I haven't played Daggerfall in a while, I think because the bugs prevent me from enjoying its advantages. That, and I think Arena has shown me a different way to do this open-world thing, even if it's not so open world. I'd almost rather try to mod Arena and add a guild system rather than play Daggerfall only to have it crush me with a broken quest, futzed savegame, or clipping problems.
DAGGERFALL: Caught in TransitionDaggerfall feels in retrospect like a transition game. Instead of Arena's whole of Tamriel to play in, you get portions of Hammerfell and High Rock. Instead of all towns being similar relative to their size, you have special towns like Daggerfall with its grand thoroughfare, and Sentinel with its beautiful domed palace. Climbing is now effectively endless instead of little hops: characters can theoretically scale anything, assuming they have the skill (and assuming whatever they were trying to reach was directly overhead). One of the most telling examples of this transition space is that there are 2D sprite character models from Arena borrowed or sometimes pretty much copied, though these sprites are largely un-animated, and sprites which are based on ray-traced (?) models that stand in for most of the humanoids and monsters in the game whom you can actually kill.
It is also a transition game in that the minor bugs and irritations of Arena (which makes me wonder if some global variables were abused) are magnified, due in large part to Daggerfall moving toward 3D. Now you can sail over castle walls, but also get stuck in them much more easily. Dungeon crawling is perilous not only because of new traps and pitfalls, but also because if you accidentally rub into a steep incline you will fall through the floor into what's love-hatingly referred to as The Abyss, the blackness outside of the modular dungeons. The occasional sound glitch now is part of the charm or frustration of the game, with buzzing, electrical repetition screaming in your ears at odd moments, the occasional quest glitch makes whole quests unplayable and best avoided, rare garbled text can now infect huge swathes of info screens.
It's natural that adding features will produce more errors, and in an open world game these can easily be compounded. But Daggerfall is still famous for its bugginess, and it was hard to ignore this legacy as we moved into Morrowind, which had its own share of idiosyncrasies.
An Explosion of Variables
Setting aside the fact that Daggerfall sports probably the biggest single gamespace in human history, within the Elder Scrolls line it was to pioneer many new options for the series, some of which are considered to be all but inseparable from the franchise name.
Daggerfall introduced the custom class, and opened up the skill system so that players could see what their characters were actually good at, and how these abilities tied into the character's attributes. At start up, in addition to picking classes from a list, you were able to add several different abilities and weaknesses, many of them completely new (though some of which, though listed, were never properly implemented). It created a substantially wider selection of available classes, so much so that the word class was near-meaningless but for the fact that you couldn't alter these abilities and skill selections once you began the game.
Now the familiar character advancement system was also introduced. In Arena, you pretty much killed stuff and completed quests to gain experience. If there was any hidden experience system that let magic users gain experience for using magic, it was either deeply buried or not really there. Now you COULD do that, you gained experience through skills, and those skills could be made to directly reflect how you wanted to play your character. The problems of a system like this also began to be clear, and in some ways still plague the Elder Scrolls games: some skills are easier to practice than others, not only leading players to level their characters very quickly or slowly, but also creating a weird advancement vacuum where you avoid resting to avoid leveling, reload if you don't get a good attribute point or hit point roll (I don't bother anymore), and other metagaming that doesn't feel very natural, despite the idea of practicing your skills seeming to be much more natural than arbitrary skill increases based on class alone.
Then, there are the dungeons. Arena's dungeons could be contained on a 2D map, which was easy to notate and systematically explore. This lead to them sometimes feeling a bit samey, but there was enough of a variety of dungeon themes to make it feel different. Daggerfall's dungeon creation system would sometimes have a theme, but that theme would alter as you explored the dungeon, enough so that many dungeons seemed to have examples of many dungeon modules, such that you got the impression that the same crazy diggers made every dungeon in the whole game. And wow, did they go nuts. Some dungeons, like the crypts, were manageable, but some of the larger ones were so massive that it would take hours upon hours to explore them fully (longer if they were full of traps or deadly encounters). They were also in 3D, with inclines, steps, chasms, caves, massive halls, and even a weird barn complete with livestock. Mapping this in a 2D space would be all but impossible, so even the map was 3D-- and while this sounds kind of neat, you could not completely rotate the mad blob of tunnels, so you were forced to temporarily delete sections, mark everything, and take every precaution to make sure you didn't get lost.
