In September 1996, after several years of development, Bethesda Softworks finally released Daggerfall, the second chapter in its Elder Scrolls role-playing game series. Even though Daggerfall was unstable and relied upon dated VGA graphics, gamers were addicted in droves to its combination of completely nonlinear gameplay, epic scope, and outstanding character generation and skill-based development systems. Largely due to the continued bug-stomping support of its development team, Daggerfall overcame its notoriously buggy initial release and went on to be almost universally proclaimed as the best role-playing game of 1996. A little over a year later, Bethesda has followed up Daggerfall with Battlespire, a more action-oriented role-playing game set in a smaller, more structured environment. Unlike Daggerfall, which led adventurers on a trek through hundreds of predominately randomly generated dungeons and towns (populated by wooden, undeveloped nonplayer characters), Battlespire has a more focused and developed storyline and takes place entirely within one "pocket dimension" consisting of seven distinct "realms" or levels. But even with the addition of SVGA graphics, nonplayer characters with plenty of personality, and multiplayer features to Daggerfall's core engine and interface, Battlespire's less expansive scope, hack-and-slash gameplay, and technical problems ultimately provide a role-playing experience that is only occasionally satisfying.
Like Daggerfall and its predecessor, Arena, Battlespire is set in the Elder Scrolls world of Tamriel. Set during the same time period as the events in Arena, the plot of Battlespire fits nicely into Elder Scrolls lore. The game begins with your character entering the Battlespire, a testing facility for the Emperor's personal Battlemage guards, only to discover that it has been overrun by malevolent forces. A traitor, working with the archvillain from Arena, Jagar Tharn, has allowed the legions of the Daedra Lord, Mehrunes Dagon, to enter the Battlespire and slaughter the resident Battlemages. Daggerfall-nostalgic gamers hoping for another opportunity to explore the vast wilderness of Tamriel, interacting with guilds and participating in a variety of role-playing lifestyles, will have to wait for Morrowind, the next Elder Scrolls chapter tentatively scheduled to be released in late 1999. Battlespire has a much more limited scope, essentially being a big dungeon crawl along the lines of the Ultima Underworld games from the early 1990s. Gone are Daggerfall's intriguing guild quests, replaced by more mundane, action game-style objectives for each level - find the rods/cogs/sigils/your car keys, etc.
Battlespire, like Daggerfall, uses Bethesda's proprietary 3D graphics engine, XnGine. Bethesda's XnGine has proven to be incredibly adaptable, having been effectively used in a variety of games from diverse genres. Unfortunately, in Battlespire, the XnGine vividly demonstrates some of its traditional weaknesses. Being DOS-based, the XnGine suffers from stability problems within Windows 95, infrequently crashing for no apparent reason (even when using DOS window memory settings suggested by Bethesda). Battlespire's version of the XnGine has a real problem with "clipping" errors, which cause players and creatures to get hopelessly stuck in walls or the numerous 3D polygonal objects littering Battlespire's levels. Any sense of immersion generated by the game's detailed environments is quickly dispelled as soon as you see an ominous, supposedly invincible wraith advancing towards you only to get stuck impotently in the side of a chair. I frequently used the strategy of luring dangerous monsters into walls or objects where they would be immobilized so that I could safely retreat from them or cravenly pick them off from a distance with spells or arrows. Unlike Daggerfall, which used predominately flat 2D "sprites" for its objects, all of Battlespire's objects, other than NPCs or creatures, are displayed as 3D polygons, which, while visually far more satisfying, only serve to increase the graphics engine's clipping problems. You'll also occasionally see objects floating in midair or merged on top of each other (chests and sacks seem to just looove floating on top of each other in Tamriel).
Battlespire's character generation and skill-based development systems are stripped-down versions of their Daggerfall counterparts and work well, affording you considerable freedom to individualize your character's attributes and increase your abilities in those skills most relied upon by your character. Instead of having your character increase in experience levels, as in Daggerfall, your character is awarded a large number of experience points at the end of each of the game's first six realms, which you can use to increase your character's attributes or to touch up his skill levels. Most gamers will likely opt to create their own characters from scratch, but you can choose one of Daggerfall's 18 pregenerated character classes if you want to quickly get into the action. While the inclusion of all of these pregenerated character classes will thoughtfully allow you to recreate your favorite Daggerfall characters, the action-oriented gameplay of Battlespire eventually necessitates developing a character competent at fighting and magic skills. While there are plenty of activities in Daggerfall to occupy the time of a nontraditional character like a burglar, the hack-and-slash nature of Battlespire's gameplay will result in a "wallet-hungry but sword-inept" pickpocket getting splattered all over the walls of the Battlespire.
Battlespire's interface is fully customizable and intuitive, and the view-based or cursor-based movement will be familiar to veterans of prior Elder Scrolls games. Although combat occurs in real time, the game pauses (in the single-player version of the game) whenever you access your automap, inventory, or spell book, making combat a little less intimidating for turn-based grognards. Spell and item hot keys are also available and are particularly useful in the faster-paced multiplayer version of the game. Although you can adjust the sensitivity of your mouse movements within the game, the view-based controls are strangely overly sensitive, especially when compared to Daggerfall's. Even worse, when the game loads digital music from the CD-ROM, the game will temporarily pause, but all of your mouse movements will continue to be recorded, so that when the game resumes, your character will likely be staring at the ceiling or the feet of an opponent. In fact, until you get over the learning curve associated with the game's controls, you'll be looking at a lot of floors.
