BloodRayne (BR) took a lot of abuse in the reviews I read. The complaints ranged from bad camera angles and imprecise controls to claims of boring, repetitive, far-too-simplistic gameplay. There is some truth in each of these complaints, but BR is more than the sum of these parts. Though it is ultimately too short, it attempts a great deal and succeeds relatively often. BR clearly isn't a game for everyone, but it's definitely a good buy for many gamers for reasons that follow.
BR is no slouch in the visual department in several respects. First, the modeling and texture work is very nicely done, particularly where Rayne herself is concerned. She looks better than any other female character I've seen in a video game, and the nice little touches like animated ribbons in her hair contribute a great deal. It also doesn't hurt that she apparently goes for the corseted leather/latex look, for she's got the kind of physical form necessary to make it work.
Speaking of working, one can't help but wonder how much extra effort was expended by the developers to get the motion of various parts of her anatomy just right. Seriously, I don't know what they call their technology, but I'm labeling it the "Jigglytech Engine" for good measure. Suffice it to say that various cut scenes put the Jigglytech Engine to good use. Radical feminists will find this highly offensive, no doubt, but then who cares what radical feminists think? I surely don't.
Despite the awesome power of the Jigglytech Engine, what stands out to me most, which perhaps tells my reader just how big a geek I really am, is the bump-mapping. I've seen other games that provide an extra bit of realism with this technology, but BR is the first game in which it really makes a huge difference to me. This is especially true of the early game levels in the Louisiana Bayou, for the decayed and damaged wall surfaces in some of those buildings look phenomenal.
Almost everything else is nicely done as well. The reflective water looks very good, what I assume to be procedural textures used in the occasional cauldron look nice, the special effects are snazzy, etc. Even the special vision modes are both visually attractive and usable with image quality (IQ) enhancements enabled, unlike some other games I've played. In Splinter Cell, for example, I couldn't use full-scene anti-aliasing (FSAA) with the night-vision goggles because of severe frame rate stuttering.
BR has no such problem, and I played through the entire game at 1024 x 768 x 32 bpp with 4x quality FSAA and 8x anisotropic filtering (AF) enabled. The frame rate dropped less than a handful of times, and only during very complicated cut scenes using the in-game engine. For as good as BR looks, it runs astonishingly well. I've played better looking games—though not very many—but I don't think I've seen any other game that looks so good and runs so well. BR strikes a marvelous balance between IQ and performance.
Despite all the positive aspects, there remains some room for improvement. Some of the animation is a bit less than thrilling. Rayne's combos are very fluid, but her basic running animation looks more than a little stiff. Her transitions from one basic sort of movement to another are also rather jerky. This is true of some of the supporting cast as well. It seems that the animation quality was compromised at some step along the way, though this isn't such a big deal.
I should also say for the record that I'll be glad when women are women again; i.e., when they actually have hips, thighs, and don't look like they've come straight out of a Rwandan hunger camp. Rayne is surely the exemplar of contemporary feminine pulchritude, but south of her chest she has little in the way of womanly curves. I don't equate thin with beauty, and as attractive as Rayne is she looks a bit elongated and/or undernourished to me. No doubt I'll be in the minority on this point, but there is no accounting for taste in our tasteless, contemporary world.
A more serious complaint concerns clipping problems and destructibility. I've seen clipping issues with plenty of other games, but I think BR has the most egregious flaws of all. I've seen virtually every body part pass through walls at some point, and that is really distracting. Worse, though the enemies are themselves piecemeal destructible (i.e., they can lose limbs, portions of their heads, etc.), they don't always stay that way. I've hacked the limbs off a Nazi soldier; watched him scream, bleed, and run in terror; and then been stunned to see his arms magically reappear a few seconds later! That's seriously disconcerting.
In the grand scheme of things, these are relatively minor issues. BR obviously could have benefited from a bit more polish, but it almost lives up to the beauty of its protagonist. It looks more than good enough to get the job done. Be advised, though, that this is not a game for the weak of stomach, as I'll mention later.
BR's audio is really lacking in several regards. First, the sound effects are pretty uneven. Some of the guns sound pretty good while others fail to impress. Perhaps that's deliberate, but if so one wonders: why would a developer want to put any weapon in the game that sounds wimpy? Other sounds are pretty good, but there really isn't enough variety in some of them. I think Rayne has a total of three different sounds for her footsteps on any given material. That might seem like a lot, but the sound of her running gets very repetitive after a while.
