Saturday, June 5, 2010

Great Games #3: Daggerfall

Later in the post, I'll explain the circumstances behind this video. For now, it's enough to say that they (this video and the next) brought back great memories of The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall by Bethesda Softworks.

Although this is #3 in my Great Games series, I don't mean to imply that it's my third favorite game of all-time. I love role-playing games, but I really can't rank them - and especially not alongside strategy games. Their gameplay is just too different. But this really was a great game.

I'd always liked party-based, turn-based RPGs, like the early Ultima games or SSI's Gold Box series, so I was disappointed when the industry turned to "real-time" first-person, single-character games. Playing hunched over a keyboard, madly clicking a mouse, didn't - and doesn't - appeal to me. (My preferred mode of play is leaning back in my comfortable computer chair, my feet on a footstool, drinking a cup of coffee as I leisurely make decisions.) And the fact that I'm pathetically bad - I mean really, really terrible - at "real-time" combat doesn't help, either.

But when the first Elder Scrolls game, Arena, was released in 1994, I heard that you could easily pause the game at any time to access your inventory, drink potions, and such. So I thought I'd give it a try. And it turned out to be a lot of fun. I don't remember the game too well, but I do remember the main quest which involved exploring a series of dungeons. I remember the neat lighting effects, where you could cast a light spell that would travel away from you, illuminating the dungeon as it went. And I remember the long-lasting Absorb Magic spell that made game easy enough even for me. I loved it.

But the second game in the series really blew me away. The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall was released in 1996. As the above video shows, your character starts out ship-wrecked, sealed in a cave with only a minimal weapon for defense. The cave opens into a "starter dungeon," where you battle creatures and find treasure (armor and better weapons are your first goal), while searching for the way out.

Note the rat that's the first creature to attack your character (rats are an RPG cliche, but one I always enjoyed). In Daggerfall, you can look up or down. And indeed, when battling a rat, you must look down, or else your sword swings will go completely over its head. And sometimes there will be steep passages going up and down. I remember how neat it was that I could look all around, even above or below my character.

But the sound effects were the best thing about the dungeons. You could hear the creatures in the game. When you got close, they would sense you, and you could hear their screams of rage. Frankly, many of them sounded scarier than they really were (of course, you are very weak in the beginning), but it really increased the tension in the game to know that something was trying to get to you.

Doors opening and closing made a lot of noise, too (at least, when you had your speakers turned up high, as I always did). Animals couldn't open a closed door, but evil men and monsters could. So when you heard a door open, you knew that something evil had sensed you and was moving your way. Since dungeon passages twist and turn, it might not be close to you in a practical sense. Creatures couldn't pathfind effectively unless there was a direct path to you, so they wouldn't necessarily chase you down. But you never knew.

In early RPGs, you could stand outside a room full of bandits forever, and they'd patiently wait for you to enter. But in Daggerfall, that wasn't the case. Furthermore, whenever you opened a door, you had to worry about something nasty coming up from behind you. In actual fact, that didn't happen very often, but the great sound effects in the dungeon made it seem like a constant threat. It was really neat. It made exploring a lot of fun.

The above video ends with the character jumping off a ledge, causing enough damage to kill him. That brings up the death animation scene (something I saw all too frequently). The next video, which I'll post below the fold, shows the outside world.

This was the really amazing part of the game. Daggerfall has the biggest gameworld ever made. With more than 15,000 cities, towns, and dungeons, Bethesda claimed that it had twice the land mass of Great Britain and that it would take two weeks real-time to walk your character from one end of the world to another. And except when entering a building or a dungeon, it was all seamless. You could walk out the gate of a walled city (which were gigantic in themselves) and walk to another one (assuming that you had that much patience), passing farmsteads, villages, castles, tombs, and people (750,000 people!) - all part of the game. It was just incredible!

Here's a map of the Daggerfall world, from UESPWiki:

And here, from Wikipedia, is just one of those provinces:

All of those dots are places of interest which your character can visit. (Of course, the land in between the dots is open for exploration, too.) And remember, that's just one of the provinces shown in the first image!

Here's the second video, which shows your character leaving the starter dungeon and traveling across the land (and later showing cities and night scenes):

One thing the video doesn't show, surprisingly, is the people. Depending on the time of day, the cities were filled with people going about their business. You'd even encounter people outside the city (though usually close to it). Admittedly, these people wouldn't normally have much to say, but it still gave the impression of a real world.

At night, the cities could be dangerous, with ghosts or bandits a threat. The time of day really did matter, with shops opening and closing at set times and people following a reasonable pattern in their lives. You didn't have to walk everywhere, either. You could buy a horse and/or a wagon, which would increase your speed and your carrying capacity.

You couldn't fight on horseback (for that, you really need Mount&Blade), but I loved the sound effects, the clip-clop of the horse's hooves and the jangle of the wagon. And you could park your mount outside of a dungeon, then quickly transfer loot to it from the entrance, without needing to leave the dungeon first. It was a great system, as was the fast-travel system between points of interest (when it might take days of gameplay to walk or ride somewhere, most of the time you'd want to skip the travel experience itself, if you just wanted to get somewhere).

There was a main quest to the game, but I don't know what it was. I didn't bother with it. Partly, that's because the main quest dungeons were too tough for me. But mostly, I just enjoyed exploring the world and making my gameplay decisions my own story. And the world was full of guilds, religions, and merchants, with plenty of quests and other jobs to do. In many ways, I think this is the direction we should go with role-playing games, towards a living world which the player explores, creating a unique story from his actions and the decisions he makes (and, admittedly, from the individual stories of NPCs he happens to encounter during the game).

Daggerfall wasn't perfect, though. For one thing, it was buggy. My character would frequently fall through the scenery, getting stuck somewhere in limbo within a dungeon's walls. And it was too easy to cheat. If you stayed in a merchant's shop past closing time, he'd leave you there to steal everything he had - and then you could sell it all back to him the next morning. And although the world was huge, too much of it was identical. (It was a great beginning, though, if only we'd followed through on the promise of this game.)

Another problem that's common to many RPGs is that treasure was randomized. So you could save the game before searching a pile of treasure and re-load the save if you didn't get something good. That's OK in a starter dungeon, when your character is just starting out and needs good weapons and armor to survive. But it is far too tempting to continue that save-and-reload tactic (because, after all, getting great loot is one of the big draws of these games), and it will really ruin your experience if you do too much of it. It just takes away your immersion in the gameworld.

The graphics of the gameworld weren't nearly as good as I remember, either. I loved the weather effects in the game, especially when it snowed. But when I re-installed the game on an old computer a couple of years ago, I was astonished at how poor the graphics really were. We forget things like that, I guess. The graphics in these videos are actually better than in the original game, because they're from the DaggerXL project, a fan's attempt to recreate Daggerfall on a more modern engine. I really hope he succeeds.

Currently, you need DOSBox to play Daggerfall (or Arena), and it's not easy to return to the old days (in computer terms, these games are quite old). We just get used to better graphics - and, often enough, improved features, too - even when we fondly remember the classics. I really loved these games, but I don't know if I could play them today. But if you want to try, Bethesda has released both games for free download at their website. (You'll need the original game anyway, if you hope to someday play the DaggerXL version.)

I'm going to post one last video here. It's the original Daggerfall trailer (i.e. this isn't the DaggerXL version). It's very short, and unlike the previous videos, this one shows - briefly - some weather effects: a rainstorm and that wonderful snow that I always loved. Man, this really brings back the memories! Daggerfall was such a great game!

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