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Lora's CRPG Reviews: Daggerfall

Daggerfall (Game release date: 1996)
An early attempt to combine a computer RPG with a first-person shooter, Daggerfall largely fails to entertain.

Buy This Game Anyway (Amazon link)

Highlights: Highly customizable character, cool wardrobe, open-ended play
Lowlights: Crippling bugs, badly controlled realtime combat, long boring dungeons, repetitive computer-generated quests and robotic gameworld

Daggerfall is one of the biggest disappointments I've had in a computer game. This one-character CRPG boasts "hundreds" of quests, dungeons, and towns--however, it accomplishes this through random computer generation. That's right, each new town has shops and houses randomly arranged in a different order around its random streets, but no events, denizens, or items of interest. Every dungeon has a randomly generated 3D maze full of random monsters and treasures, but no tricks, traps, or puzzles to challenge your mind. And those hundreds of "quests" just involve a guildmaster or other personage tasking you to bring back a random item from one of these randomly generated dungeons, over and over again. I don't know who wants to do this hundreds of times, but it's certainly not me. Daggerfall was highly touted at the time for its non-linearity, and it's true that you have complete freedom to wander in this game--there's nothing to stop you from buying a horse and spending years charting the Tamriel countryside, or collecting dozens of different-colored outfits to dress your character up in (I plead guilty to the latter.) Achieving non-linearity through purposelessness is a dubious accomplishment, though, and here in the modern era--where CRPG's like Baldur's Gate II offer hundreds of actually creative adventures for players to explore or not at their whims, and MMORPG's like EverQuest offer layers of rich human interaction to enhance the action--Daggerfall's brand of freedom feels more like boredom. To add insult to injury, this is also one of the buggiest games I've ever played. Bright spots include an interesting skill development system and the extensive customizability you get with your character, who need not conform to any particular character class and can even be assigned advantages and disadvantages (one of the earliest computer games to offer this popular tabletop feature).

Style: Daggerfall is an attempt to fuse the classic 3D dungeon games (a la Wizardry) with the 1st-person shooters of the '90's (a la Doom). You control and develop one character. The plot is a role-playing adventure and there are fantasy themes. Combat is realtime.

Series: Daggerfall is part of the "Elder Scrolls" trilogy of adventure CRPG's by game developer Bethesda Softworks. I believe the original adventure, Arena, was the very first first-person CRPG, though it wasn't memorable for anything besides that. Daggerfall's sequels, Morrowind and Oblivion, retain the slightly aimless approach to gaming freedom but give players better-thought-out areas to explore and more interesting development arcs to pursue, and without the crippling bugs that plagued Daggerfall. There's no interdependency between these games, no reason why playing Daggerfall would improve anyone's enjoyment of Morrowind. If you haven't played any of these games and are thinking about Daggerfall, I'd strongly urge you to buy Morrowind or Oblivion instead. Daggerfall's bugs are beyond inconvenient, and there's nothing it did better than its sequels do.

Finding Daggerfall: This game is long out of print. CDAccess and frequently have used copies for sale, but they are generally overpriced; you may want to check Ebay for a better deal. Daggerfall is no longer available as abandonware at the request of the game producers (who were undoubtedly trying to preserve the "Elder Scrolls" copyright for Morrowind's sake).

Getting Daggerfall to Work: Daggerfall is one of the hardest games in existence to get working on a modern system. If you're running XP, Vista, or Windows 7, you will need to use a DOS emulator (like DOSBox) in order to play Daggerfall, and you may need to create a special boot disk as well, and even then, the game will run slow and the sound will probably not work. All of this pales in comparison to the technical problems the game had from the get-o, though. Daggerfall is very poorly programmed and will often cause system lock-ups and crashes. Worse, the randomly-generated 3D dungeons are so poorly done that they often end up with monsters and treasure overlaid by walls (so that you cannot reach them, which is especially bad if that was the randomly generated quest item!) and cracks in the floor you can step through and become permanently stuck. There are a bevy of patches and savegame fixers linked from this site which may help some of the bug issues, but there are going to be problems no matter what you do.

Hints For Daggerfall: I do not have a walkthrough page for Daggerfall myself--because so much of the game is randomly generated, there would hardly be a point. All seventeen steps in the main quest and all six optional mini-quests are detailed on the Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages. You could also buy a Daggerfall Hint Book, if you prefer.

Pitfalls In Daggerfall: Gird yourself for bugs, and lots of them. The most recent patch may help with the system crashes and lockups. Nothing will help with the badly generated dungeons. Save before accepting any quest, and restore if the dungeon you go into is screwed up. (Unfortunately it can take an hour or more to learn this, but that's just the price of playing this game.)

Game Length: It really depends on whether you find repeated quests to fetch randomly generated objects from randomly generated dungeons to be any fun or not. If you hear that and think "Wow, awesome!" then you'll get 100 hours or more out of Daggerfall. If you hear that and think "I might as well run errands to the grocery store," then this is going to be a 40-hour affair for you, and you won't enjoy half of it. There are only about 20 real quests in the game, and they are all very short.

