I love janky video games, especially from the late 90s/early 00s era before the open world boom. Level design reigned. It encouraged a host of clever mechanics, and maps that gradually unlocked like a gigantic puzzle. Realism wasn’t as important as giving the player the unexpected. It didn’t matter if the experience felt authentic; it mattered if the world and mechanics surprised you. The 2002 vampire actioner “BloodRayne” is both an average and a problematic game. Why delve into it? It sits at the intersection of various approaches to game development. These different influences are a big part of the reason it’s so muddled in the first place.
Level Design in the 2000’s
Intricate, self-contained puzzle levels were the hallmark of great action games in the 90s. The “Doom” and “Quake” series would often feature levels that opened up like a Rube Goldberg machine. Keys and switches opened doors, raised gates and bridges, and revealed whole new sections of a map, changing how a player viewed and engaged parts of a level they’d only been seeing from one perspective.
This would be chipped away over the 2000s, first by the popularity of linear military shooters like the “Call of Duty” series. The on-rails storytelling abandoned winding, puzzle-box levels and replaced them with a cinematic experience. This relied on frenetic, triggered scenes that featured on-the-ground perspective for chaotic battles, chases, and disasters. It gave developers a much stronger director’s hand when it came to shaping story and building momentum. The trade-off was that players lost agency to explore and engage a level at their own pace. In these games, there was less to figure out; you essentially continued forward until a new event triggered.
Neither is a better approach; they both have their strengths. Each can be done well, or badly. The big difference centered on player agency. Puzzle-box levels meant two different players might have very different stories about how they discovered those puzzles or pathed through the level. Yet the puzzles themselves often boiled down to repeating hunts for keys to the next door. There simply wasn’t enough quality level design to go around. Developers wrestled technology to even implement new mechanics in the first place. That bottlenecked the breadth of puzzle design a game could incorporate.
Linear level design meant that the story happened at the developer’s pace. This allowed for more character-heavy work, better-managed pacing, and more natural dialogue scenes. With more tightly-directed scenes, the silent, cypher protagonists who dominated 90s action games were replaced with voice-acted ones full of opinions and backstory. The more direction and timing developers could implement, however, the more agency was removed from player exploration and experimentation. The more linear, the more every player experiences the game exactly the same. There were fewer instances in these games where players would have different stories (this experience would instead arise from the increasing accessibility of multiplayer).
The ongoing open world boom followed. Technology finally allowed developers to realize full cities and open, varied landscapes. This wasn’t anything new – the “Elder Scrolls” and “Zelda” franchises had exemplified this approach for well over a decade, the limitations of technology be damned. As that technology caught up, it wasn’t just a few developers pushing the limits. Open worlds became the norm. There was more demand for them and there were fewer unknown pitfalls to making them.
Yet with near-yearly “Assassin’s Creed”, and “Far Cry” entries, the creativity which technological limitations had once demanded now gave way to standardized design. Icon-strewn maps distracted you with empty time-fillers that were sometimes indistinguishable from meaningful side quests. Collect every feather in “Assassin’s Creed 2”, shame on me. Go on every hunting quest in “Far Cry 4” for the promise of a wacky fashion show, only to be awarded a letter telling you there was no reward of any kind, shame on the developers.
Of course, the era of closed-level design wasn’t without its flaws, as I was about to be reminded by playing the original “BloodRayne”. The story is pretty straightforward – a dhampir (half vampire, half human) named Rayne travels around the world in the 1930s and 40s preventing Nazis from unearthing powerful ancient artifacts. Think Indiana Jones if he wore a corset, drank blood, and spoke every line like Mae West telling you to, “Come up and see me sometime”.
OK, this “BloodRayne” isn’t the original original. The game got a 2020 remaster in “BloodRayne: Terminal Cut”. The old version had a lot of hang-ups on modern systems – such as most lines of dialogue being cut off mid-sentence. These are fixed, and a range of modern graphical upgrades are included. It still wears the low-polygon bones of the 2002 original, but it’s upscaled, has wide-screen support, some basic 4x anti-aliasing, and now features reflections, enhanced fog and shadows, and nicer water. Some of these are integrated better than others. The interaction of water and certain other effects can produce some strange artifacting, for instance, though it’s nothing game-breaking.
Why Do This to Myself?
