Tag Archives: Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall

Travellin’ Morrowind: or “If this is Tuesday, this must be Tel Mora”

Well, this wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. Not from Morrowind, anyway. I think I’m somehow on tour.

Okay, bit of context. As I’d said in previous postings, I’ve acquired (perfidy!) and modded Morrowind, and finally settled in to play the game properly. No problem. And, for the first little bit, it was exactly what I’d expected: wandering through the wilds of Vvardenfell, fighting off beasties with a big spear and somewhat-untrustworthy magic, and making my way to the (relatively) big city of Balmora. I met my rep for the organization that was apparently responsible for the main plotline, the Blades…and discovered that my all-important quest was “go get a few levels or something, kid, we can’t use you as-is”.

That was new. All of a sudden there was NO main plotline to follow? Skyrim or Oblivion that ain’t. Heck, I can’t really think of an RPG that said “er, yeah, here’s a few bucks, go get some gear and levels and come back later”.

A bit nonplussed, I joined both the Fighters’ and Mages’ Guilds there, was bounced back from the Imperial Legion, and found out about the “Imperial Cult”, which is a faction supposedly tied to Skyrim’s various kinda-sorta gods. A few web sources implied that the Cult was a good way to start, and found out that the way to Morrowind’s Imperial capital of Ebonheart was best made by way of Vivec, Morrowind’s gigantic stepped-pyramid city.

I learned that I could port directly to Vivec from Balmora as a member of the Mages’ Guild. Great! That ability was one of the last ones you get in Daggerfall as a Mage’s Guild member, so it’s nice that it’s freely available now. I teleport to Vivec, get lost for a bit, and walk on over to Ebonheart. Joining the Imperial Cult was trivial enough, and I was given a few new quests. One was in town, but the others were in different towns. So I used a teleporter to get close, and then got on a boat, then got on a strider, to get to the town I need to. That led me to some of the OTHER factions, which gave quests in OTHER towns. So I used a strider, then used a boat…

…okay, you probably see the problem at this point.

Skyrim, at this point in the game, was already a bit of a dungeon crawler. Arena and Daggerfall were practically nothing BUT dungeon-crawlers. Morrowind, though, seems to be absolutely chock-full of quests and activities that take you from town, to town, to town, to town.  Sure, there are some that take you into dungeons or caves—I think—but most of it seems to be taking me from point A to point B, especially the beginner-friendly Imperial Cult stuff. So I’ve found myself on this grand tour of all the different towns and cities in the region, finding new destinations every time I reach one of my previous ones.

It’s weird, too, because it’s the last thing I was expecting. Morrowind is justly famous for not having any sort of quick-travel system beyond those boats and striders and mage guild teleporters. If you want to get somewhere outside of the town network, your options are pretty much limited to two feet and a heartbeat. You don’t even get that Skyrim-style destination marker, and dungeons aren’t marked on the world map at all. You have to remember where they are, or (more realistically) read it somewhere else.

I’m not sure if it’s bad or good. I don’t miss Daggerfall’s all-dungeon-all-the-time, but I do find myself missing the way that Skyrim gets you right into dungeon-crawling. I suspect that all this may be intentional, though, as a way of getting you around the island-continent and introducing you to all the different towns, cities, and factions in a way that I haven’t seen since Arena‘s whole Staff of Chaos thing. Oblivion, Skyrim, and Daggerfall never really do that.

Morrowind is also the sort of place you want to show off, too. Vivec is astonishing, in ways I’ve seen in no game made before or since, but so are places like Ald’Ruhn (built inside the shell of a city-sized emperor crab), the Canton-town of Molag Mor, and the stepped river-city of Balmora, and all those little towns and villages made out of a mix of familiar and alien building design.

Honestly, the first time I saw Sadrith Mora, it near took my breath away. The way that the home of the treacherous (and hysterically fun) Telvanni sorcerers is primarily made of gigantic, hollowed out, baroque towers of fungus just shows why people never really shut up about Morrowind, and why people put so much effort into modding it to keep it up with modern systems. My character ended up joining them just because it was EXACTLY the sort of stunning, impossible virtual environment that’s fun to hang out in. (Something that too few MMO designers understand.)

Skyrim is stark and beautiful, but I haven’t seen anything there that matches  Sadrith Mora, Ald’Ruhn, or Vivec. I doubt I will.