Age-Appropriateness: I think this game predates the rating system, and it's out of print, so it won't have been given one after the fact. It's certainly not for kids younger than 13, though. There is a fair amount of gratuitous nudity in the game, which it's possible to disable at the control screen (basically, with nudity disabled, temple dancers are wearing bikinis and your character's paperdoll has underwear on beneath his or her clothing, whereas with nudity enabled the temple dancers are bare-breasted and your character gets naked whenever you change clothing. Weird.) The "history" texts you find scattered around are also oddly sprinkled with tales of explicit sex.

Lora's Review: (Disappointing)

Plot and Quests: The main plot is a moderately interesting palace intrigue with several steps, most of which are unfortunately of the fed-ex variety (ferrying letters between important personages or fetching items from those dratted dungeons). At the end you do get to choose which faction to give the talisman to, each of which produces a slightly different ending (always a plus). There are only a few side quests with actual content, and hundreds of boring computer-generated ones.
Puzzles and Mental Challenges: There are few puzzles and barely any chances to use your brain at all in this game. The main quest involves a little bit of deduction. Dungeoneering is rote. The biggest challenge in this game is navigation. The automap doesn't function well underground, and the illogical random 3D tunnels can be difficult to map by hand or maneuver around.
Characters: You get one character in this game who is completely customizable both in terms of skills and appearance (though non-Caucasian humans are still a bit lacking.) There are few chances to develop this character or make decisions on his or her behalf. There are no NPCs in Daggerfall besides the dozen or so political folks involved in the intrigue (none of whom has what you'd exactly call a well-developed character) and the hundreds of faceless, randomly generated and randomly named townsfolk (none of whom has anything you'd call a character at all).
Gameworld: On the positive side, this is a large gameworld with much attention to detail (I have never seen so many different types of clothing for sale in a computer game). The game designers have obviously put a good amount of thought into what kind of things a player might be interested in doing, and adapting the game so he can try it. (You can, for example, infect yourself with lycanthropy by letting a werewolf bite you.) On the negative, the world is repetitive, uncreative and excessively computer-generated. There's never anything interesting happening in any town anywhere; they are different only in that their buildings are randomly rearranged. Townsfolk all look the same and have the same pointless comments to make if you try talking to them. Names, too, are randomly selected from a list, and you may find two different women named Carolyrra Hawkwing in the same village. And another in the next. And the next. All of Tamriel has this monotonous, almost robotic feel to it.
Gameplay (Leveling, Spells, etc.): This score would probably be higher if the game were programmed more adequately. Character creation and skill development is fun, and you get a lot more character options than in many CRPG's. The item enchantment system is also very good. However, even patched and repatched, several of the gameplay elements (particularly the spellcasting system) are crippled by bugs.
Interface (Movement, Inventory Management, etc.): The interface is a generally adequate mid-nineties toolbar. Movement is 3D rather than tile-based, and doesn't always handle this (at the time) new technology very adeptly. Armor, clothing, and weapons are extremely varied in appearance, which makes inventory management unusually nice for a CRPG. Combat is unpleasant and buggy, and the automap doesn't work consistently in dungeons, a devastating flaw--having to repeatedly map these random nonsensical three-dimensional tunnel complexes by hand gets to be like nails on a chalkboard.
Ambience (Graphics, Sound, etc.): The graphics are dated but tolerable. Weather effects are intrusive and unrealistic-looking. As your character moves or turns, your view of the world bumps and jogs in a vaguely nauseating way. Monsters and NPCs are highly pixellated sprites, and the closer you get to them, the larger those pixels get. The cookie-cutter sameness of the towns and their inhabitants keeps the detailed gameworld from ever acquiring a truly immersive feel, and the lack of creativity keeps it from imparting any mood.

Lora's Recommendations: It's hard to think of anyone I'd actually recommend this game to. If you have nostalgic feelings about Daggerfall from ten years ago, playing it again today may be something of a disappointing shock, like the time I made the mistake of watching old "Speed Racer" cartoons and realizing they weren't half as good as I'd remembered. If you never played it in the first place, I don't know why you'd really want to start now. There's nothing it does that its sequels, Morrowind and Oblivion, don't do faster and with fewer bugs. Try Baldur's Gate 2 or Wizardry 8 if you're looking for a really well-done CRPG; if you're in search of some nostalgic old-school fun, you might want to revisit the Realms of Arkania Trilogy or the Ultima Collection, both of which have held up a little better over the years than Daggerfall.

If You Loved Daggerfall: Then you would probably really love Morrowind; however, if you played this game recently and really enjoyed it, you really shouldn't ever have to pay for a game again, since you obviously have the patience, technical knowhow, and love of the classics to play abandonware to your heart's content. If you can get Daggerfall working on a modern system, you can get just about any old DOS game running, and there are hundreds to choose from. If you have an ethical objection to abandonware, there are some great collections of old classics available for sale--some of the best are the Ultima Collection, Ultimate Wizardry Archive, and Might and Magic Platinum Edition. On the other hand, if you loved Daggerfall in 1996 and were wondering if anything good had come along in the genre in the past ten years, you're in for a real treat. Try Morrowind or Oblivion, or try the excellent modern CRPGs Baldur's Gate 2 and Wizardry 8.

For a more detailed critique of Daggerfall involving spoilers, please see my Backseat Game Designer page. Happy gaming!

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