Friday, August 23, 2013

The Elder Scrolls 2: Daggerfall


Daggerfall is probably my favorite game of all time. For this reason, i'll undoubtedly be partial in this review. It came out in 1996 and I played it in 1997. By that time, the graphics were already considered poor, but it didn't matter because it was the best game ever.

After Bethesda had published Arena in 1994 (see my review here), they had a pretty good idea of what they wanted to do. They were fans of RPGs, their previous fighting game had turned into a hallmark RPG, and they wanted to create a RPG by RPG-fans for RPG-fans. And that, they did!

The background story

The Tamriel empire encompasses all of a continent, plus an island where elves can be their usual selves and look down on other races. In Tamriel, each province is associated with a race of characters, most of which are human but there are also humanoid cats (Khajit), humanoid lizards (Argonian), 3 different kinds of elves, and the occasional orcs. Daggerfall is the westmost province, populated mainly by humans.

You are a personal friend of the Emperor and he sends you to Daggerfall to investigate why the ghost of the local king is haunting the walls of its capital city. There's also this secondary concern about a very private letter he sent to the queen and which was lost... he'd like you to find it and destroy it. Naughty, naughty! As your boat was reaching the coasts of Daggerfall, a storm capsized it and you swam only to find safety in a dungeon's cave whose entry collapsed. Admittedly, the introduction is lackluster but who cares? They needed an excuse to make you start inside a dungeon and provide you with a tutorial.

The game itself

Like Arena, Daggerfall adopts a first-person view and you're free to move around in a 3D world. Unlike Arena, the game world of Daggerfall is made of one continuous geographical area rather than several discrete places. The size of the game is monumental. It is as big as Great Britain. As far as I know, no other game has ever come near this size. Your character has a set of 35 or 36 skills: fighting with blades, fighting with blunt weapons, destruction magic, healing magic, climbing, running, jumping, backstabbing, inflicting critical damage in combat, lockpicking, pickpocketing, bartering, speaking languages that will reflect on the reaction of some monsters (orcs, spriggans, daedras...) or nobility.

Unlike most other RPGs, you don't level up by defeating enemies. Instead, your skills improve as you use them and when your skills have improved enough, you receive the benefit of a level up: extra HP and some improvement of attributes (strength, endurance, intelligence, etc.). This idea of improving skills as you use them seems simple and yet it was rare back in those days. And it offers a rewarding experience for the player.

You can join a number of guilds and run errands for them. You'll be rewarded by some money and equipment of course, but most importantly by access to services that the guilds offer. The Mages Guild will first propose to sell you standard magic spells. Then later it will allow you access to the equipment for enchanting your equipment by yourself and it will let you create your own custom spells with customized duration, magnitude of the effects and combining several spells into one. So you could create a spell which, used before combat, would simultaneously offer you resistance from enemies' magic, increase your armor, and regenerate your health for 30 or 60 seconds. Or you could make an offensive spell that would paralyze an enemy, make it more vulnerable to fire, and deal fire damage at a distance.

Along the way, you may summon some demigods (Daedra) who will reward you with their unique magical object in exchange for a service. You will also encounter a guild of undead characters. You may be turned into a vampire or into a werewolf and enjoy the advantages and endure the drawbacks associated with these conditions. You may bust some witches' covens not initially marked on your map. And more than anything else: you'll spend endless hours in dungeons either looking for the big bad guy or for some treasure that your guild asked you to recover.

The bugs

Today's standards and expectations of having a (almost) bug-free game are pretty high. Standards were not that high back in 1997. And still by those old loose standards, Daggerfall was considered horribly bugged. Bugs happened often and their results were unforgiving.

Walking through walls: this was especially damning for the adepts of climbing and people who walk too near to the walls. Every so often, the game would let you pass through a wall, either partially or totally. When you're in a dungeon, if you pass through a wall, you either fall to your death or fall on top of another lower room of the dungeon. If you fall on another room of the dungeon, you probably won't be able to walk back on top of all the corridors to the dungeon's entrance, so you can consider yourself dead too. Sometimes you would walk only partially through a wall or a door. Then you're stuck. It's that simple and there's no getting unstuck.

Also, every 45 minutes in average (as per my experience), the game crashed and took you back to Windows or MS-DOS... And every second crash actually crashed the whole PC rather than bring you back to MS-DOS.


So, after 45 minutes you could expect a crash of Daggerfall and after 1h30 you could expect a full reboot of your PC. And in the minutes in between those crashes you had to deal with the bugs. There's only 2 possibilities with a game that is so terribly bugged: you get rid of it and defame it for the piece of junk software that it is, or you endure the technical problems because this is the best game that you ever laid your eyes on. I loved Daggerfall and I have fond memories of it. Bethesda still offers it as a free download on its website. The version they offer is a patched version which is supposed to have gotten rid of the most outrageous bugs. If you can live with graphics of the 90's, then I recommend it, either for the fun of the game itself or for getting a feeling of its gigantic world.

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