So, yeah, I can handle the tour. The dungeon-crawling and the main quest can wait. I’ve got an easy quest to deliver a skirt to an insane sorceress. Nothing could possibly go wrong.

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Daggerfall’s Finished

So, now that I’ve finished both Daggerfall and Arena, do I still stick to my earlier claims that I preferred Elder Scrolls: Arena?

Yeah, pretty much.

The last dungeon in Daggerfall really was impressive. It took that sheer size that is pretty much synonymous with the game and created some really neat setpieces. Upside-down temples, pyramids hanging in midair, some sort of weird thing involving enormous hollow crossbows and floating swords…it was neat stuff, without the enormous frustration of the typical Daggerfall dungeon. The map still wasn’t really of much help, but it’s a familiar issue at this point.

Still, everything that was an issue before with Daggerfall remained an issue. The map was still an impediment, instead of the goad to progress that it was in Arena. The scattered bits and pieces of plot in Daggerfall didn’t really add up to a satisfactory conclusion compared to Arena, which is kinda strange considering the depth of the setting and the  complexity of the scenario were pretty impressive. I like what I saw, but still didn’t have that “oh, let’s see what’s over HERE!” feeling that I had all the time in Arena. Running through all those corridors was fun, but right to the end they felt like a set of corridors arbitrarily hanging in space, and I truly, truly missed the good ol’ Dungeon-Master-style blocky dungeon grids of Arena.

(Combat was still fairly satisfying; but then again, Daggerfall combat basically IS Arena combat, albeit with mouselook. No reason it wouldn’t be satisfying.)

Yes, the multiple endings are a nice touch. I liked how it was set up, too, where you were forced to decide which faction to give incredible, world-shattering power to. The game did a good job of showing both the strengths and the warts of pretty much every faction in the game. Even ol’ Uriel Septim VII didn’t come off perfectly, considering he basically sent you into the region under false pretenses. Granted, the choice doesn’t really matter, since the Morrowind writers decided to come up with a scenario where all the endings (somehow) happened simultaneously. But I was still surprised to find myself considering the choice a bit.

Pity that the endings themselves are unimpressive. They’re really just a few images in a “turning book” CG animation, accompanied by muddy, bored-sounding narration that makes King’s Quest 5 sound like Pixar work. I wish they could have done a follow-up to the truly impressive FMV(!) opening, which still ranks as one my favorite bits of the game. I also wish that there had been a bit more of a “conclusion” to the factional elements outside of the main plot: hitting the top rank of the Mage’s Guild (for example) nets you little more than a quick blurb about how you were elected Archmage. Raising faction rank in Daggerfall is a pretty arduous affair; at least SOME work could have been put into rewarding players for it!

(Though, then again, Arena didn’t have any factions at all.)

Did I see all that Daggerfall had to offer? Admittedly, no. Yes, I did try out the spell, item, and potion makers; the potion maker was superfluous, but the item maker and spell maker were genuinely interesting, fun tools that involved real decisions and real tradeoffs. But I didn’t get involved with either the thieves’ or assassin’s guilds. I didn’t become either a werewolf or a vampire. I never visited a witches’ coven, nor did I summon any daedric lords. I missed visiting several regions, and (of course!) only saw a fraction of the dungeons. There were things I missed, and I probably saw more of Arena than I saw of Daggerfall.

Still, I saw enough of Daggerfall to mostly agree with the majority opinion that it was a fascinating, welcome, and yet very flawed experiment. It was truly huge in both ambition and scope, and it was clear that their developers and designers were flying by the seat of their pants in a way that Bethesda has never really done since. Even without the staggeringly immense overworld, it still features the most jaw-dropping, shockingly enormous cities, towns and dungeons that we will likely ever see in a game. You really can’t conceive of how huge cities like Wayrest, Daggerfall, and Sentinel are until you’ll run through them yourself. Everything else will just seem a bit…limited…in comparison.

But I think I’m ready for something that’s more carefully designed, more focused, and deliberately crafted. So farewell to Daggerfall. On to Morrowind.

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Accessibility in RPGs (With more Daggerfall/Arena stuff)

Another piece by Rowan, prompting another response/extension here on LC.

(Sure, unsurprising. But, hey, even when I disagree, I like what he writes. So why not?)

This time he’s talking about the surprising accessibility of Might and Magic 3. Its relatively simplicity in design and play means that it’s pretty accessible in ways that more ambitious games aren’t. He ain’t wrong there.

