Review by Scout
The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall
Developer Bethesda Softworks, LLC
Publisher Bethesda Softworks, LLC
Available for DOS
“The game is much nastier than Morrowind. You are dumped in a dungeon with snarling monsters everywhere (rats and imps and bears and bats and skeleton warriors and thieves) with no armor or spells and just a sword. Good luck trying to get out. I died about every way possible before I finally made it to a town.”
Before Fallout 3, before Oblivion, before Morrowind, there was Daggerfall. It was Bethesda’s second installment in The Elder Scrolls saga and was (and is) the largest and most complicated single player RPG I’ve ever encountered. It’s even listed in the Guinness World Records Gamer’s Edition as having the largest land-based game area at 63,125 square miles and the most NPCs at 750,000. It came out in 1996, 12 long years ago, and ran in DOS. By today’s standards it is ugly and clunky. It is also buggy… by anyone’s standards. It was also beloved by an huge fan base and you can still find several well maintained websites devoted to this creaky old thing.
I picked up Daggerfall in 2004 after deciding to take a break from Morrowind. I had found Morrowind fascinating on several levels and was curious about its predecessors, Arena and Daggerfall. One day, while posting on theFour Fat Chicks forums I mentioned I was considering playing Daggerfall. A forum member replied that it was notoriously hard to get to run and admitted that he had never been able to get it to work to his satisfaction. I was going through a retro gaming phase at the time and my home office was filled with old computer gear and older computer games. For reasons that escape even me now, I was fascinated with tweaking DOS autoexec and config files and getting hard to install games to run smoothly. I even played some of them. Though the innocent poster didn’t know it, the gauntlet had been thrown down. According to my sick, twisted logic, I now had to play this game. I had a vague notion that I might review it as well, but even in 2004 Daggerfall was ancient history, yet one more good old game fading from the gaming community’s collective memory and so it never happened.
On the Four Fat Chicks site there is a forum called Never Mind the Bollocks, named after the first Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols album. This forum still exists and forum members go there to play games together, sharing tips and spoilers that might not be appropriate on the main gaming forum. It’s a great way to play a game, especially a single player game. Though our Morrowind thread was huge and populated by lots of forum members, big surprise, no one joined me in the Daggerfall thread. Left to my own devices I began posting my impressions and experiences in a sort of diary form, urged on in part by other forum members and in part by a sneakily growing appreciation of this game.
The greening of gaming criticism – or how to recycle old forum posts into new reviews.
What follows are excerpts (lightly edited for grammar…) from that thread, interspersed with comments and reflections. I doubt many people are interested in reading a straight review of such an old game at this point and if they are, there are several excellent reviews out there. Also, I can barely remember playing it and would have go back and pretty much start all over again. This is something even I’m not willing to do. So this Franken-review is the next best thing. Instead of a proper review with a job, two kids and a mortgage, think of this as a slacker review that sleeps in late, plays music too loud, and forgets its girlfriend’s birthday. I’ll give it a rating so it’s all official-like and gets archived with the other reviews and just hope no one at the main office notices.
Getting the game to run was an adventure in itself and not really that interesting. Just know that it was a bear getting this thing whipped into to a playable state. Once I finally got the game going and put in a few hours, I realized I wasn’t in Morrowind anymore.
3/29/04, 8:25 PM The game is much nastier than Morrowind. You are dumped in a dungeon with snarling monsters everywhere (rats and imps and bears and bats and skeleton warriors and thieves) with no armor or spells and just a sword. Good luck trying to get out. I died about every way possible before I finally made it to a town.
Then I make it to a tavern, rented a room, and behind the first door is a babe in a loincloth and bikini top just hanging out like Conan is gonna come walking in any minute wondering WTF. Heh. She gave me a good tip on some work though. Odd little bugs, some audio tracks stay on after you leave the location. Funny game. I like it.
Yep, it’s your basic Bethesda RPG. Like most Bethesda games you start out in a sort of womb like environment be it a cave, ship’s hold, dungeon, or futuristic vault, establish your character and fight your way out. In a way, it’s a nifty metaphor for birth.
It’s a cruel world, kid.
Yes, life is nasty, brutish, and short in Daggerfall.
4/4/04, 11:31 PM I am getting a royal butt-kicking. Went into a dungeon on a Temple Quest. Miles and miles of monsters without end. Monsters to the horizon. Torture chambers and twisted nymphs and baddies everywhere and blood and guts and defenestrated bodies and gory implements of torture and heads on stakes and hideous shrieking and moaning. Oi. This game would skin, gut, and roast Sam and Max for lunch. This game would have Jack the Ripperover for tea and make fun of his spats. This game would kiss Dracula with a red hot poker and turn Sanitarium into a children’s book. It is rough. Very rough. And really, really, vivid. Think Night of the Living Dead Meets King Arthur’s Round Table.
Obviously this is a very fun game.
Just how fun?
