Blog 486: The Elder Blogs: Daggerfall

If Arena is the primordial soup, then Daggerfall is the pre-Cambrian explosion. You can tell they’re related, but bloody hell, the difference is astonishing. While Daggerfall is quite clearly the successor to Arena, it is also incredible leaps and bounds ahead of it — far more than the two year gap between the two games has any right to.

I don’t really know what to say about Daggerfall, though. While it is an incredible feat of strength, it is also a fairly poor and frequently broken game.

Daggerfall

Daggerfall straddles two worlds. It’s half a modern FPS complete with mouselook, and half a remnant of the old free-cursor legacy of Arena. As the game has a lot of verticality now, you really need the mouselook (even though you can’t tilt your head back far enough to look right up), but you can quickly switch back to the old way to click on the more troublesome hotspots that refuse to activate (lift levers, I’m looking at you).

Combat remains as it was in Arena — drag the mouse to swing your sword. From mouselook mode, this is actually a bit annoying, because when your right mouse button is down to attack the view locks into position while you do your gesturing. The game is not the most mobile as it is, so losing the last vestiges of your ability to look around makes combat a bit squiffy. Luckily, you’ll mostly be going backwards and forwards so it’s not as much of a killer as it might have been.

While the dungeons are unchanging, the outside world reflects the seasons.

The conversation system got a fair overhaul since Arena, but it’s still as hollow. It’s now a full-screen affair, giving you the option to be polite, normal or blunt as you ask for directions to work, people and places; though none of these options had much effect on anybody I spoke to.

Narrative conversations, such as quest introductions, are still just a screen or two of solid text, followed by “yes” and “no” buttons (as if you’d refuse a main quest, though ditching just-another=small-scale-errand is always a good option).

I think what annoys me about conversations is that there’s very little point to them. They are only useful for navigation, for finding important locations in the next nigh-faceless arragement of buildings. You can ask for rumours about stuff and get a few little titbits of history, but that’s about it. On the other side, main quest screens are unrepeatable and still don’t give much away.

So THAT's where I've been going wrong.

The inventory interface got a massive overhaul from Arena too, though its enhancements are mostly in its movement to a graphical set of icons instead of a straight textual list of items.

Amusingly (but realistically), gold has weight. You might only have two Dwarven right pauldrons (fucking right pauldrons! I’ve found a metric fuckton of them and nary a left pauldron to match) and a Mithril sword, but it’s really that forty-thousand gold that’s dragging you down. Daggerfall is designed for you to be fabulously wealthy in, though, because there are banks where you can deposit your gold, turn it into letters of credit (at a small surcharge, natch) or use it to buy houses (but you’ll need to be rolling in with Daedric loot before you can reach that level of wealth).

You can buy a wagon to carry all your loot, though it has to be left at the entrance of dungeons, so you still need to be heavyweight to keep up the day-to-day looting.

You are free to look like a collossal bad-ass. I'm not usually one for cloaks, but over that helmet? God damn.

The game’s main quest is a bit annoying, in that you mostly have to let it come to you.

Rather than seeking out one objective then the next, main quest parts tend to begin with somebody sending you a letter (the ever-amusing King of Worms sends a zombie to kill you with the letter stitched into it at one point), at which you visit the sender and they give you a task. Getting these letters, though, tends to depend upon invisible webs of prerequisites (like reputation with a certain group, which you have no way of knowing without a save-game hacker), meaning that you could quite literally play Daggerfall forever without managing to touch the main quest — I only muddled through with prodigious use of the Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages.

But the facelessness of quests is one of the game’s failings. Certain groups of quests are attached to certain groups of people (shopkeepers or nobles, that kind of thing), but beyond that they can come out from anywhere on talking to somebody. The game will plug in some random target, hiding in a random building in a random town or a random dungeon somewhere in your current province, and off you go.

While this might be a good technique to supplement a hand-crafted main game with a few fiddly extras, it gets tiresome after a while as the sum total of the game’s content.

Look away, now back to me, I am on a horse... That doesn't seem to go any faster than I would on foot.

But I think that an even greater failling of Daggerfall‘s is its dungeons.

The whole world and all its people might conspire to give you a sense of rich history and politics, but the dungeons are aimless, anarchic messes. Maybe I am raiding the Fortress of Fhojum, or the Web of Vermerog; but they’re both collections of the same twisting corridors with no regard for the exterior entrance or surroundings (Fhojum is a towering keep, Vermerog is a giant dead tree stump; both have the same dingy stone corridors).

As the dungeons are so samey (apart from a few main quest entrances and end points; all the best level geometry is hidden at the end of the main quest behind a pile of heinously impenetrable “puzzles”), it’s hard to get a feel for what you’re actually raiding. There are no landmarks, no ways to get to know the layout and navigate; corridors twist off in nonsensical directions and explode out from the little nodule that held the entrance. Locked doors are as likely to contain a spurious little bedroom as a torture chamber or a crypt. While there might be a variety of prefab dungeon tiles, they are mashed together rather than forming coherent alternative sets.

Dungeon diving isn’t necessarily a pleasant experience anyway; at any level, certain spellcaster opponents have spells that can one- or two-hit you instantaneously, meaning opening a door can result in an untimely and unavoidable death. Others have a high chance to paralyse you, freezing you for a frustratingly long time while they land blows that can half your health.

Dungeon exteriors are often pretty. Shame about the interiors, eh?

Daggerfall is, like its predecessor, a hard game to enjoy.

It’s awkward, crusty, turgid and quite frequently plain broken. If you’ve not become lodged in a wall while swimming or jumping, you’ve fallen through entirely and disappeared into the abyss. Levers controlling vital gates and elevators spuriously cease to function, making the debug mode cheats a necessity rather than a luxury. The world sprawls but is ultimately hollow.

On the other hand, Daggerfall is a collossal feat of strength. Books, history, the odd pre-rendered cinematic and even a live action intro, the sprawling cities and endless wilderness… It’s huge, and it is a sight I would recommend anyone behold, at least for a little while if not to completion. There is some satisfaction at higher levels of running through dungeons and swatting away enemies like flies (100 strength and 100 speed, thank you), but it’s fairly limited compared to the satisfaction a huge and deep open-world RPG should be providing (and I am ever more excited about replaying Morrowind now).

Daggerfall is sadly less than the sum of its parts. I won’t say I’ve lost anything by having experienced it (even in that stunted walkthrough-addled way), but I can’t recommend it at all.

Stand back for justice!

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