Second, the dialogue is more uneven than the sound effects, and some of it is just poorly done. Some of the lines uttered by the bad guys sound pretty convincing. The "Get it off me!" screams of Nazi soldiers as Rayne feeds on them are pretty chilling at first. Unfortunately, they don't stay chilling because they all say the same thing! It would really help the immersion factor if the bad guys had greater diversity in their lines, particularly because they end up being snacks so much of the time.
Far worse, however, are the positively awful voice performances in the first act of the game. During the stretch in the Bayou, I was literally cringing in my chair when the locals would speak with an inconsistent, vaguely Cajun accent. I applaud the attempt to capture the proper local dialect, but the effort failed miserably. I've spent enough time in Louisiana to know better.
Speaking of bad voice acting, the near-completely passionless delivery of Rayne's lines is the worst dialogue sin of all. My guess is that the developers told the voice talent to go for a kind of quiet, sexy, intense sort of speech, but whatever their coaching it really comes off poorly. There is so little passion, so little drama, and so little of the sultry quality one expects from Rayne's voice that it positively ruins the scenes in which she speaks.
As if that weren't bad enough, Rayne's attempts at "hilarious" one-liners are as poorly mixed/processed as they are ill-timed. Too often, Rayne delivers her action-hero one-liners after the battle has ended or at other completely unrelated moments. Say what else you will about "Ahnold" Schwarzenegger, he eventually developed a solid feel for the importance of such timing in his films. In contrast, Rayne comes off like Seinfeld's George Costanza; i.e., vapid comments at exactly the wrong time.
Perhaps this wouldn't be so bad if the audio clips weren't so poorly mixed/processed. I don't know. What I do know is that Rayne's lines never sound like they should. Somehow her soft, understated voice manages to be heard over the din of frantic combat. There's only so much the developers can do with bad voice acting, so maybe I'm asking too much. I simply pray to God that any sequel finds Rayne with the kind of voice and timing that matches her looks and skills.
Finally we come to the greatest failing of the game's audio, namely, its music. Surprisingly enough, I rather like a lot of the music in the game. The techno stuff is not so over the top that it grates on me, and some of the spooky sound effects are very nicely done. The main problem is that the whole tone of the music is completely at odds with the story, environments, and action.
Let's face facts: BR gets off to a great, eerie start with the opening pre-rendered cinematic. It speaks of a game that's going to be downright horrifying in the grand tradition of Undying, System Shock 2, etc. Unfortunately, it's pretty hard to be creeped out when there are almost no ambient sounds, and the music is providing a driving techno-beat in the middle of the Bayou! The muted strains of a banjo playing out of tune in the distance, perhaps some eerie sustained high/low phrases from violins and contrabass, pretty much anything more traditionally associated with fear and horror would have set the mood better.
It's as if the developers didn't want to remain true to their own vision. The whole vampire premise is horrifying in itself; all of the environments are suitably scary, grim, or otherworldly; the positively macabre and sometimes disgusting visuals can be deeply disturbing. So why on Earth did they think it would be a good idea to marry such imagery to techno pop?! Anyone?! Sheesh.
In summary, I think BR would have been improved immensely by greater effort, consistency, and thematic focus in its audio. As it is, the sounds and music are pretty forgettable, which turns what could have been a powerfully scary game into something far more aurally mundane.
The interface really suffers from the limitations of the console for which it was developed. Yes, it's nice to be able to use blades or guns with the two mouse buttons, but the auto-targeting has an annoying tendency to latch onto the nearest enemy in the area, which can be a royal pain in the butt when fighting a mixed group. What if I want to target my nice big gun on that huge guardian behind the annoying little daemite? The answer is simple: I can't. That's pretty irritating.
It's also irritating that the player has essentially no control over the combo attacks he earns over time. The combos themselves seem as interesting and useful as they are visually impressive, but there really isn't much to triggering them. They simply happen as you keep clicking, and they always happen in the same order. On too many occasions, I didn't want to trigger a cartwheel-kicking combo, but unless I wanted to wait for Rayne to stop moving completely, and thus give the enemy an opening, I had no choice. It would have much improved the game if the player had to execute certain control sequences ala Blade of Darkness (BoD) to unleash the various combos.
Far worse, the whole control scheme is just awkward. I eventually did get better at jumping, but it was never as comfortable as it is in plenty of other games. By the time I had finished a few missions in Jedi Academy, for example, I could pretty well nail any jump I could envision. In BR, I had to re-orient the camera to a nearly vertical top-down view every time, for otherwise I would come up short in my jumps. I don't know exactly how to describe it except to say that BR's interface doesn't have that solid, welcome feel that other games have.
