Happy 20th Anniversary – The Elder Scrolls Chapter II: Daggerfall

Even though Wikipedia says that Daggerfall came out on August 31st, this ad says to wait until August 30th which was a Friday though it wasn’t unusual for games to come out over the weekend, either.

When people cry about bugs in games today, or complain about “unfinished’ AAA titles, some of the complaints seem to center on things that pale in comparison to some of the more ugly ones I’ve seen over the years. Case in point: Daggerfall. It still stands as one of the buggiest CRPGs I’ve ever played. It was also one of the most ambitious I had ever seen two decades ago when it was released on this date in 1996.

Windows 95 was also out at the time but I was one of the old holdouts that stuck to good ‘ol MS-DOS 6.22 as long as they could namely because I didn’t see the need to really change up my environment until there were more compelling reasons (and better support) for what I did. But games like Daggerfall would remind me that no matter your operating system, if a program is prone to doing crazy things, it will do crazy things.

Daggerfall's intro included live actors as the Emperor and a wizard by his side to give you your mission. Ah, the days of FMV.

Being a CD-ROM product, Daggerfall’s intro included live actors as the Emperor and a wizard by his side to give you your mission. Ah, the days of FMV.

At the same time, Daggerfall was a refinement of the formula that Bethesda Software successfully implemented with The Elder Scrolls: Arena back in 1994. Using procedural techniques to generate its dungeons, landscape, towns, non-essential NPCs, and random side quests, Daggerfall’s potential to be an immense sandbox of adventure seemed to be everything that players could ever hope for. It was intended to be the RPG to end all RPGs in terms of providing a vast, fantasy land roughly the size of Great Britain filled with as much generated content as players could stand.

The tiny pewter figurine pre-orders received still in the packaging. As big as this box is, that tiny (about the size of a nickel) figure behind the transparent plastic window is the only thing in there. The rest is a big, styrofoam block.

The tiny pewter figurine pre-orders received. As big as this box is, it’s only a cardboard slip over a block of styrofoam with that tiny figure (IIRC, about the size of a US quarter) behind the transparent plastic window the only thing in there.

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The retail box for Daggerfall looked great and the back laid out the invitation to explore its world. In the lower right corner was also something of a short-lived mascot captioned with "Bad dog, don't cast that spell!".

The retail box for Daggerfall looked great and the invitation to explore its world covered the back. In the lower right corner was also something of a short-lived mascot captioned with “Bad dog, don’t cast that spell!”.

In this latest chapter, players are asked by the Emperor of Tamriel to travel to the the High Rock city of Daggerfall. There, they are asked to solve two mysteries on behalf of His Highness — discover why the ghost of King Lysandus has awakened and is haunting the land. Second, to find a mysterious letter that was sent to the court at Daggerfall but seemingly never arrived. By exploring the storyline, the player will get a chance to decide the fate of not only Daggerfall, but perhaps the empire itself through one of six endings.

The game also changed a number of things from Arena. It did away with the traditional experience point based formula of character leveling and instead switched to the system that it stuck with for the rest of the series. This time, characters leveled by actually relying on what they focused on doing as opposed to awarding a flat experience reward for completed tasks or monsters killed.

Daggerfall's graphics were a mix of 2D and 3D -- 3D dungeons and towns, 3D rendered characters like these NPCs turned into 2D sprites.

Daggerfall’s graphics were a mix of 2D and 3D graphics — 3D dungeons and towns, 3D rendered characters like these NPCs turned into 2D sprites. The game was also filled with ambient sounds, music, special effects, and a lot of creaky doors.

This was calculated across a select number of your primary, major, and minor skills so leveling up in a number of these — which was based on simple usage — could create the combined total needed to level your character. So if you picked or created a warrior class, focusing on your martial skills and the minor abilities associated with it would ‘grow’ your character in a more believable fashion than in simply relying on a simple experience package.

Additionally, the game expanded the role of guilds and factions within the game, allowed the player to buy property ranging from houses to ships (that were, unfortunately, giant static models that sat in the water), and generally allowed the player to do nearly anything they wanted. Time-based quests, though, still curtailed the player from going too crazy if they happened to get those, but once they finished a quest and had nothing in their journal to worry about until they triggered the next one, it was up to them on how to spend their time.