My immediate response—as I said on Twitter—was a reminder old JRPGs tend to do quite well when paired with more up-to-date graphics. Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Chrono Trigger, whatever; they do really well, and there’s reasons for that. You may not have all the choice that you do with a modern western RPG, or even the older western RPGs, but the whole “attack, defend, magic, item” thing is pretty instantly understandable. As long as you tweak the random encounter rate so that it isn’t painful, you can give people a really satisfying experience, even if they don’t have Ultimate Freedom And Control. Compare that to, say, Ultima 4. Sure, it’s highly-regarded, but it’s also famously off-putting to modern audiences.

…Since this IS Leveling Criticism, though, I’m gonna bring it back to Elder Scrolls.

Folks, I’m pretty close to finishing Daggerfall. I’ve pretty much gotten as high as I care to in the factions that I’m interested in, I’ve booted around the overworld in high-speed cheaty-mode, I know pretty much what’s going on with the main plot, and I’m a few main dungeons away from getting it all sorted out. I’ve opened up the spell-maker, the item-maker, and played around with both, making some neat stuff. I’ve seen most of what Daggerfall has to offer in terms of dungeon and quest design. And guess what?

I prefer Arena.

I’m still not quite sure why. I’m quite sure it’s true, but I’m not quite sure why it’s true.  Certainly Daggerfall is a more ambitious project, and it’s a fair bit more immersive in many respects. There’s loads more to do, and the environment’s still daunting and huge. I’m still gobsmacked at the size of the major cities in Daggerfall and am very aware that nobody will ever make anything as bit again. But, yeah, I do prefer Arena.

Rowan may have hit on part of it. Arena‘s relative simplicity may have something to do with it. Arena ain’t complicated. You’ve got a big evil overlord that’s imprisoned you and wants to kill you, you’ve got a friendly ghost helping you, you’ve got to break out of the dungeons and take out the Big Bad by collecting together the 8 chunks of foozle. You go into sixteen different hand-crafted 2D tile-based dungeons in order to do it, before heading to the seventeenth—the same dungeon that you escaped—in order to do it. Simple. It even comes with an auto-map, and the combat’s marvelously intuitive once you get used to it.

Sure, there’s stats, and classes, some neat random quests, and a really neat spell-maker gizmo that lets you make spells that completely break the game if you want to. And, yes, its’ got a big world. But for all its size, Arena is pretty simple. The most off-putting thing is that the initial dungeon’s tuning needed a bit of work.

Compare that to Daggerfall. Leave aside the sheer size of the environment. You’ve got a game where you can do almost anything. You have a class-making system. You have a spell-making system. You have an item-making system. You have a potion-making system. You have a variety of attributes, and a HOST of skills, all of which need to be considered and managed. Manage them right, and the game’s easy; manage them wrong, and it’s impossible. Good luck.

You have dozens of factions, many of which are opposed to each other, where your reputation with said factions is something you need to often consider and manage. You have a main quest woven into these factional conflicts which is so quiet and inobtrusive that many players may not even realize it exists until it’s too late.

(It’s so very, very easy to break the main quest of Daggerfall. You’ll never know you did it, either.)

Raising your status with the factions usually involves going into immense dungeons and finding targets of such immense obscurity that every FAQ on the Internet tells you to cheat if you want to have any hope of doing it at all. And if you mess up your status with some of the factions, that’ll affect the main quest too, in ways that are impossible to predict.

Sure, it’s rich. It’s incredibly rich. It’s immensely rich. But that richness does mean that it just doesn’t feel that accessible. Arena did.

Skyrim is infinitely more accessible than both, of course, since Skyrim dispenses with even those parts of Arena that can be offputting. It doesn’t have classes, and barely has stats. The factions are more about hosting quest-lines than about managing quantitative status. Most quests are carefully written and scripted, and the random ones are used to shuttle you about more than anything else. It’s also near-impossible to break the main questline. It’s difficult to break ANY of them.

It’s the dungeons that really show the problem, though. Daggerfall has an endless number of dungeons, and all the dungeons are so intricate and difficult in design that the mapping tool simply can’t manage it, though it’s quite possible that no mapping tool could.  Daggerfall dungeons often look like something out of the latter parts of Descent.

