The Elder Scrolls: Chapter II - Daggerfall
Have You Ever Read 'USA Today'? I It's an incredibly successful American newspaper with a clever little gimmick: it contains no news whatsoever. Brilliant. Instead of a host of lengthy articles outlining the impending collapse of Western Civilisation, it consists almost entirely of fun-size chunks of facts and figures about things that don't really matter.
So you think you're learning something, but in reality, you're merely wasting your bloody time. Anyway, as a kind of tribute to this great American institution, I'm going to kick off this piece with a smattering of 'factoids' and 'databursts' which should satiate those of you with five-second attention spans before we get down to the nitty gritty with the long boring waffly bits. Okay? Right.
Bethesda Softworks are based in Bethesda, Maryland, near Washington. The correct pronunciation is 'Beth-ess-da'. and not 'Bath-setter', 'Buh-theez-der' or 'Ba-thingamajig', which were my previous attempts at getting my tongue round it before I actually went there and was put right.
Their popular 'open-ended' rpg Arena: Elder Scrolls was originally envisaged as a fighting game, set in a combat arena (hence the name). That's why it's got warriors on the cover - and if you look closely, you can also see the 'arena' behind them in the background.
Bethesda are set to release Daggerfall, which is a sequel to Arena, any minute now. And did you like the way I sneaked some genuinely useful information? let's press on. A thorny problem Daggerfall. Ahem. Um. Ah. Well I've got a slight problem here. At this point in a preview or review it's more or less traditional to explain the storyline behind the game in question. The problem is that Daggerfall doesn't exactly have a storyline. Although, in a way, it does. If you see what I mean. Oh sod it, perhaps I'd better explain. You see, the idea behind Daggerfall is that it behaves differently to most role-playing games. Yer common-or-garden rpg usually starts with you, the player, being told exactly what you've got to do. You know the kind of thing: "Rescue Princess Seacow from the Black Castle", or "go and fetch me a set of five golden crowns, and could you pick up 20 B&H from the shops on the way back?".
Rigid, linear stuff. But Daggerfall doesn't work quite like that. Instead, it acts more or less like a human Dungeon Master would during a game of D&D round the kitchen table. It lays things out, sets things up - but leaves you free to make up your own mind as to what to do, and when.
Questing comes into it, obviously -and there are plenty of missions for you to stumble across (as well as one major one) - but you can, if you wish, ignore them completely and explore things off your own back. Bethesda call this "writing your own story", and that sounds pretty accurate to me. Oh yeah - and it's all backed by a first-person perspective, 360 degree 3D engine which is flexible enough to let you do almost anything, from wandering across wind-swept mountain ranges to clambering up the chimney in a castle.
Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy
The versatility of the gameplay is maintained right across the board - and the very start of the game is no exception. When it comes to choosing your character, for instance, you've got a wealth of options at your disposal. Lazy bastards who don't give a toss about anything can let the computer generate one automatically (if they can be bothered to click the mouse in the first place, that is), whereas pickier souls can enter the far more interesting 'questionnaire' sequence. This sets you a series of multiple-choice questions not unlike those which appear in the back of Cosmopolitan - except it doesn't ask you to examine your sexual preferences and stuff like that. No no no. Instead it asks you a series of altogether more sobering questions and then generates a character that 'suits' your personality as closely as possible. Smart. Real hardcore dice-slingers can also build their characters by rolling stats until they're blue in the face. Flexibility, mate, flexibility.
So then, it all sounds good: an rpg that acts as Dungeon Master and allows the gameplay to form according to your every desire - but is it going to work? Well, it's really too early to say right now, but the signs are more than promising. There's the reputation of Arena to live up to, for one thing -and the programmers and designers in charge of the product aren't exactly dum-dums when it comes to rpgs, either. For your information, Bruce Nesmith (lead designer) used to be both Creative Director and Senior Game Designer at TSR (the creators of Dungeons and Dragons), so if he isn't qualified for the job, I don't know who is.