4/5/04, 9:52 AM A typical dungeon room will have a table with human entrails spread around it. Stakes with heads on them, heads and bodies stacked up in corners, blood stained stone walls with chains, lots of red, red, red blood… It’s always the aftermath (more spooky IMO). Of course there are enemy NPCs galore.
The sound goes a long way toward creepifying the mood, that and the possibility of sudden death around every corner. This abattoir is Sanitarium repeated to infinity.
I know extreme violence is old news….but after the relatively sedate Morrowind, I was a little unprepared for the level of graphically displayed violence (and nudity…not that I’m complaining…) in this game. It’s like a really well done house of horrors with very pixelated graphics. There is a palatable sense of menace in this game, at least for me. It is the first game ever to instill such a creeping sense of the horrific sublime. Really remarkable.
Daggerfall has atmosphere. Lots and lots of atmosphere. The dungeons in particular reminded me a bit of System Shock 2, another game that has not so hot graphics and an (even more) intense gameworld. Graphics can only carry a game so far and eye candy packs the biggest punch early on. Once gamers get accustomed to the shiny surfaces and brilliant colors and detailed textures, they begin to look for that x factor, that thing that compels them to play far into the night. Without that x factor, they will eventually grow bored and stop playing. Now I stopped playing System Shock 2 twice, but believe me, boredom was NOT the reason why.
Things I learned while standing paralyzed in a dungeon being chewed on by rats.
Daggerfall can be a very unforgiving game if you make the wrong choices early on. I’m not the most OCD RPG gamer and was even less so then. At the time I would often settle for a randomly rolled character in my haste to begin playing, figuring everything would come out in the wash. While I might come to regret my impatience later in the game I wouldn’t care enough to start over with a newly created character. Daggerfall was and it is still the only RPG where I began again after investing several days in the game. One of my biggest problems was that I was getting slaughtered by opponents able to cast a paralyze spell. Once they had me frozen in place they were free to release their slithering minions upon me. There is nothing more frustrating than to have a full arsenal of spells and weapons at your disposal but because you can’t lift a finger to defend yourself, you might as well be carrying a bag of day-old Dunkin Doughnuts. What have we learned here? Even the most hard-headed gamer (me) will eventually see reason if given enough incentive.
4/6/04, 9:34 PM I started over with a custom character. One thing Daggerfall teaches you is to customize. I played MW with an off-the-shelf character as I couldn’t have done any better. After a week of Daggerfall, I went back and made a new character.
High Elf with Immunity to Paralysis, 3X INT on level up, good armor, fast. Still a BattleMage (it’s the Capricorn in me) but now with some nice fashion accents i.e. metal armor. I’m also not using the holes in Daggerfall.
Holes in Daggerfall? Say it isn’t true.
Daggerfall is the cheddar cheese of RPGs, the bullet-riddled bucket of RPGs. I don’t think it will spoil anything to reference a few of the more notorious holes. I’m not about to reveal the tasty details, just point out that they exist. All you hard core cheaters now cursing me–you know who you are–will have little trouble finding everything you need by following some of the links later on in this review.
The first hole I discovered was how to make a million dollars by looting stores at my leisure. And not only could I strip my local corner medieval mini-mart bare, I found that I could strip the same store over and over and over until I fell asleep at the keyboard. Oh and you can sell it all back to the poor guy you ripped off if you are feeling especially greedy. You can use that same steal-save-and reload cheat in special places in the game, making loot re-materialize before your eyes. You can take that magical Emerald Tack Hammer of Shattering Blows again, and again, and again. There is even a way to take your wagon, which is basically a glorified inventory expander, with you into the dungeons even though you are not supposed to be able to. If you are into spells and find yourself low on Magica, there is a key combination that lets you siphon Magica Points back into your character even while casting, which is sort of like stealing from yourself instead of the shopkeepers. And finally, remember that paralyze spell that drove me to restart the game? Guess what? That’s right. Sigh. There is this way to suspend time so that… Well, let’s just say there was a work around. What all this means is that there were people who played this game nonstop for eons and stumbled upon these tricks and these people were a lot smarter than me.
There are bugs in Daggerfall. Really.
4/6/04, 9:34 PM Bug wise. Yes. Very much so. More than any game I’ve ever played other than an unpatched Black Dahlia. Crash, crash, crash.
4/11/04, 4:44 PM What a buggy game. I just finished a dungeon quest, dispatched to dispatch an ice atronach. I scoured the dungeon for 2 days real time, 8 days game time. I killed every rat, bat, scorpion, giant, orc, warrior, sorcerer I could find and still no ice atronach. Finally, with everything dead but me, I started looking for secret doors (of which there are many). I found a couple , nothing though. Finally I returned to the main chamber, remembering I kept hearing sounds.
Something was alive in there. I finally located the sound. It was coming from a big black sculpture. As I was staring at it I saw a blue spark fly out of it. I moved closer and the atronach’s head popped out from the stone. I couldn’t get close enough to fight it but luckily I had a fireball spell. I hit the sucker with that and he went down.