Why would I want to play something as sophomoric and proto-edgelord as “BloodRayne”? It didn’t interest me back in the day. I remember seeing a friend play it and thinking it was an incredibly thin, repetitive game. Its major selling point was the look of the hero in all her early 2000s, corseted goth glory. What it distracted from was any talk of the gameplay itself. If you were a nerd coming of age in that era, a Shirley Manson-inspired vampire killing Nazis in a BDSM-punk world – that caught your eye, sure…but other options included a strange, antagonistic political world to explore in “Morrowind”. The storytelling of “Final Fantasy” was in its heyday. The “Silent Hill” franchise was changing the face of horror games. They weren’t my thing, but you had “Max Payne”, “Metroid Prime”, a “Grand Theft Auto” release a year. “Spider-Man” and “Jedi Knight 2” had both come out that year. “Super Mario Sunshine” was a uniquely challenging platformer that I would argue is the best Mario game, and Nintendo’s party games were entering a Golden Age. “BloodRayne” offered the appeal of a poster, while each of these offered new and deep gameplay that could entertain, puzzle, and thrill for dozens of hours.
If anything, “BloodRayne” is most interesting now as an artifact of its time. It holds a specific place in the ‘archaeology’ of game design, and specifically level design. Back then, who could’ve known that linear military shooters and open worlds would supplant the more traditional level design in 90s big hitters like the “Quake”, “Unreal”, and “Thief” franchises?
The standout of these was the original “Half-Life”, which strung levels together more naturally. A cluster of levels might loop back on itself, but it was still a progression of linked levels. Instead of a self-contained single level, it often presented a hub-and-spokes model. The effect was ultimately similar to traditional design in that you hit switches or recruited scientists (essentially walking keycards) to unlock another section of that hub. This allowed you to progress to the next closed hub of linked levels. This hinted at variations of the hub-and-spokes model that later stealth games and immersive sims would shift toward, such as “System Shock 2”, the third “Thief” entry, the “Bioshock” franchise, and elements of the “Dishonored” franchise.
“Half-Life” also matured the triggered event beyond monster closets and ambushes. Story events would erupt around the player in a way that hadn’t really been mastered before. Even as “Half-Life” evolved the intricate self-contained level into hub-and-spokes levels, its evolution of triggered events would outpace this in enabling the linear, cinematic level.
How does this inform “BloodRayne” in a way that makes it such an example of its time? “BloodRayne” features a mix of self-contained levels, as well as a handful of hub-and-spokes models that see you returning to a prior level in order to open up a new area. The latter can feel pretty pointless, stressing a game with already repetitive gameplay, but let’s hold off and back up a minute:
The Game Itself
As I mentioned, Rayne is half-human and half-vampire. She has a lot of the same rules as “Blade” in that she has vampiric strength, skills, and drinks blood to regenerate, but with only a few of the drawbacks. For instance, true to Bram Stoker-era lore, crossing a body of water hurts her – and the game loves to throw flooded areas at you.
Rayne is recruited in the 1930s by a secret agency called the Brimstone Society – it protects humans from things that go bump in the night. Nazis are obsessed with procuring any kind of supernatural power for themselves, so after an opening prologue/tutorial in Louisiana, we skip ahead by several years to Rayne’s infiltration of a Nazi base in Argentina.
The first thing to know about “BloodRayne” is that fights can be fun but meaningless. As a dhampir, every Nazi in sight is a walking health kit. While “BloodRayne” doesn’t utilize the regenerating health mechanic that became the standard in shooters a few years later, virtually any human enemy who isn’t a boss can be fed upon to recover health. This makes most shootouts feel like they’re wasting your time. Leave one or two enemies for the end, and you can regenerate all your health regardless of how well you played.
It also hurts that the game doesn’t feel very skill-oriented. Guns lock on automatically, but rely on them and you run out of ammo pretty quickly – despite being able to pick up nearly every enemy’s firearm. The melee itself plays as woefully unspecific, but it doesn’t really matter. If an enemy’s close to Rayne, they’ll get hit. The combos feel oriented to show off Rayne’s gymnastics instead of communicate interaction or impact. While the monsters are creative, fighting against them is rarely as fun as fights against humans. It’s all just a melee mash, with Rayne’s own combos and dodging not mattering much and boiling down to button mashing.
Playing with a controller, I can see why the mechanics are set up this way. Playing on PC with a mouse and keyboard, I’d have preferred if these mechanics were reversed: melee that hard-locked onto enemies so that you could just focus on moves and combos, and shooting mechanics that required precision aiming from the player.
The game was never a struggle in these moments. It just felt annoyingly drawn out. The action was solid, but endlessly repetitive. The gameplay felt more natural and rewarding by switching on the invulnerability cheat and toying around with the slow-motion bullet-time. It was more fun to create my own action scenes than to play the game as it was designed.
When given multi-level arenas with countless fools shooting at you, “BloodRayne” feels great even today as you leap from enemy to enemy and systematically take them out. It feels good to leap up three stories because you’re a dhampir, and see the once-confident Nazi you’re about to eat start panicking. That is a rewarding feeling. There just aren’t many opportunities for it.
Too often, the game devolves into long corridors or a series of similar-looking rooms where half a dozen enemies will spill out in one of two predictable variations: monsters or humans. It gets redundant and the warren-like early level design doesn’t do the game any favors. The hub-and-spokes design used here stresses the repetition even more, without making the levels puzzle-like enough to reward the amount of backtracking that has to be done between switches, batteries, and explosives that open up new areas.
