little informative. Like I said in the beginning, it hasn't got much relevance to Bloodlines apart from the fact that they share the same engine. At the very least maybe this has given you a better idea of what to expect from Bloodlines. Most of all I've heard a lot of detraction about Bloodlines being presented from an FPS perspective. Believe me – if you get to see the trailer you'll understand that no role-playing game could suffer from being created with this engine. If Troika make the most of it then they could have a genre breaker on their hands that eclipses even the innovations we saw in games like Homeworld.

If you have the bandwidth or the patience you can download the full length E3 demo of the Half Life 2 engine from FilePlanet.