It also bears mentioning that the startup dialog boxes grow more and more irritating over time. Every time I launch the game, I get a warning message telling me that the game's engine will run best with at least 200 MB of free swap file space. Given that my drive currently has 1.5 GB of free swap file space—which the game properly recognizes, by the way—that's as useless as it is annoying. Worse, I get hit with a second dialog box every time, which gives me the option to change resolution, graphical options, etc. It probably wouldn't annoy me so much if I didn't also have to hit escape twice to bypass the subsequent opening movies. I guess I'm just tired of double-clicking the icon, hitting enter twice, then hitting escape twice before I even get to a menu!
One last complaint involves the key bindings. The manual lists several functions that are supposedly bound to the function keys, but I couldn't get any of them to work as advertised. That's not such a big deal, but it's somewhat irritating. It's also mystifying to me what the "quick save" feature is supposed to do. The player can save only at the beginning of a level, and any failure within a level forces the player to start over from the beginning of that level or load a saved game. No matter how you slice it, pun intended, you're always stuck starting at the beginning of a level.
Aside from these complaints, the rest of the interface works well. It's kind of nice to have a keyboard-based menu system, though I do miss the use of the mouse. The default key configuration is pretty well thought out, and the options provided are pretty useful. The vision modes portion of the HUD display seems both large and mostly useless to me, but maybe that's not true for most players. I don't know. Suffice it to say that the rest of the interface works relatively well.
The game mechanics are pretty good. To the standard shoot-em-up formula of the action genre BR adds devastating melee weapons, interesting and useful vision modes, a better-than-average compass to lead the player to the next objective, auto-targeting akimbo gunnery, a handful of different special moves, the fabulous and absolutely over-the-top violence of blood rage, Rayne's harpoon, some pretty wild environments for jumping puzzles, and a nicely implemented feeding mechanism for recovering health. BR isn't revolutionary, but it does blend its various elements very well.
It also bears mentioning that BR features a surprising amount of destructible stuff. Certainly the barrels, crates, and so forth aren't surprising, but there aren't many games that feature destructible scenery as well! The destructibility of the environments plays a non-trivial role in the boss battle against Von Blut and to an even greater degree against a boss named Mauler, who is so powerful he can actually destroy much of the level's architecture to get to you! This really ups the immersion factor, and though the environments aren't as destructible Red Faction they're nevertheless a step forward in the same vein.
My one serious complaint with the game mechanics is that there is no ability to save anywhere except at the beginning of a level. I mentioned that before, and I must say here that I absolutely hate that console-based garbage! When I have to stop playing, I have to stop playing! The game desperately needs the ability to exit at any time and pick up from that same point. The only thing that mitigates this disappointment somewhat is that the levels are broken up in relatively fine granularity; i.e., one doesn't generally have to repeat all that much. But one shouldn't have to at all, and that's exactly my point.
Is it just me, or is this Blade rewritten with a female protagonist? I was never big on the whole Blade thing, but I did see the movie with Wesley Snipes, and it sure seems to me that BR "borrows" much of its story. Still, it's a pretty interesting yarn. Rayne is searching for her father and gets inducted into the Brimstone Society, on whose behalf she trots the globe taking care of supernatural messes so that regular folk don't have to deal with them. It's like a low-tech, goth version of Men in Black.
As is pretty much to be expected these days, the Nazis figure prominently in this game. Honestly, folks, could we do something else for a change? Or has our politically correct age so lost its mind that Nazis are the only villains it's acceptable to hate anymore? Why not some screwy voodoo cult instead? I was actually quite surprised that the first portion of the game dealt with voodoo, which made for a very refreshing change. It's a pity that the Nazi button got pushed so quickly thereafter.
Overall, the story is pretty good. It isn't presented all that powerfully or coherently through the game's cut scenes, but it's not terribly difficult to put it all together. It provides enough motivation to work toward the final levels, and that's good enough for a video game. It could have been better or more original, sure, but it's good enough.
The first of several things that must be said about BR's content is this: it is not a game for those with weak stomachs. BR features buckets, nay, fifty-gallon drums of bloody gore and other disgusting effluvia. Having said that, however, I must point out that I find it very refreshing. So many recent games have the player pumping hundreds of rounds into characters without any blood at all (e.g., Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, Battlefield 1942, etc.) that it's like a breath of fresh air when a game comes along and attempts to model the results of violence realistically.
Because of this, BR clearly isn't a game for young children, but were I a father I would much prefer my teens to see what happens when firing a gun or swinging a blade, rather than getting a completely whitewashed, cartoon picture of it. I would much rather that children come to understand that the results of violence are horrific. Perhaps then they wouldn't be inclined toward it so quickly in the real world.