Mid-game platforming sections also fail the game. It’s not built around precision-platforming. That makes the platforming sound difficult, but it really isn’t. You’ll fall off a few times because you won’t be able to tell what’s invisibly walled and what isn’t, but that’s a common fault of level design from that era, so not something I can really hold against the game. The bigger problem is that platforming is neither challenging nor interesting. When you’re playing a character who can jump three stories or across vast chasms, uninteresting platforming feels like a massive failing. Thankfully, these sections are generally brief.
“BloodRayne” does have some redeeming features. Later levels are much better, especially after they dump the hub-and-spokes design for a progression of self-contained, outdoor, castle levels. Developers in the late 90s and early 00s really knew how to make castle levels, and “BloodRayne” delivers. A balance of outdoor and indoor paths through ruined German castles offer enemies ambush points with overlapping fields of fire. It’s here the game features the verticality that’s missing in its earlier and endless closed bunkers. This forces you into some light strategy like flanking, taking out one position before another, or shielding your approach by using those vertical elements. I’m not going to say it really matters because you’re still surrounded by walking health kits, but it’s a lot easier to pretend it matters, and in a vampire power fantasy that’s just as fun.
Where I will say the game excels is in its boss battles. These are unexpected, tense, and varied. You’ll fight a giant Cthulhian monster across a swamp of half-sunk boats that forces you to rely on your leaping ability just to stay alive. It’s a tough fight that’s made unfair by how little ammo you can scrounge up, but it is incredibly memorable.
Another moment has you fighting supernaturally fast twins. One will distract you while the other attacks. There are puzzle elements to many boss fights, and the last boss fight is a three-sided affair where the gameplay becomes more challenging in different ways depending on which of the bosses you kill first.
You’ll fight a butchering Nazi performing human experiments who’s dressed like a fetish nurse who – you know what, let’s skip that one. In all honesty, it’s a quality fight that sees you spamming your slow motion ability to leap off trap doors as they swing open, but yeah, there are some deeply problematic characterizations here. The game’s entire treatment of women is godawful, and we’ve seen how the 2000’s incorporation of Nazi imagery into niche fetishization has gone – I’d say haywire, but I think it was really pretty predictable in the end.
It still feels good and even cathartic to play a game that can unequivocally recognize that yes, Nazis are the bad guys, yet there’s still a “yes, but” element when a game says, “but we can still fetishize them”. It’s only presented this way in this one character, but in so doing it poses women Nazis as desirable if they present themselves ‘attractively’, which is a weirdly fucked up message.
(I do appreciate that it’s not just “Looney Tunes” or something from 60+ years ago where we can look at it and contextualize its problematic elements. It feels good to look at something from 20 years ago and be able to do the same, because it suggests our ability to change those things – or at least highlight them for change – has become a bigger part of the conversation with a much faster speed of social recognition.)
As for the boss battles, while they are well designed, they encourage ammo rationing. Since those boss battles aren’t usually signposted ahead of time, it can lead to a mentality of rationing your ammo all the time. That means relying on the unwieldy melee even when it’s not necessary.
What does that all mean? I enjoyed large sections of the game. The monster design is good, as is the early and late art design. The boss battles are unique and clever – they generally outshine the rest of the game. The vampire power fantasy works in streaks, and “Matrix”-style bullet-time effects in games never really get old.
On the other hand, the platforming is neither difficult nor fun. The early level design isn’t as tight as it is later. Some mid-game level design is really discouraging in its repetition, backtracking, and bland, dreary design.
“BloodRayne” refines as it goes, meaning that most of its worst parts are presented first and foremost. Outside of boss battles, it’s only in later levels that it starts fully realizing how to bring its design and gameplay elements together in a cohesive way that feels fun. What works here is the leaping, closing distance on groups, causing chaos, and acting as we imagine a vampire would to utilize their otherworldly powers. There isn’t anywhere near enough of that until the level design allows it in the final third of the game.
“BloodRayne” as Historical Artifact
All of this is understandable when you look at developer Terminal Reality’s original intention for the game. “BloodRayne” was once planned as a sequel to 1999 action-adventure “Nocturne”, in which a detective investigated stories alongside supernatural allies as part of a secret agency called Spookhouse. “Nocturne 2” was never greenlit before Terminal Reality’s publisher Gathering of Developers went defunct. Gathering of Developers didn’t want to share the “Nocturne” license with another publisher, so Terminal Reality created a spiritual sequel in “BloodRayne” that was legally distinct. Gone were the adventure elements and the fixed-camera, survival horror aspects Terminal Reality had made so atmospheric, now replaced by a trendier third-person shooter and a lead character made for posters more than story.