Still, all should become clear by September, which is when Daggerfall is due to appear. Meanwhile, unsheathe your swords and polish your helmets in preparation for our full hands-on review in an upcoming issue.
Do what you feel, man
Daggerfall's gameplay is so flexible that it would put the supplest Indian contortionist to shame (even one who can stretch his legs three times round his body and wrap his neck round his ribcage). You can do what the hell you feel like. Fancy a stroll through the woods? Fine. Want to burgle that palace over the hill? Feel free. Or maybe you'd rather just pop down to the local tavern and drink yourself into a stupor? Be my guest. You can even buy a house and settle down, for God's sake.
It's not totally loose, obviously. The clever bit is the way that your actions put storylines into operation: for example, people you meet will ask you for help or give you suggestions, which of course leads to a spot of adventuring. Also, your actions have definite repercussions: it's all very well running amok in a sleepy market town, merrily stoving heads in with your mace like some kind of out-of-control fairground whirligig, but you'll probably get arrested if you do (and you'll have to go through a trial and everything). More significantly, your actions help build your reputation - and that's very important. Just ask James Hewitt.
It's Doom! It's Quake! It's neither! It's an RPG!
Like the Ultima Underworld games, Daggerfall is viewed from a first-person perspective. Unlike Underworld, it sports Bethesda's bang-up-to-date 3D 'Xngine'. Furthermore, Underworld was set in a sprawling dungeon, which is fine if you're agoraphobic, but not so good if you like to go outdoors now and again. Daggerfall brings you the best of both worlds: plenty of twisting, turning dungeons (in proper 3D), and loads of 'outdoorsy' bits. You're free to wander across a playing area that's three times the size of Great Britain, and 30,000 times more interesting (Doncaster doesn't appear on the map, for instance). There's loads of other stuff to explore as well - castles, palaces, graveyards, towns and villages - you can even break into people's houses and rifle through their belongings if you want (although there's no option to crap on their carpets like real-life burglars do).
So Then. Daggerfall. Also Known as 'Arena: Elder Scrolls Numero Two-o. It's an rpg with a bit of a difference - the storyline is more or less decided by you, Mister Player Sir. The idea is that rather than setting everything out before you in an orderly fashion, ie providing you with a rigid set of'quests', it acts more like a human 'Dungeon Master' would in a game of tabletop D&D. So, if you suddenly decide you want to bugger off and slay a dragon or something, you can. If you want to behave like a complete bastard and merely wander around picking pockets and breaking into houses, you can do that too. You can even choose to play as a six-foot blonde amazon type and stroll round shamelessly without a stitch on, if that's what turns you on (although bizarrely, the characters you meet are unlikely to comment on this - you won't even get an involuntary 'Phwoar!').
Point your retinas in the direction of the screenshots and you'll see that Daggerfall is played from a first-person perspective. As is more or less de rigeur these days, the engine will allow you to look up and down, jump, push things around, and climb. However, that's where any sort of concession to bang up to date pc gaming end, as all the monsters and characters you'll encounter come in the form of horrendously jerky, blocky bitmaps (they look as though they've been built out of Lego), and appear to be 'moonwalking' since they're capable of moving from side to side effortlessly while still facing forwards. There are sections which feature some pretty nice architecture - some of the castles and palaces in particular are really quite impressive - but on the whole it isn't that inspiring. In other words it ain't Quake, but then again, it ain't Duke Nukem 3D cither. Ultima Underworld II is smoother and better. Put Daggerfall against any of today's half-decent 3D games and it looks... well, it just looks a tad dated.
Hack, slash, yawn...
Still, at least you get to swing loads of weapons and cast loads of spells, right? Er... yeah. But there's a problem here too. Despite including nice first-person representations of all the weapons, which include daggers, swords, hammers (and my own personal favourite, the bloody big mace), the combat itself is rather uninspiring. It works like this: you hold down the right mouse button and slide the mouse from left to right (to swing at about stomach height), or up and down (to jab 'em in the guts or bring the weapon down on their head), while your opponent wibbles about in front of you in a manner reminiscent of the rubber skeletons that dangle from the roofs of fairground ghost trains. Perhaps I'm not that easily convinced, but at no point did I feel like I was actually taking part in a real fight to the death. Instead, I felt like a flailing buffoon taking swipes at an unconvincing bitmap. Presumably Mister Computer is working hard at all sorts of background 'dice-rolling' as the game works out how much damage you're inflicting, but all the same I can't help thinking that it would be about ten million times more entertaining if it could persuade you that there was at least a modicum of realtime skill required.