The thing had gotten stuck inside a sculpture and had been right in the main chamber the whole time, watching me walk back and forth looking for it. I can only think this was a bug, unless ice atronachs somehow can overcome the laws of physics.
This lack of solidity is a real problem in the dungeon. Several times when levitating up shafts I’ve become stuck in the wall, or popped right out of tunnel into the void and can see the entire dungeon sans ceilings all around. When the levitate wears off I plunge into blackness and have to reload.
Funny game. I like it though. Very addictive.
The game crashed constantly on me and I eventually realized that much of this had to do with the hard drive constantly trying to access the CD-ROM. I found a great site on how to optimize Daggerfall by loading the entire game on the hard drive. Wonder of wonders, it’s 2008 and Daggerfall FAQ still exists. It’s a must read for anyone interested in getting this game up and running. It’s also loaded with tips on gameplay and lucid explanations on leveling (it’s not the quantity of orcs you kill, but how often you use your skills that gives you xp…). Also check out The Beginner’s Guide to Daggerfall, Daggerfall: An Enthusiast’s Guide, The Daggerfall Embassy, and the UESP Daggerfall Wiki The complexity of this game is staggering and these valuable sites were put together by dedicated fans to help you navigate the maddening maze that is Daggerfall.
And while we are on the subject of maddening mazes…
Those wacky dungeons!
The dungeons in Daggerfall were legendary for their depth, breadth and mind-boggling complexity.
4/14/04, 4:49 PM These goddamn dungeons are gonna be the death of me!! I read somewhere they were described as mating octopi and that about sums it up. It’s like exploring a bunch of played out Appalachian coal mines or something. I’ve gotten myself into a hard one this time, all full of battle hardened warriors but if I cast an invisibility spell I’m golden. ….I can stroll about with impunity, create the most god awful racket, breaking down doors with my handy daedric flail and the NPCs just stand there oblivious.
And when you’ve tried everything else and you still can’t find the quest object of your desire…cheat!
4/8/04, 6:42 PM Also found a nifty cheat to use in the dungeons to check if a quest is broken or not. I spent a day real time in an immense dungeon looking for a sacred text only to have to resort to the cheat and guess what…I suck. It was there all along. Okay, I promise to be good. I do. I promise.
You never have to leave your room again.
If you’ve played Morrowind, you can play Daggerfall but be prepared to be overwhelmed by the sheer choices available to you. In lieu of writing a 12 page summary of the game mechanics I’ll just make a list. There are 37 skills, 8 attributes, 18 “canned” classes, 14 guilds, 8 races, 8 pieces of armor in a total suit, each in anywhere from 1 to 4 styles and 12 levels of damage rating, 18 types of weapons and 10 types of weapon material, 90 books, 76 ingredients, 23 artifacts, 56 holidays, 9 crimes, 42 monsters, 9 bloodlines of playable vampires, 244 quests, and god knows what else I’m leaving out. You can buy a house, several houses actually, a horse, a wagon. And a ship. Yes, you can buy a ship.
5/9/04, 7:19 PM I finally hauled all my loot, mostly super expensive weapons and armor I took from enemies galore in the Daggerfall dungeons, to a pawnshop and sold it. Final take was 1,500,000.00. Hmmmm, nice work if you can get it. I’m now the proud owner of a ship. Clicking on T for transportation or on the nifty foot icon for the keyboard challenged, and I am transported to my ship where I can sleep, heal, hang out, go for a swim or stash loot. Nice.
With my horse and my ship I could get around. But for all the myriad ways you can customize your player character, the people you meet don’t change much.
4/14/04, 4:49 PM While the geography changes the clothes don’t. Same Pauli Girl milkmaid outfits on the female NPCs no matter the clime. Most of the guys either go for the Hercules On Vacation look or shuffle around in robes and hoods. There are the occasional surprises though. I joined an all female-run temple where they have a few hunky naked guys standing around for eye candy for the temple girls. More boobage then pecage on the whole though.
And the point of all this is….
Oh yeah, the main quest. Remember, this is Bethesda. Bethesda is to main quests as flies are to vinegar.
5/11/04, 7:59 AM Last night I was frustrated because I still haven’t stumbled upon the Main Quest yet. Just running quests for the King and Queen and ready to turn in, when lo, in the middle of a dungeon swabbing session for my temple of choice, a letter from the Queen. Could this be my big break?
Nineteen days later…
5/30/04, 5:03 PM Pretty much pounded through most of the Main Quest. Figured out why the ghost of the King was haunting Daggerfall. Freed the ghost from its perdition and he no longer haunts Daggerfall though the residents don’t seem to be any the wiser. There is still the matter of a lost letter but I’m not sure if I’m going to follow up with it. I have to get an invite into that part of the Main Quest and so far no go. Even though I’ve watched the final cut-scene aka the ghost King, the quest remains in the quest log like I haven’t completed it.
Anyway, I’m going to start Fallout soon, in case anyone still wants to play.
Reviewer’s System: Windows 95, Pentium, 128 MB, Matrox Millenium II 4 MB