Second, the game is quite brief. I know I complete games faster than a lot of people do, but I finished BR in roughly nine hours of play. That's not a whole lot of gaming. Granted, it was a pretty intense experience once I got past the initial missions, about which more in a moment, but that's still mighty short. I got the game for roughly $12 during a GoGamer "madness" sale so I don't feel like I got gypped, especially because I'm going to play through the game at least once more. Nevertheless, I wouldn't suggest paying any more than, say, $15 for the game because of its short length.
Third, complicating my second comment is the fact that the first portion of the game is a little dull. The only challenges in the Bayou levels stem from (1) falling into water from imprecise jumping, and (2) facing the mother-of-the-underworld boss, who is devastating until you "get it", at which point she becomes a complete pushover. It does provide a nice and easy introduction to the game, but I think it could have been improved with a little more content or better pacing.
Fourth, the Nazi portion of the game is much more interesting, but it becomes somewhat repetitive at points, and it's easy to get stuck in certain spots. I got stuck at one spot, for example, because I didn't realize I had to do a rebound kick to break open the door to get to the bad guys. If you can't figure out how to get through a door, try breaking it with a rebound kick. I don't understand why such doors can be broken by kicking but not by weapons. Go figure.
Fifth, can I be the first reviewer to point out that the Nazi mech portion of the game kicks serious booty? Just about the time Nazis are getting a bit boring in Castle Gaustadt, Rayne commandeers a walking hulk of a mech! I don't know why the developers decided to throw in this sequence, but I'm glad they did. The chaingun, rockets, and grenades make for a powerful interlude that's a pure blast to play.
Sixth, though I realize that many of my comments have been negative in nature, that really doesn't paint an accurate portrait of BR as a complete game. Yes, it has some graphical troubles; yes, the audio is really lacking; yes the interface has some issues; yes, the game is too brief; and so forth. The fact that the game is as entertaining as it is gives rise to such complaints only because it could have been so much better with but a little more work! With some minor changes, BR could have been a best-of-breed game. As it is, it's simply an entertaining romp.
But oh how entertaining it is while it lasts! I know some reviewers found it too repetitive, and I must admit that the Nazi-infested second and third acts did sometimes grow dull. But unlike so many other games, in which one must carefully advance, count every bullet, worry about what's around every corner, and generally play with a cautious sort of style, BR provides a far more exultant experience. Rayne is a vampire-powered killing machine, pure and simple. She's capable of wading into a firefight against a half dozen gun-toting opponents and wasting them completely with her devastating attacks.
That kind of joy is present in too few games these days as far as I'm concerned. It's the same kind of magical feeling one gets from playing Jedi Academy or Jedi Knight II (after acquiring the light saber). The feeling of being a Jedi, or in the case of BR a half-vampire with super-human abilities, is where the core joy of such games is to be found. It is largely for this reason that BR rises above its faults and delivers a very intense and entertaining experience. Tearing through the bad guys is simply too much fun!
In short, BR has a number of flaws and could be improved, but it only has so much room for improvement because it aims so high in the first place. Aiming for phenomenal and coming out very good makes for a wholly worthwhile game, and that's exactly what BR is for those who can appreciate it.
Since there is no multi-player aspect to the game, I've little to say here. I think it would have been great fun to duel as vampires, but I can understand how that would present some serious problems for the developers to solve. Maybe a third-party mod will eventually add multi-player support? As things stand, however, BR is only a single-player game.
The final verdict for BR requires some careful parsing. If you're the kind of gamer, like me, who really loves melee weapons, wild fighting with them, and the realistic portrayal of the results thereof, then BR is definitely a game you should consider. Guns are plentiful enough that you can use them pretty liberally, particularly to take care of the weaker enemies in the game, but you really won't get the most out of BR if you don't focus on Rayne's blades. The gunplay is more like icing on the cake, though it is pretty useful in some places and an absolute necessity in the final battle.
Be warned from the outset, however, that BR's control scheme is funky enough that you're going to have to spend some time growing into it. Further, even after you've paid those dues, it's still not going to feel as comfortable as many other games. Much like my own all-time favorite game, BoD, BR has something of a learning curve to climb, though the mechanics of BR are far more forgiving and basically don't punish the player for failure at all in the early levels.
In conclusion, if you're in the mood for a relatively simplistic, good looking, darkly themed, single-player action game, and are willing to put up with some issues here and there, then BR is a good buy. Just be sure not to pay too much for it; it's too short to warrant full price.
Reviewed by Phileosophos