You could create your character one of two ways -- by rolling up stats and distributing your points, or answering a few questions a la Ultima IV style.

You could create your character one of two ways — by rolling up stats and distributing your points, or answering a few questions similar to Ultima IV sans an actual gypsy.

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Once you picked your class, created your own, or answered a few more questions to help determine the best one for you, you get this screen. This one shows the pre-determined skils for the Battlemage, a class versed in both magic and traditional fighting styles.

Once you picked your class, created your own, or answered a few more questions to help determine the best one for you, you get this screen. This one shows the pre-determined skils for the Battlemage, a class versed in both magic and traditional fighting styles.

There was a lot of stuff to do in Daggerfall building on top of what Arena had also offered players. The Spellmaker was back allowing players (who had enough coin and enough spell knowledge) to create incredibly overpowered spells from a huge variety of variables. Players could capture the souls of creatures and use them to enchant their favorite weapons with incredible powers. And this is where the game sort of fell apart.

I mentioned bugs and Daggerfall was rife with them. I remember that the weapon enchantment allowed me to cram multiple Daedra Lords (the most powerful daedra in the game) into one weapon turning it into an engine of annihilation that made encounters in the game a cakewalk. I only realized later that it wasn’t working as intended, but that wasn’t the only weirdness. Nor was it as fatal as others I ran into.

The kingdom of Daggerfall was a huge place. Each of of those tiny, colored sprites represents a town, village, city or other location that you can quick travel to. Quick travel was pretty much essential in the game.

The kingdom of Daggerfall was a huge place. Each of of those tiny, colored sprites represents a town, village, city or other location that you can quick travel to. Quick travel was pretty much essential in the game. Players can even buy a horse to speed up quick travel times and a cart to haul around even more loot pillaged, er, picked up from their adventures.

One of the worst was when the story quest could bug out and essentially make the game impossible to finish. I remember getting a story quest where the quest giver gave me something like a few thousand days to complete it, but the actual time was far less. Even if it seemed like you had a few thousand days left on the clock, you could fail the quest and end up stuck since it never restarted itself unless you had a save far back enough and knew in advance what to avoid to get around it.

At least the save game system worked, though it also had an interesting glitch where if I clicked on an empty slot (as opposed to just electing to save the game) it would immediately dump me to a blinking DOS prompt.

You'll be rubbing shoulders with everyone from nobility to secret societies in Daggerfall's adventure.

You’ll be rubbing shoulders with everyone from nobility to secret societies in Daggerfall’s adventure.

Despite occasionally falling through maps and a few random crashes, when it worked, Daggerfall was still oddly addicting for someone who wanted to just explore, loot, fight monsters and raid dungeons, and do it all without worrying about the story too much. I could still break into stores after hours and steal what I could in the dead of night, engage in quests to improve my standing among the guilds and to plunge deep into mysterious dungeons in search of loot, wander in the wilderness if I wanted, visit new cities to see what their stores had to offer, and grind up enough cash for a home or two.

Daggerfall is included in the Elder Scrolls Anthology which collected all of the main Elder Scrolls games up to Skyrim’s Legendary Edition in one package. Alas, the package doesn’t include the massive manuals that came with many of the games (instead, players are directed online to find them on Bethesda’s site), but it’s a nice gesture for PC players who have never had a chance to experience the earlier games to try them. Or, you could simply download it for free from Bethesda’s site and play it through an emulator like DOSBox.

The expansive world of Daggerfall offered a corner of its world to the player and, when it worked, could be a lot of fun. The game, along with Arena, would lay the foundations for the future of the Elder Scrolls series with console entries introducing new generations to its open world fantasy. Even though the newer games aren’t as filled with as much crunch as the older titles like Daggerfall and Arena were, they still manage to indulge the wanderlust that adventurous players look forward to scratching with every new entry. But even on its buggiest day, Daggerfall remains an influential milestone in the series.

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