The plot dungeons, like the plot dungeons in Arena, were planned out by the designers. Unlike the random module combinations, these had more atmospheric situations, puzzles, traps, treasure, and text to help enhance things. These were nice when you did them, but it would have been nice if more of that energy had been spent on refining the modular dungeons, at least for us wandering types.
The March of Features
The dungeons in Daggerfall were a paradigm shift beyond Arena's staid formula, with teleporters, themed creatures, treasure nodes that yielded some interesting loot, hidden doors that DON'T show up on the map (at least sometimes), and the odd puzzle, elevator, or lever. Water, too, was not just a thing to swim in but might actually leave sections of the dungeon submerged, requiring the use of swimming skills, breath management, and fights with underwater creatures.
The spell system expanded greatly, with some interesting and useful spells (with arguably the best being mark and recall allowing the player to zap back to a point they determined ahead of time; a godsend in those awful dungeons). Passwall and create barrier, though, sadly had to be axed because of the change in the way the world was mapped. Magical gear is now expressly labeled magical, making identifying items much less of a pain, and the interface, though still cumbersome, was a bit more friendly through the use of categorical sorting and doing away with maximum item slots, and you could create potions, which could be made through the proper combination of ingredients using recipes you find.
Probably the biggest improvement on the formula was the creation of the guild system. Now you could join with the many guilds that were merely shops or antagonists before, raising in rank by completing quests and getting side-benefits like extra services, price drops, and access to some powerful gear. Some would even reward you with your own house, another first for the game, lending to a bit more of a feeling of ownership of a region.
Other than houses, they added a bank note system to offset gold now having weight (although it was sometimes hard to juggle the huge pile of credit notes in your backpack), and you could deposit your gold in the bank system as well. You could also buy a horse, which allowed for faster travel, a boat, which in addition to fast travel also allowed you to store items (on the floor, not in chests!!), and a horse-and-cart (my favorite) which increased your loot carrying capacity dramatically, and even let you deposit stuff through a dungeon's exit without having to actually leave (which would respawn and reset the dungeon).
Reputation began to be more important, with various types of citizens being members of certain social classes, and their reaction to you was modified by how the region, the city, and their social class regarded you. This sounds good on paper, but it wound up causing some weirdly hostile exchanges on the street, and could result in the player being an outcast due to a simple mistake, or even being unable to complete the game (without them ever being aware of it).
Battles felt a bit more satisfyingly paced, with an adjustable speed setting, and various levels of blood depending on how good a hit you made on your opponent. Bows required ammunition, which helped emphasize melee and make bows a little less powerful. Monster AI was improved to the point where they wouldn't predictably get stuck on simple corners anymore, and in general the deadliness of the encounters was more satisfying and deserved feeling less cheap than the random pop-up-and-kill monsters of Arena.
Not only was my favorite spell Passwall removed, but the simple talking interface gave way to an alternate window full of buttons and sliders that usually served arguably no more useful a purpose than the simple 4 button chat interface did in Arena. You still learned a bit about the person you were talking to, a bit about where a place was, and whether or not the person hated your guts. At the very least, they were much more likely to draw on your map and tell you where a building was, whether or not you were close to it (and the map itself would update if you entered a place, so you didn't have to worry about noting everything all the time, and stores and guilds were color-coded to reduce confusion).
Because the region was reduced to Hammerfell and High Rock, you might find some variation in citizen faces, but nowhere near what you did in the blocky but multi-colored Arena sprites. Towns felt a bit more thrown together and less thematic, sort of reflecting the way dungeons spawned. Venturing outside the cities you could now actually walk from place to place without the need for fast travel (fast travel itself being vastly improved, allowing for speedy or stately movement, and chosing sea routes and staying at inns along the way), but the world is so massive that this seems like something only for the most hard-core of players, especially since, unlike Arena, it was actually pretty hard to find dungeons by just wandering through the wilderness (even fast-traveling to one could sometimes lead to confusing searches in the dark for the lump of polygons that had the door inside). It wasn't until Morrowind that exploring outside of cities made more sense, since unique, pre-planned things lay out there (though it was more often a necessity because of the lack of a universal fast-travel system in Morrowind).
