It's been a long time coming, but someone has finally returned to the RPGs of the old school and created an adventure that will take even the most experienced gamer months to unravel in a world incredibly full of life and experience. That someone is Bethesda and the product is The Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall, the follow-up to the popular TES: Arena. From start to finish, Daggerfall shows itself to be an epic product that surpasses the time-crunching power of even the legendary RPGs of old.
At its core, Daggerfall is a well-written adventure game with solid role-playing systems plopped into what is basically an action engine. Players design their character using a creation routine that is second to none, choosing from one of 18 classes that includes knight, warrior, healer, assassin, and sorcerer, or design their own with a specialized sub-creation system. Those who aren't into RPG statistics can let the computer make the choice by answering a moral quiz (à la Ultima IV) that selects the class most appropriate to the player's personality. Once that's finished, players take control of their alter-ego through a first-person interface that in many ways resembles the Ultima Underworld series. From here, as if actually transported to another realm, players are free to do whatever they wish, with computer response mirroring that of the real world.
Although Daggerfall does sport an absorbing storyline (several, in fact), it's the potential for adventure outside of the standard plot that is so exciting. No longer forced to play the way The Man wants, we are now free to ignore the pleadings of the princess, wander off, and get involved in other complex tales that change and evolve in response to our actions! Here lies the greatest strength and weakness of Daggerfall. Those who are looking for an adventure that follows a straight path, that they can sit down and solve, are bound to be terrified (and annoyed) by the entropic nature of this game. Since, as in the real world, events take place at certain times and in certain places, it's also very easy for players to stray accidentally from the beaten path, just because they decided to stop for a bite to eat. It's also easy to get wrapped up in struggles between the game's various guilds without even meaning to. If you join a guild, you instantly make several new friends and even more enemies, and open up new adventure opportunities. The sheer size of this product is staggering, and even the most open-minded player is certain to be overwhelmed at times by the thousands of people to talk to, the scores of weapons and spells to keep up with, the hundreds of books to read, and the vast amount of landscape to cover in the game. To play Daggerfall successfully requires one of two mind-sets: to remain ever-vigilant, taking notes and going exactly when and where you're told; or to relax and let life take you where it will.
Daggerfall is not without its problems. By creating such a large world, Bethesda must have made it impossible for play testers to even scratch the surface of the play possibilities. Players who are determined to push the envelope - crawling, jumping, and swimming into every crevice of the landscape - are sure to find themselves stuck between two polygons with no way to continue except for suicide. Along these same lines is the game's tendency to crash occasionally for what seems to be no reason at all. Patches are bound to be forthcoming, but for now my recommendation is to save early and save often.
For those willing to exercise a little patience with its quirks, Daggerfall will deliver some of the most entertaining and absorbing adventures available. Those who are even the slightest bit put off by subtle storylines or RPG statistics, however, will probably find the game totally unbearable. The bottom line is this: RPGs have always attracted a fanatical core group, and this title was designed with those hard-core gamers in mind. For the rest of you, play another round of Quake and leave the adventuring to the pros.