It's also incredibly difficult. When you start the game you'll be hard-pressed to survive an encounter with a mere rat, for god's sake. In the early stages, your chances of ever being able to build up your character to an acceptable level seem remote to say the least. The fact that it is so difficult had an adverse effect - because I was unable to make any real progress over a lengthy period of time I got just a bit bored.
Feel the width
Daggerfall is a large game. A very, very large game. The playing area is immense - walking from one side of it to the other is inadvisable, as you'd probably expire of old age (in real life, that is) before you managed to get even halfway across. There are more villages, towns and cities than you could ask for, as well as dungeons, palaces and mountain ranges. Each town or village has its own mass of inhabitants too, so you'll never run out of people to meet (and slaughter, if that's your thang), and naturally there are shitloads of homes, taverns and shops to amble into should you see fit. That's good then. Isn't it?
Er, no. Unfortunately, none of the towns are any more interesting than say, Norwich on a wet Thursday afternoon The inhabitants aren't much better either. They'll often ask you to do favours (in the form of little sub-quests), but on the whole they're pretty dull. You wouldn't want to find yourself sitting next to one of them on a long train journey - especially if you were heading towards Norwich. Perceptive readers should be aware by now that I didn't exactly warm to Daggerfall's charms. I don't know, maybe it's just me. The basic concept behind the game - an 'automated' Dungeon Master, as it were - strikes me as a sound one, but one that's more or less impossible to pull off effectively on today's computers. To illustrate my point, I've provided a handy table on the next page. It's designed to do two things: (1) To highlight the limitations of Daggerfall's 'open-ended' structure, and (2) to irritate our art department a bit. Because I'm evil, eeeeevil.
Oooh, you bitch, you
I'm being slightly unfair, but you get the point don't you? You see where I'm coming from. Don't get me wrong -Bethesda have taken his idea and pushed it as far as it can currently go. And besides, it's a good idea, this 'Never Ending Story' stuff. When I first heard about the concept, I was genuinely impressed. Having played it though, I've changed my mind. The basic idea is still a sound one, but until it's possible to create a genuinely believable world inside the program, it'll never really work. What's the point in being able to go where you like and do what you want if none of it's as interesting as real life? Why include thousands of characters if there's very little to distinguish between them, bar a few variables? Why set out to emulate a real human Dungeon Master if it's not possible to emulate the human mind first? Use of a rigid, linear storyline may not be entirely compatible with the hard-core Dungeons & Dragons ethos, but at least it ensures that the player always has a sense of purpose and direction and that there's always something really interesting going on. The sprawling narrative of DaggerfaU will never hang together as neatly as a story that someone's sat down and written. The game does have a main 'quest' behind it - even if it is almost a token gesture -but before long you're bogged down in all the periphery and it all starts to feel a little disjointed. The only way this kind of game could merit any success would be as a kind of Internet-based mud in which each of the characters you meet is 'played' by a real live person who's also dialled in. But it doesn't work like that, and it shows.
Well, that's my opinion, and many of you may disagree. If you just luurrrve the whole 'Sword and Sorcery' mythos, and the prospect of guiding your own character to whatever fate you see fit appeals to you, then you might want to give this a look. If you're a hardened rpg enthusiast who's looking for a game that emulates the D&D experience as closely as possible, given the technology currently available, IDaggerfall may very well fit k you right A down to a tee. I've got a fairly low boredom threshold when threshold when it comes to tinkering about with swords, inventories and hit points - but as I said, if you fall into the D&D camp you may well find that Daggerfall is right up your alley.
Processor: PC compatible, P-100
OS: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game Features:Single game mode