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The Elder Scrolls: Chapter II - Daggerfall (DOS)

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80
MobyRank
100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
4.0
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Written by  :  Cor 13 (171951)
Written on  :  Dec 15, 2011
Rating  :  4.4 Stars4.4 Stars4.4 Stars4.4 Stars4.4 Stars

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Summary

Where wereboars visit endless cities on sleepless nights

The Good

Daggerfall follows the design philosophy pioneered by its predecessor, dropping you into a gigantic world in which you can role-play to your heart's content. In this installment they refined and expanded the ideas of the original, which resulted in a deeper, more immersive game that many fans still consider the apex of the series.

Daggerfall prides itself on having one of the largest worlds ever created for a game. Indeed, its vastness is absolutely mind-boggling. At first sight the world appears smaller than the one of Arena, containing only two provinces instead of the entire Tamriel. However, such calculation is misleading: each province has many more points of interest, so the overall impression is that of an even bigger and certainly busier environment. There are more than a dozen of fiefdoms in the province, each with dozens of towns, dungeons, and other specified locations. Words can't even begin to describe how huge the whole thing is.

The role-playing system that comes with this world is much deeper and more flexible than the fairly basic rules of Arena. In the beginning you are treated to an elaborate character creation, which includes the awesome possibility of customizing your chartacter's class. You can combine various attributes and skills together and create whatever you feel your protagonist should be like. I spent a long time trying to make the perfect character, and even restarted the game after having completed the first dungeon.

The game introduces what later become the staple of the series: the skill system. Rather than leveling up in the old-fashioned way, by gathering experience points (like in Arena), you become stronger by repeatedly executing the same action. This system might not be to everyone's taste, but it is certainly more absorbing than the one of its predecessor, and very addictive. Seeing how every action has a direct impact on your character's growth is exhilarating; which Elder Scrolls player hasn't made his protagonist merrily hop through vast landscape and slash the air with a short sword, patiently waiting for the magic words "your skill has increased" to appear?

Much of the world in Daggerfall is randomized, just like in Arena; however, the game conceals this randomness better. Part of this comes courtesy of the graphics, which are noticeably more varied and do a more convincing job at creating an illusion of a living, breathing world. This is particularly evident in dungeon design; the starting location of Daggerfall grabbed me right away with its ominous atmosphere, while in Arena I had to first get out of the imperial prison in order to become really interested in the game. The dungeons are very complex and hard to navigate, but the emotional reward you receive for completing them only adds to the game's addictiveness. The immersion is complimented by excellent sound effects and the optional, but highly recommended mouse-look exploration mode.

Tamriel of Arena was a mishmash of fantasy elements put together with little coherence. In Daggerfall, this world is a much more detailed, individualized environment, with its own background and lore, racial, political, and social dynamics, etc. The leap in quality is instantly noticeable and constitutes perhaps the main reason for the game's improvement over its predecessor. Well-written books are scattered all over the world, providing enjoyable reading that surpasses the randomized in-game dialogue. Rummaging through dungeon loot or public libraries in search of the third volume of a pseudo-historical pulp novel with sexual overtones is just one of those many little goals that can engross so much in this game.

The higher level of detail in the world is more than just a cosmetic choice; plenty of gameplay mechanics have been added to the core formula to enhance and deepen the experience. There are many more types of quests, and you can now join various guilds and ascend in their ranks. You earn reputation which is affected by your actions. You can become involved in the politics of High Rock and Hammerfell, siding with various organizations. Time passes by, just like in Arena, but this time you also get timed quests, and your reputation depends on how often you visit a particular guild and accept quests from it. Add to this the ability of making your own magic spells, the possibility to contract a disease and become a vampire, a werewolf, or a wereboar (each with its own set of rules, advantages, and disadvantages), and you'll begin to see how varied and involving the game can become despite its generally repetitive nature.

On top of that, the main quest of Daggerfall is by far more interesting than the generic "gather eight pieces of something to defeat the bad guy" we've seen in Arena. Not only is the main story ripe with conspiracies and hidden agendas, it is also branching: you can choose between several different characters and organizations to support, each with its own goals, as well as influence the game's ending and the fate of Tamriel through your decisions.

The Bad

In many ways Daggerfall was ahead of its time, and it is clear that technology is to be blamed for most of the flaws found in this outstanding virtual world. It was obviously impossible to hand-craft such a massive environment with the 3D capabilities of the time. Daggerfall hides its randomness better than Arena, and has much more personality; but after playing for a while, cracks begin to show in the magnificent edifice that is its world.

There is no true continuous world in the game in the same sense as in, for example, Ultima VI. The world outdoors has no real locations; it consists of randomly generated, identically-looking terrain that stretches without end. Theoretically you can physically explore it and discover towns and dungeons on your own; in practice, this is a very boring activity, since there are no landmarks at all in this world, not even roads or anything else to distinguish one place from another. A convenient fast travel opinion is provided, which unfortunately takes away from the joy of exploration.

Towns and dungeons are perfectly functional and acceptable for whatever gameplay they offer; but visually, they are repetitive and lack coherence. There are huge towns in this world, but they lack planning, clearly displaying random elements. Buildings are positioned without much logic, and it is hard to get attached to a particular town when you know there are hundreds of others that look more or less the same. In a strange way, it contributes to the game's impartiality: you choose "your" town, "your" guild, "your" quest etc. out of many similar ones and individualize it with your choice. But lack of original features in towns and other locations eventually make the playing process tiresome and nearly depressing.

The game's dungeons are twisted monstrosities that make those of Phantasy Star II look like linear pathways. The 3D map is, frankly, almost completely useless and confuses more than it helps. I loved the dungeon crawling in the game, but I was nearly physically exhausted after having spent several hours in a devilish maze before almost accidentally stumbling on the life-saving exit symbol.

The game's main quest can be easily broken, so if you intend to follow it, don't deviate from its prescribed path. Having to fulfill level requirements for triggering the next stage of the quest can get annoying. Even though the story is interesting, don't expect interaction with fascinating characters or anything of the sort. The NPCs in the game are random, and as such have absolutely no personality, unless your fantasy complements their lack of such by deliberately singling them out, treating them in particular ways, etc. It is the same as with towns: the quantity is overwhelming, but there is hardly any quality to speak of.

The Bottom Line

No amount of problems can change the fact that Daggerfall is an immersive, deeply addictive game, astounding in its vision, flexibility of gameplay, and sheer size. This game won't satisfy those who play RPGs only to encounter interesting people and read cleverly written dialogues; it appeals much more to the type of player that finds joy in complete, head-spinning freedom. For what it's worth, Daggerfall is a huge, awe-inspiring virtual playground that surpasses in scope everything that was done before or after it.