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The GoodAfter Ultima series defined the Western RPG quality standard rather early in its history, it influenced subsequent development of the genre in a somewhat odd way. The series' continuously growing preference for tight scripting (which culminated in Serpent Isle) paved the way to the RPG revival of the late 1990's, heralded by Black Isle and BioWare. On the other hand, the early, Ultima V-style template prescribed non-linear advancement, full free-roaming, and focus on exploration and gradual immersion into the game world rather than following an exciting story with interesting characters.
Elder Scrolls games by Bethesda are heirs to the second approach to RPG-making, but also to the groundbreaking Ultima Underworld games with their first-person real 3D navigation and action-based combat. So these games have the vast world and open areas of "regular" old Ultimas plus the immersive quality and atmospherics delivered by the engine used in the spin-offs. Arena is the first in the series, and while many people grew more familiar with its better-known sequels, it cannot be denied that Arena already contained in a nutshell many of the defining elements of the series' gameplay.
First things first: Arena is huge. It has an absolutely gigantic 3D world that surpasses by far anything that was created for role-playing games before it. The amount of towns, dungeons, and other places of interest is positively overwhelming. You get dizzy after emerging from the initial dungeon and realizing you can travel anywhere, at any time, on the enormous continent of Tamriel. The absolute freedom to do whatever you want is what makes Arena so addictive and awe-inspiring. Never before was there a RPG world of such size, offering such unlimited exploration possibilities. It is no wonder this feature became the cornerstone of the future series.
Now, it's true that much of this world is randomized, and some people tend to dismiss Arena because of that. But the game cleverly conceals its randomness by offering varied terrain, weather effects, and climatic changes influenced by times of the year. You can travel from Elsweyr to Morrowind and witness the first snow there. You can leave the city gate and travel in the darkness and snowfall, find a cozy abandoned house, rest in it, and be greeted by the clear morning. Graphically on par with contemporary first-person shooters, Arena manages to create a beautiful world that is in constant motion, calling you back even after you get tired from the repetitive textures.
Even though NPCs are random as well, there are many dialogue templates that are surprisingly well-written and often quite amusing. You can always hear different responses in every tavern; you can bargain with shop owners and repeatedly talk to jesters and listen to their stupid jokes. People have different names and occupations and also refer to the protagonist's race during conversations. Nice text descriptions greet you whenever you enter specific buildings. Naturally, after having been doing this for a while you'll see how everything repeats itself. But still, there is a big difference between an enormous randomized world and a small one; the possibility to physically move in every direction at any time in a seamless 3D environment is simply exhilarating, no matter how many recurrent elements you encounter on your way.
The role-playing system in Arena is simple: you create your character, fight enemies, gain experience and level up. Were Arena just a dungeon crawler, this simplicity would have made it boring; but the necessity to explore and travel in order to encounter tougher enemies and obtain better gear is what makes the whole process so addictive. You never know where you may find some great armor or a particularly challenging beastie to defeat. There are hundreds of cities and dungeons; each city has several shops, and each dungeon has foes lurking in the darkness. You choose your own adventure in all this vastness; you decide where you want to shop, how exactly you outfit your character, what you specialize in, and so on. The game never dictates you the pace; you choose it on your own. You can perform quests, search for treasure, bargain and trade, go on a killing spree, hunt for monsters, steal valuable items, or just walk through the countryside. It's this free-form role-playing that makes Arena uniquely entertaining.
The main quest may be very simplistic, but if you follow it you'll encounter the game's only planned, hand-made dungeons, assignments, and items. There are also some interesting riddles you'll have to solve along the way. Outside of the main quest, there are plenty of missions offered by country rulers to undertake, as well as the artifact quests, which hold some of the game's most powerful weapons, armor, and accessories.
The BadThe obvious flaws of Arena owe their existence to the severe technical limitations of its time. 3D gaming was still in a rudimentary state, and the only way to create immense 3D environments was by using the same elements over and over again. To the game's credit, I must stress that there are many such elements - certainly enough to create a considerably large game world in which every single NPC, object, terrain style and building would be unique. That is why I can't help thinking that perhaps it would have been more reasonable to reduce the size of the world somewhat and minimize the randomness.
I don't particularly like the idea of endless countryside. You can walk for hours and never reach another town; terrain, lone buildings, wandering NPCs and enemies will be procedurally generated as you advance, never coming to an end. Again, I'd prefer exploring a world that would be less jaw-droppingly gigantic, but coherent in its structure. In the end, much of the exploration in Arena is reduced to bringing forth the world map and clicking on a location of interest.
You can travel to any Tamriel province in the game, but towns will still look the same. There are certain racial diversity among the inhabitants and differences in landscape and climate, but I didn't notice any variation in the architecture. Imperial City, for example, is the same collection of blocky, bland buildings as the most decrepit village at the outskirts of High Rock. If you have visited one tavern, you have visited them all; all weapon and armor shops in Tamriel are managed by identical twins; the same types of NPCs, graphically and personality-wise, appear everywhere. The game generously presents you with an incredibly large world to explore, but doesn't fully encourage you to do that. You can safely base yourself in any of the provinces, never leave it, and you will have seen pretty much everything the game has to offer. You'll only have to travel all over this world because the main quest requires you to do so.
Speaking of which, the main quest's premise is certainly not worse than in any other fantasy RPG, but the extremely formulaic structure makes it somewhat tiresome and repetitive. You'll always follow the same scheme: listen to rumors, detect the next province of interest, locate the next questgiver there, complete a mission for him or her, and learn the location of a dungeon containing the staff piece. Also, the riddles you'll need to answer to get the crucial items, while entertaining, cannot be bypassed; if you can't figure out the answer to any of them, you'll be stuck, unable to find any other way to continue the main quest.
Fans of Elder Scrolls games got used to the rich lore of their world, presented in detail in long conversations and well-written books. Unfortunately, there seem to be no books in Arena, and the conversations are brief and rarely concern any cultural topics. As a result, the world of Arena lacks depth and intellectual appeal, becoming a rather generic, simplified fantasy environment with recycled themes.