Arena dungeons are simpler, sure. They’re 2D tile-based levels that would be familiar to anybody who’s played anything from Shining in the Darkness to Dungeon Master to Phantasy Star to, yes, Might and MagicThat’s why they work. They’re an expansive, immersive version of something that’s already pretty familiar. They’re easy to grasp and simple to map, yet still employ some fun three-dimensional trickery to make them more entertaining. They often subvert the map, but they never make it uselessDaggerfall‘s dungeons, astonishing and huge and groundbreaking as they are, were really just too much.

(Quite a bit like Descent, in fact.)

That’s the main reason I haven’t done a dungeon-by-dungeon examination of Daggerfall like the #craigplaysarena series I did on Google+ about Arena. I wouldn’t know where to start. I can’t even find decent maps of the things anywhere. Even the FAQs never have a full map, but just a set of directions.  I can’t keep a map of the things in my head, the map I use in the game is useless, and nobody else seems to have any either. How can you critique or analyze a dungeon like that? So, instead, you get these broader discussions.

Once I move on to Morrowind, I’ll try to get back to discussing individual quests and dungeons again, since I know that they’re a bit less daunting. It’ll never be a full-on “Let’s Play”, but I would like to be able to focus a bit more than I have been able to with Daggerfall. I’ll also make a point of returning to the game when the DaggerXL engine modernization project has moved on a bit.  I’d be interested in seeing whether a modern engine helps.

I know people are absolutely in love with Daggerfall, and I can really see where they’re coming from. Every so often, it really can suck you in, and at those moments I do wonder whether I’m being too hard on it. It was an astonishing project, even if it didn’t quite work. I want to love it more than I do.

But, yeah, it does show that Rowan’s bang-on about accessibility. You can be too big. You can be too ambitious. If you’re not very careful, it’ll just leave players behind.

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Cheating May Make Daggerfall Better.

So Rowan Kaiser did a thing about RPG combat. It was pretty good, and one of the things that he highlighted was the “responsiveness” of the combat in the first two Elder Scrolls games: Arena and Daggerfall.  It’s honestly one of the best bits of both games; you move the mouse, and your weapon moves along with it. Different strokes have different effects, so you get a tactical element of choosing the best attack for the job, and the one-to-one correlation between what you do with the mouse and what the character does.

Move mouse. Swing sword. Cleave gobbo.

At its best, that’s what Daggerfall is really about: having an RPG where everything correlates. That’s especially true when it comes to scale. The towns are huge. The cities are monstrous. The region is mindbogglingly huge; it’s something like 65,000 miles square. When you go into a house or building, it’s either just as big on the inside, or even bigger. No game before or since has really done this. Even Arena never went THIS far.

That goes for the dungeons and caves and towers and whatnot too. They’re beyond monstrous, so much so that it’s pathetically easy to get lost. In fact, one of the most universal instructions you read about Daggerfall is that you must get the teleport spell before anything else, if only so that you can make your way back to the entrance. The dungeons are so huge that it’s distinctly possible that you’ll get utterly lost in one of its dungeons. For good. GAH.

Basically all you see of the whole kingdom.

It also means that, in a very real sense, you never really engage with Daggerfall’s size. You never, ever travel from town to town. You fast-travel everywhere. Cities? Fast-travel. Villages? Fast-travel. Dungeons? Fast-travel. You never go exploring, you never stumble across things, you never have random encounters, none of that. You have this entire gigantic continent-sized gameworld that you NEVER, EVER SEE. You just teleport from place-to-place.

Arena was different; you literally had to fast-travel because of the way the game was structured. Each town and city was its own separate area. If you tried to run from one town to another, you’d just loop back around. Not with Daggerfall. You COULD travel. But you’d be mad to try.

Same goes for those huge dungeons. Unlike Arena, where exploring dungeons was fun and rewarding, exploring in Daggerfall is an ordeal due to the inability of the designers to put in a mapping system that actually works. 3D maps just don’t WORK. They’ve never really worked—developers and players both have known that since the first Descent—and Daggerfall’s maps are no exception at all. I find myself more lost after using the map than I was before. But since the only other indication of where the hell I am is the wall and ceiling textures of the dungeon “block” that I’m in, and since the organization of the tunnels doesn’t have the pleasing block-based density of Arena, I’ve found that I just don’t want to go into them in the first place. Sure, wandering through those halls can be appealing, but it’s nowhere near as fun as Arena or the more focused post-Morrowind games.  Just the thought of slogging through more of Orsinium is keeping me from firing up the game in the first place.

So what’s the other option? What can fix this?

I’ll tell you. CHEATING YOUR ASS OFF.