The flexible repair system that lent some character to Arena was also gone, with repair being straightforward and taking a strangely short amount of time. Arena's stores were all focused on bringing the players battle gear, or potions and magical items, but now you could find a wealth of items in stores: sometimes these items were great finds, but often you would get piles of useless junk that served no in-game purpose at all (although adding clothing was a welcome touch in my book, it served little purpose as far as I can tell). It felt as though the efficiency of the older store system was sacrificed for more breadth, but this breadth was largely stuff that had no impact on the game.
Because the skill system supplanted the more mundane experience point system from before, you wound up losing what I think is part of what makes role playing games make sense. You use experience points in pen and paper games in large part to help direct players toward the fun in the game, giving them a sense of purpose. Even grinding is ostensibly fun because there's combat to be had, and treasure to be gained. In Daggerfall onward, you might have a build that required no combat to allow for advancement. You could have a dude with jump and climb as his major skills, which is great if you're into that, but grinding on climb is both boring and deadly, and skipping around town to boost your jump doesn't feel terribly heroic. It also introduced many skills that were largely deemed worthless by many players, especially the language skills, which reduced the chance that a given monster or humanoid would be hostile to you. Spell schools were some of the easiest to boost, since you could create cheap spells that were largely worthless, and sit in the inn casting them until you ran out of spell points, sleep, then go at it again until you level. Honestly, though, the spell grinding I thought was kind of satisfying in a twisted way.
I realize it's a bit crazy to criticize one of the things that makes Elder Scrolls unique, but I wonder if a hybrid system might better serve the game, one where you set up the advancement scheme as you play rather than trying to decide everything before you've tested it out, deciding what you will focus on in the coming adventure and learning from THAT. If you're a wizard you gain experience from spells, but also from getting things done however you manage to do it, and maybe going up in skills INDEPENDENT of experience gain, which might more directly reflect a simulation perspective than actually leveling for it.
One thing that might not seem very important was that the phases of the moon, the eclipses, and the motion of the sun were replaced by static backgrounds. The weather effects, too, seemed a bit less dynamic. It wasn't until Morrowind where weather and the beauty of the heavens seemed to make a comeback, although to what extent those varied I'm not really sure. It's stuff like this, though, that I think I wanted to see the most in Daggerfall, stuff that I didn't even know had actually been gone until I finally picked up Arena (and that includes the musical score getting trimmed. That at once catchy and madening store and tavern song was once tempered by a much more friendly song once in a while to break up the monotony).
Daggerfall was fun for me at times, despite all my criticisms. If hadn't been so crippled with bugs even after numerous patches, I might have played it a lot more than I have, even with those terribly twisted dungeons (although the dungeons would have done me in eventually, sorta like they did shortly after I played the free release of the game during one of Bethsoft's anniversaries). I still got creeped out by the monsters lurking in the shadows, loved the diseases and the strange discoveries, there were moments in dungeons that I was a bit in awe at how things came together (though Morrowind would surpass this), and it was hard to deny my enjoyment when I found some new facet of the game, like advancing far in the Mage's Guild, seeing the inside of a Dark Brotherhood den, or stumbling upon a coven of witches.
Still, for all these new things, there were things I feel shouldn't have been left behind, and I wonder if Bethesda, perhaps less consumed with creating a full 3D game, might have made an even better game improving on the basic formula they created in Arena. They seem to always be two steps ahead of their ability to implement all the features they manage to put on their lists. But I guess the continued popularity of the Elder Scrolls series, despite so many people being burned by all its failings, suggests that enough of us, myself included, are still a bit fascinated by how crazy things can get when so many features are stuffed into a single game.
Any Daggerfall memories (bad or good)?
Next up, Morrowind.