Good boss battles and some interesting level design show flashes of saving a messy and otherwise average game. But I didn’t really play “BloodRayne” to play a great game – I more or less knew what I was getting into. I played it because it’s a fairly standard example of that era’s action design, and it represents one of the closing moments for when self-contained, puzzle-box levels were still the bread-and-butter of the industry.
It really highlights why that intricate hub design didn’t capture the mainstream the way linear levels did. The weakness of “BloodRayne” is its sheer repetition, and the hub-and-spoke set of Argentina bunker levels in “BloodRayne” are easily the game’s worst moment. If both the hub and spokes all play the same, then it doesn’t matter that they’re organized that way.
There was a three-headed tentacle boss in “Half-Life” because of course there was. Stuck beneath a test rocket chamber, you sneak past it into various wings of the facility. One spoke level turns on oxygen, another fuel, the next power to the test rocket. The monster is blind, but can sense sound and vibration. Each passage through the hub sees the monster increasingly destroy it, which means there’s less cover, fewer means of distraction, and your crossing becomes riskier. At the time it came out in 1998, it was so new that it was easy to misplay and waste resources, which also meant that you had less to distract the tentacles with as you got closer to enabling the rocket test firing that defeated them. There was a sense of escalating tension and increasing risk here, all in an approach that was relatively new.
In “Half-Life”, the spoke levels impacted the hub. Each one got you closer to your goal while increasing the tension and risk in the hub itself. It stands as one of the tensest sequences I’ve played.
Yet due to the popularity of “Half-Life”, many other developers copied the newness of the hub-and-spokes model of level design without always having the time, budget, or design focus to inject it with something meaningful. If the spokes don’t impact the hub aside from opening a new door, then all you’ve done is add an extra step to hunting down a keycard or lever. It just wastes time and there’s no need for levels to be organized that way. A spoke level has to change the circumstances in a hub level so that the hub is different in substance and experience when you go through it again.
Failing that, why not just progress through each of the levels without having to backtrack across a hub that remains unchanged? “BloodRayne” feels a lot better in later levels that simply progress one standalone level to the next – although that’s also helped by the more open and vertical design in them.
This is one reason that hub-and-spokes level design only seems to survive in immersive sim franchises – “Thief”, “Prey”, “Deus Ex”, “Bioshock”, “Mirror’s Edge”, the current iteration of “Tomb Raider”. These have enough other gameplay mechanics and tools that we’re often able to go through a familiar area in whole new ways as we return. How we move through an area and what we can access in a place that’s familiar changes from early- to mid- to late-game. We might see a whole new path in a hub and realize we don’t have the tool to get to it yet; we’ll come back to it later when we do. This adds depth not only to environments, but also to gameplay mechanics. When we do come back, experimenting with our new tools in an already-familiar and safer environment encourages us as players to utilize them in new areas and riskier situations.
“BloodRayne” shows why the hub-and-spokes design often works against more traditional action games that don’t introduce many new mechanics or tools. It’s an example of why that model didn’t gain popularity when it potentially had more to offer than the linear-level design it was competing against. While it may be a fairly average game, “BloodRayne” exists right at this point where action game design was splitting between self-contained puzzle-box levels, hub-and-spokes levels, and linear levels. There are few games that so obviously struggle between each of these elements because few games tried to incorporate each of them. That makes it a unique intersection in level design history – it represents an element of each level design philosophy that was fighting for popularity at the time. All three are captured in this one place, certainly not successfully, but in a way that freezes in amber the very different approaches level designers were weighing at that time.
Ultimately, I think “BloodRayne” is engrossing now if you’re interested in the ‘archaeology’ of video games. Mechanically, the franchise is emblematic of third-person action games of the time, but its level design captures a struggle over the soul of what action games would look and feel like going forward. Even when I was bored by its repetition, I was engrossed by why I was bored. What wasn’t working that was later fixed, abandoned, or only proved useful to a different genre? What did work that we may’ve lost when we dismissed certain approaches as niche? “BloodRayne” is a very average game, but an amazing museum piece to explore.
A masterpiece that shaped the industry can tell you a lot about how game design evolved. An average game with an equal measure of success and failure can tell you just as much about how gaming was shaped. What didn’t work and hasn’t been solved tells you as much as what did work.
I don’t want to beat up on “BloodRayne”. The game’s a product of its time, but I think it’s more fascinating now than it ever was in 2002. The shortcomings of “BloodRayne” fill in a missing link in the evolution of level design, and the successes in it communicate alternate paths that mainstream development didn’t follow. We remember the masterpieces, but the flawed games that didn’t work also have stories to tell about how an entire medium has evolved.
You can buy “BloodRayne: Terminal Cut” on most major PC gaming platforms including Steam and GOG, and on major consoles as “BloodRayne: ReVamped”.
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