Not even talking about “trainers” or third party hacks or whatnot. Oh, no. Not even talking about third-party maps. (As if such things existed. Arena maps are ubiquitous online, but Daggerfall? Not a chance.) The last patch of Daggerfall includes an amazing cheatmode within the game itself. Here, I’ll just quote the Readme file:

  • 1 – Sets your MaxSpeed to 1200 (6x the normal value).
  • CTRL-F1 – Activate all maps on the fast travel map. This can be useful if somehow a location is no longer on the map.
  • CTRL-F4 – Invulnerable mode.
  • ALT-F11- If you fall into the void, pressing this will take you back to the previous object you were standing on. This can help you get out of the void when you fall into it.
  • [ and ] – If you’re in a dungeon, these keys will cycle you through the various quest locations. Be careful though that you don’t beam into a location that is occupied by a monster. You will be trapped inside the monster. Also, some locations are high enough to pop you into the void when you beam to it. This can be useful if you fall into the void or can’t find the quest item you’re looking for.
  • -and = – These keys raise your reputation and your skills.

A lot of these are Hail-Marys from a dev team that clearly didn’t have any other time to spare fixing Daggerfall’s endless bugs, providing players means by which they can rescue themselves. Others are obvious cheats, like invulnerability, or seemingly-minor things that actually completely break the game, like the rep and skill boosters.

(Neither seem like a big deal until you realize that absolutely everything you do in the game serves to increase either a skill or reputation level.  There are precious few “quest chains” beyond the main one; the quests only serve to raise your reputation with some faction or another about five points or so. And skills determine everything in this game. Attributes are poor cousins in comparison. So, yeah, press the hyphen or equals button at your own risk.)

But those square brackets? And the Maxspeed trick? THOSE are different. I tried them both. They’re both fixes for the proportion problem, and I found that they could easily be used to change the experience, and arguably make it better, but without breaking it.

The square bracket trick is the more straightforward of the two. It gets you around the gigantic, baroque, and often frustrating arrangement of the random dungeons. Trying to slog through those dungeons is such an annoying, endless, irritating task after a while that it’s a pretty big disincentive to bother with Daggerfall questing at all. It’d be much like if you couldn’t quicktravel on the main map: it’d seem immersive at first, but after the first three hours or so, you’d just want to get the stupid trip OVER with. Sometimes, you can’t even get to where you need to be at all! It’s equal parts daunting and frustrating, and the immersiveness is lost.

You can't possibly know how much I miss Arena's maps.

The bracket trick quickly and effectively solves the dungeon design problem. You teleport to where you need to be, get what you need, and then teleport out. Sometimes it doesn’t work properly, and you discover you still need to travel there. That’s almost better, though, because you know roughly where you’re supposed to go. That’s never a problem in the other Elder Scrolls games; Arena’s “level” based dungeon design meant that you were generally looking for the way down or for the central part of the lowest level, and the later games were linear enough that you could have a decent idea of where you needed to go simply by looking at where you’d been. Daggerfall has neither of those; you don’t know ANYTHING about these dungeons. By porting to where you need to be and then porting back to the entrance, you can figure out where you need to go and work from there.

You can also theoretically skip some truly ridiculous and arbitrary door-and-switch puzzles, too. “Handy” isn’t the word.

The trick really helps with my engagement. Even if I’m teleporting around, I can still do what I need to do, grab what I need to grab, and fight what I need to fight. It’s not like I use the trick right off the bat; there are enough rewards for exploration that it’s worth exploring the dungeons even when I DO know the final goal. Heck, sometimes I’ve ported to the target and then worked my way back to the entrance. You still get that sense of exploration of an unknown environment, but with a sense of purpose and heading.

Fast-move is subtler, but even better, due to it granting the possibility of avoiding teleportation. When I enabled fast-move and left town, I found myself moving quickly enough that I could plausibly get from settlement to settlement in Daggerfall without fast-travel. I could just travel on my own to where I wanted to go.

It was like a revelation. All that space between the towns and dungeons and cities and whatnot actually meant something. Sure, it was obviously procedurally generated, and mostly amounted to a bunch of triangles on the ground, but it actually meant something! It gave that sense of space, of exploration, of environment that’s at the heart of the whole Elder Scrolls series. I wasn’t teleporting, I was traveling! Same reason why you have the whole “gryphon taxi” thing in World of Warcraft. It gives you that sense of place.

Here’s a Youtube clip showing what it looks like:

Don't mind the graphics. 'twas 1984.