The conversations with Battlespire's nonplayer characters are the game's best feature and a welcome surprise after the shallow conversations and interactions with Daggerfall's cardboard NPCs. NPC conversations are plentiful, generally well voice acted, and universally well written. These conversations, which you can initiate with virtually all of the creatures in the game, take place within a separate conversation screen. This conversation screen provides the game's best graphics (in the form of the creature depictions) and, although the conversations are fairly linear, some very entertaining dialogue. In fact, the conversations in Battlespire invoke some of the heartiest laughs from a role-playing game since Accolade's Star Control 2. You'll also find that some of the inhabitants are more than willing to attack some of their rival factions - the Daedra are not a mindless horde of demons, but rather consist of a variety of factions, each with its own leader and motivations. Throughout the game you'll get a fairly good idea of the nature of Daedra "culture." If you love a "kill 'em all" style of play and don't have time to chat, there's your character's student peer who entered the Battlespire before you, who will occasionally leave you a cache of useful items or a handy note warning you of some of the dangers ahead (apparently hint books and strategy guides were popular even in medieval Tamriel).
Gone are the spell-maker and item-maker, two popular features from Daggerfall. You can, however, vary a spell's effects (area of effect, detonation triggers, etc.) prior to casting or even save particular configurations to hot keys. Spells can be set to only detonate once they hit "organic" objects (players or monsters), allowing you to bounce spells off walls and hit targets using bank shots, which can be pretty entertaining, especially in multiplayer games. There are only about a dozen monsters in Battlespire, but most of them are new and not just Daggerfall rehashes. Although depicted through flat 2D sprites as opposed to 3D polygons such as those used in action games like Quake and Tomb Raider, the sprites are well done and considerably more detailed than they were in Daggerfall.
The first couple of levels in Battlespire are unrepresentative of the quality of the level design, which is a shame because the later levels are quite interesting. The game's initially awkward jumping interface works satisfactorily once you have some experience with it, but far too often a carelessly planned jump will result in your character getting trapped inside part of a platform or object. Jumping is rarely an important skill to have in the game except, unfortunately, on the game's first level where there is one room involving a number of cumbersome platform jumps. The difficulty of the game is also uneven. The first few levels are quite difficult, especially if your character isn't strong at basic fighting skills, and initial encounters with spell-casting enemies like the provocative Dark Seducers can be extremely frustrating for inexperienced players. The last few levels, by comparison, are relatively easy for battle-hardened characters. One of the strengths of the XnGine has always been its ability to depict indoor and outdoor environments equally well, and while the bulk of your time in Battlespire will be spent indoors, there are a few refreshing instances where your character will get to stretch his legs in a romp outdoors. There's definitely some eye candy in Battlespire if you're patient enough to persevere through the unremarkable introductory levels.
The high-resolution, high-color graphics of Battlespire are much better than Daggerfall's low-resolution graphics, but gamers expecting graphics comparable to those offered in recent action games will be disappointed with the non-3D accelerated visuals of Battlespire. Although support for 3Dfx chipset video cards was initially planned (and, unfortunately, even advertised), the development team ultimately decided that the texture memory limitations of most 3Dfx cards made it impossible to create an enhanced version without making unacceptable sacrifices. The system requirements for reasonable frame rates while playing in high resolution are demanding (a fast Pentium 150 or better), and even in high resolution, the monster sprites and wall textures are notably pixelated when your character gets close to them. A little bilinear filtering would have done wonders.
Battlespire is the first game in Bethesda's proposed Elder Scrolls Legend series, and reflective of the series' focus on more action-oriented gameplay, multiplayer features are included for the first time in an Elder Scrolls game. While the single-player version of Battlespire features a fairly equal combination of role-playing and action gaming elements, the multiplayer version of the game clearly puts the emphasis on the action gaming elements. You can either play cooperatively through the game or attack each other (with or without the presence of monsters) in deathmatches or team vs. team games. Inexplicably, the compelling NPC conversations are not included in the multiplayer version of the game, and you are not permitted to save a multiplayer game until after a level is completed, effectively ruining Battlespire's viability as a multiplayer role-playing game. Modem-to-modem support is also not included, and the free Internet support is available only through MPlayer. Online games understandably suffer from the inherent lag of the Internet, making it particularly disappointing that modem-to-modem support wasn't included, since few gamers have access to a network. I'm skeptical whether any gamers will be content with the multiplayer gameplay in Battlespire - action gamers will expect more in terms of graphics and fast-paced action, while role-playing gamers will expect a more inviting cooperative gaming experience.
Battlespire's limited scope and emphasis on action, especially during multiplayer games, will disappoint many role-playing game fans, and action game fans are better off sticking with the superior graphics and faster gameplay of the Quake engine games. But if you're specifically looking for an action/role-playing game hybrid, and are patient enough to overlook some technical problems, Battlespire has an interesting setting, good character generation and skill development systems, and some extremely colorful nonplayer characters. At its heart, Battlespire is an entertaining dungeon crawl that is marred by a cumbersome interface and an unstable graphics engine.