Funny, though—it reminded me most of Elite. Not sure if you remember that old space travel/trading series, but its big gimmick was that you could travel around a whole big section of the galaxy. Of course, the distances would be forbidding even with lightspeed travel, so the series had a time dilation button that let you speed up time in the game and move faster. I preferred that to the whole “warp point” structure of later games like Wing Commander or Freelancer; you really got a sense of the immense size of the environment you were exploring.

That’s how this “cheat” felt to me. it felt like I was speeding up time to move from place to place, so that I could explore this vast environment without spending a significant chunk of my life riding from place to place.  That one-to-one representative scale finally works.Actual travel between settlements makes it pretty clear that they’d never really intended for players to do this. It’s honestly hard to FIND the settlements; unlike Arena, there’s no map outside of town for some reason, and the worldmap just doesn’t cut it.  Daggerfall’s designers clearly expected you to quick-travel from place to place, just as they expected you to wander through randomly-generated dungeons for ages upon ages. It’s too late for that to change, but these cheats really show what might have been.

That’s why I’m not sure that they are cheats. Okay, sure, the invulnerability one is, as are the skill and rep buttons. But the speed booster and dungeon teleporter really feel more like modification, rather than cheating. It’s like downloading a mod for Skyrim that makes destruction magic better at higher levels, or adds in proper scaling versions of those early channeled fire and lightning spells. (Both of which are mods I use.) They fill in a gap in the game’s design. It may not be the same game, but it’s quite probably a better game, that more closely fits the feel of the thing.

So, yeah, if you do play Daggerfall, and have been wise enough to get the final official patch, go into the z.cfg file and add the line “cheatmode=1”. Then, at some point, head out of town, push the “1” key, see the parts of the game that you’d never have thought were there, and maybe think about what might have been.

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Star Wars: The Old Republic Impressions

(Yes, yes, I’d promised more on Daggerfall and how cheating makes it better.  I’ll get to that.)

So I got one of those “try our game free for seven days!” things from EA/Bioware for Star Wars: The Old Republic. (“SWTOR” to its friends.)  Immediately interested by that. Unlike pretty much every massive-multi game under the sun these days, there’s no option to play SWTOR for free. World of Warcraft and Rift are both free up to 20, and pretty much everybody else is completely free-to-play. Not SWTOR. This was as “free” as it was going to get.

Okay, yes. It’s restricted. But the restrictions are interesting: you can only go to the first few areas, you can only go up to level 15, and you can apparently roll as many characters as you see fit.  Put those together, and you have a demo encouraging you to see a good broad cross-section of the early game. Not a bad idea. In a modern MMO, that’s often the best bit.

So after ensuring I had enough space and download data free for that groaningly huge client,  I downloaded it, fired it up, and selected my first class: in this case, a female Republic Soldier. Had to be that: I found out that that character’s voiced by Jennifer “Femshep” Hale, and I’m always up for hearing her growl at people.

Then I set out to recreate my Shep, and that’s when I found out the first thing about SWTOR, which is that playing other Bioware games is not a good indicator for SWTOR’s graphics. Yes, they’re better than WoW, but I was expecting something on the same level as your Dragon Ages or Mass Effects. This wasn’t even in the same ballpark. I’m pretty sure the faces in DCUO were more detailed, and that one was a console port!

Doesn’t matter, though. Minor detail. And after making a “good enough Shep”, I started up the game proper, and discovered three things:

  1. It’s a Bioware Game;
  2. It’s an Everquest/WoW-style MMO; and
  3. Those two things are really weird together.

Not “bad”, mind you. But weird. The game is the oddest hybrid. You do some classic Bioware conversation stuff, and then go do some WoW-style exploration and combat, and then go back to turn in the quest and do MORE Bioware-ing, and it’s seriously a bit jarring after a while. It feels like I’m playing two different games that kinda-sorta have something to do with each other, but not quite.

The conversation bits are definitely the high point. They really do flesh out your character and make you feel special, and the idea of having  “locked off” areas that are focused on telling the particular classes’ stories was an excellent notion that other companies should definitely emulate. You’re invested in the story from the get-go.  The Republic Soldier story felt a little generic, but still decent.

After playing with her for a while, I rolled an Imperial. Two, actually:  A Sith Inquisitor, which seems to be a popular class, and an Imperial Agent, which is getting rave responses. WOW.  I now understand why there’s a huge faction imbalance. The Republic soldier story was fine, but is simply outclassed by the Imperials. The Imperial stories started off engaging pretty much from the get-go and have just been getting better. THAT’S the Bioware that I remember and used to love.

The MMO bits, though…just not quite sold yet. Yes, it’s early. MMO combat is notoriously simplistic at low levels.  Maybe it gets a lot better. But it’s still the old “go here, kill a thing, collect another thing, bring it back, enjoy your loot” experience that everybody’s familiar with. It’s odd, too, because Blizzard has been working really, really hard to get away from that sort of thing. Ever since Wrath of the Lich King, Blizzard’s been using their “vehicle” mechanics and environmental phasing and a whole lot of other tricks to try to mix things up a bit.  Other companies have been trying to mix it up, too, with the standout being Trion with their various dynamic gameplay elements in Rift. Not Bioware. They’re bringing circa-2007 gameplay to the table in 2012. That’s surprising. They know things have changed.

So, yeah, odd hybrid. Neat storytelling (though the morality system’s kind of suspect) married to the sort of traditional theme-park MMOing that we all kinda got sick of at least three years ago. It’s not obnoxious, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of it.

I doubt I’ll buy the game, but I am appreciating the experience. I’m going to make a point of rolling every class, if only to see how they all start out. I won’t necessarily finish the first “planet” on each, but I do want to see what they’re about.

Then it’s back to Daggerfall and Skyrim.

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Daggerfall: Events Intervene (Dungeons and Combat)

(This is part of a series of entries on my simultaneous playthroughs of Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall and Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. Last post’s here.)

Well, up until a few hours ago, I had been planning on writing an update on my playthrough of Daggerfall, talking about how I wasn’t happy with the dungeon-crawling, and how I’d been jumping through no small number of hoops to avoid it, preferring instead to use either city trainers, “overworld” quests, and various little tricks to get reputation and skill increases.

But then I finally decided to go into another dungeon, and found one full of human opponents for a change. After getting a full set of plate armor and an elven-steel daikatana—and, yes, you read that right—fighting through dungeons has gone from a frustrating ordeal to something almost as engaging as it was in Arena. Exploration is still difficult, mind, and the time/reward ratio for running dungeons instead of doing other styles of quests is still completely off if you’re trying to improve your standing with the various factions in Daggerfall. But I’m no longer dreading the thought of combat.

It does show that the early TES games did really have issues with their difficulty curve. That first dungeon in Daggerfall is brutal, and while the maps in Arena are infinitely more comprehensible, the first dungeon in Arena isn’t really much easier to fight through. Subsequent trips in Daggerfall weren’t much better, since low-level monsters are simultaneously surprisingly difficult, but drop practically nothing in the way of usable gear. It’s only a bit later that you start fighting monsters that feel worth it in the first place.

Sure, it makes sense. You aren’t expecting a rat to be carrying chainmail. Where would he put it? But that’s why Dungeons & Dragons had so many low-level “humanoids” like goblins and kobolds; those early challenges are more compelling when you feel like you’re getting something out of them. Even cheap weapons and armor are better than nothing at all.

Both Oblivion and Skyrim handled this far, far better. (Haven’t played Morrowind yet; that’s next.) Oblivion started off with the sequence with the Emperor which showed the stakes involved, before putting you in a relatively easy dungeon. Skyrim had its awesome cart ride, execution, and dragon attack  sequence before putting you in an equally easy dungeon, but this time with an NPC friend to help show you what you’re supposed to be doing and lead you to the first real quest hub. The difficulty and intensity ramps up smoothly, instead of dropping you in at the deep end and just DARING you to quit.

I may change my mind again about heading underground after having to deal with another absolutely enormous incomprehensible randomly-generated dungeon. Aside from the main quest, though, Daggerfall doesn’t really force you to do that. There are more than enough ways to improve your character that don’t involve stumbling through the dark, especially if you’re not above a bit of larceny or  some repetitive cycles of spellcasting and resting.

Right now, though, I’m enjoying it far more than I had expected.

Update: Well, that dungeon went smooth as silk. In and out, fast and clean, without the feeling of being lost and frustrated that I’d had every time before. Almost like running an Arena one again. Still a shame about that map, though.

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“Domestication”, Bethesda, and the Elder Scrolls

Just to flip things around from that critical link I did to Nightmare Mode earlier, here’s a really good piece by Fernando Cordeiro about how games have become “domesticated”.

Now, games are domesticated. Not only have we grown familiar to their bizarre lexicon (cracked walls were meant to be exploded) but we always have the information of what to do and where to go directly at our fingertips, sometimes even before we have any real use for such information.  As a result, games have become to-do lists. The contemporary quintessential videogame is nothing but a laundry list of things to do in order to get the 100% complete rate. What used to be surprises to be found became mere tasks to be fulfilled: “Defeat Riddler”; “Stop the bomb”; “Find 35 pieces of arrows”; “Help the villagers”; “Become the master of fighter’s guild”.

The more domesticated games are even worse. These games not only list what you have to do, but also how you should do it. The block you need to ground pound has the “ground pound” symbol on it. After pounding it, the game camera zooms in on whatever change that last action created so you know exactly where to go next. More “complex” puzzles will merely increase the string of activities you must complete before reaching that treasure chest. In which probably lies the exact thing your goal statement said you needed! Aren’t you lucky? Don’t you feel happy, boy? Now you can beat the level’s boss in a fashion almost exactly like the one we will now explain via this super tutorial sequence! Isn’t that nice, boy? Who’s a good boy? WHOSAGOODBOY?? You are!

We now take this for granted. We expect our games to have mini-maps to pin point exactly where we should be heading next, as if my medieval hero had a smartphone with him. It’s either that of that looming golden arrow that acts like Jack Sparrow’s magical compass on the top of the screen. After getting the treasure, we expect to see our progress rate increase in 1%. That way we can measure exactly where we are and have a notion of how much I need before completing the game.

In the world I’m from, this is called a project management tool.

(Not that the other piece wasn’t good…I just disagreed. Utterly different thing.) 

I absolutely agree with Cordeiro on this change. It’s not something that you need to go back to Mario or Zelda for, though. I’m seeing it right now with my Elder Scrolls playthroughs. Both Arena and Daggerfall are unforgiving right off the bat. Arena’s the older game, but Daggerfall is arguably even worse; that first dungeon is an absolute killer, and there’s little opportunity to level up against easy rats in Daggerfall like there is in Arena. The dungeon design in Daggerfall arguably makes it even worse; levels are big, three-dimensional, and impossible to keep track of with the mapping system provided.

All that’s assuming you can even get past the character creator, though. There’s no guarantee of that. Daggerfall’s character creation process is immensely complex. You aren’t just creating characters; in order to be optimal, you’re creating a class, and class creation in Daggerfall involves blizzards of statistics and floods of abilities. Worse yet, you don’t know which of the abilities are any good; a lot of them are really marginal, and some are outright useless.

If you DO get through all this? If you DO get out of that first dungeon in Daggerfall? Guess what? You’re out in the world! You don’t know what’s going on. You barely know where to go. You’re beyond intimidated by a landmass that’s the size of Great Britain. (No. Really. Daggerfall’s the largest gameworld ever made.) The only thing you know to do is go to Daggerfall. But if you do that, the ghosts haunting its streets will likely straight-up kill you.

Compare that to Skyrim. It starts without any character creation whatsoever, with a cart ride that deliberately obscures your identity and looks in order to ease players in. Character creation happens at a logical place in the game, and basically comes down to aesthetics (with ample presets) and race selection. The stats and skills are whittled down to a few key choices, and you have no way of changing them at character creation. They will change, but only through your actions during the game; it’s about building a class through revealed preferences, instead of making players declare their preferences.

That first part of Skyrim? Instead of a grueling struggle to get out of dungeon, like in Arena or Daggerfall, you’re taken through the sort of roller-coaster ride that you get in pretty much all modern games, where you SEEM like you’re in deadly danger, but you really aren’t. Once you get to the tunnels out of the city, it’s a bit more like Daggerfall, but you aren’t alone, the opponents aren’t difficult, and the caverns’ organization is easy to follow—and once you get out, you’re immediately taken to a nearby village, easing you into the gameworld by giving you a small area to call “home” until you’re ready to venture forth.

Skyrim’s even got those little directional pointers.

So, yeah. Fernando’s right. Things have changed. Wild imagery aside, the Elder Scrolls are domesticated. In the case of Skyrim vs. Daggerfall, I’m not yet convinced that it isn’t a bad thing. Daggerfall’s a hard one to get into, far more intimidating and punishing than Arena was. But there is a part of me that is a little sad that that sense of “oh, God, what do I do now?” is lost.

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