Special: Elder Scrolls? They're not that old.
This day and age, it's difficult to find a game that builds a world that the player can really feel a part of. Developers often take shortcuts in level design by showing the player a vast world, but only letting them explore a little of it. Some RPGs take the restricted world premise so far that they are practically on rails. Thankfully, the team at Bethesda Softworks decided back in 1994 that that wasn't the way things would be for their series The Elder Scrolls. Now at its fourth installment, we have decided it was about time to take a look back at the series that broke the mold on what an RPG should be and that gave players the most important ability of all - the ability to choose how to play the game. So ready your horse, grab your finest set of gauntlets, and prepare to embark on a journey through the history of the series that brought the amazing world of Tamirel to life, and don't be afraid to slay an orc or two in the process.
The Elder Scrolls: Arena
Released in 1994, The Elder Scrolls: Arena made waves in the PC RPG scene. Featuring a nonlinear storyline with a massive, fully explorable world and several hundred cities, Arena was the foundation on which the great Elder Scrolls series would be built. The developers didn't slack when it came to personalization, either. Players were given free reign to custom build their own characters by selecting one of 18 classes and nine homeland regions, all giving different strengths and weaknesses to each character. The player could also choose their character's gender and even choose from a number of faces. Once all was said and done, there was still the skill point distribution, which determined the character's beginning stats.
The visuals were a series of sprites that were presented in such a way to make the game appear 3D - much like the classic first-person shooter Doom. As such, Arena's gameplay was a fine mix between a first-person shooter and a more traditional pen and paper RPG. Players would roam the world fighting monsters and interact with non-player characters (NPCs) all in a first-person perspective. Experience was gained by fighting with monsters. At each level up, the player was given a number of skill points and could choose what skills to raise on their character. The fighting itself was rather interesting. Instead of just stabbing away at enemies, the player could choose from a number of swinging patterns depending on how the mouse was moved.
The overall gameplay focused on one major storyline in which the player was to reassemble a shattered staff. When the player tired of the main quest, though, there were ample side quests to be found from many of the thousands of NPCs roaming about the land.
Despite all the depth and size Arena featured, it's interesting to note that the finished product was nothing like the team at Bethesda had originally planned. As the name implies, The Elder Scrolls: Arena was originally designed to be a game about gladiatorial battles in a series of arenas (imagine Lucas Arts' Gladius, only sprite based). As development continued, the team kept adding more and more features to the game until they were left with the epic finished product we know today. It's odd that the team left the original title on the game, though, seeing as how the final game had very little to do with arenas.
Because of the series' tenth anniversary back in 2004, The Elder Scrolls: Arena is now available free via a download at The Elder Scrolls official site.
The Elder Scrolls Chapter II: Daggerfall
Released two years after Arena, The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall was truly a revolutionary game. Doing away with the entirely sprite-based graphics of Arena, Daggerfall was actually one of the first truly 3D games of such a large scale featuring fully polygonal environments. Not only did Daggerfall feature major graphical enhancements over Arena, it also featured a much larger landmass to explore. Smaller additions to the game included the ability to ride a horse and the ability to purchase real estate. Daggerfall also changed the way characters would level up. Instead of gaining experience through fighting, then building up all of a character's stats at once, Daggerfall would only let players level up those stats they used the most - a feature that would later appear in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind.
While The Elder Scrolls: Arena focused on the full world of Tamirel, the developers decided it would be wiser to have Daggerfall focus on just the provinces of High Rock and Hammerfell. Even though the focus was smaller than Arena, the developers managed to squeeze a landmass the size of Great Brittan into the game. It's been said that it takes two weeks just to walk from one end of the world map to the other!
When it came to gameplay, The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall wasn't very different from Arena. The game was still played from the first-person perspective with the same mouse movement/sword-swinging battles. Where the game differs is in the guild systems. Daggerfall allowed players to join different factions. These factions would cause certain NPCs to react to the player differently depending on which faction they had joined. Also, Daggerfall allowed players to create their own spells from scratch via magic guilds.
Daggerfall featured even more side quests than Arena, which isn't surprising considering there were more NPCs available per town. Also, those with the gumption to complete Daggerfall were treated to one of eight possible endings to the rich open-ended story.
An Elder Scrolls Legend: Battlespire
After the release of The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, fans were chomping at the bit to get another dose of epic Elder Scrolls adventure. Seeing the high demand for another title so soon, the development team at Bethesda Softworks kicked their team into overdrive. This time, though, the plan wasn't to make the largest RPG experience they could. Instead, the team decided to focus on making a handful of games on a smaller scale. They chose three projects: Battlespire, Redguard, and Morrowind - the last of which was later postponed due to time constraints. When Morrowind was put on the backburner, the team behind it was divided into the Battlespire and Redguard projects.
Released in 1997, Battlespire was the first of the three separate projects Bethesda Softworks had begun after Daggerfall. Battlespire was originally slated to be a Daggerfall expansion, but due to the ever growing size of the game, the team at Bethesda decided to make it a standalone title. Being the first game in the "Elder Scrolls Legend" series, Battlespire is unlike the other Elder Scrolls games. Unlike the earlier Elder Scrolls games, Battlespire was not built for mass exploration but rather for serious action-oriented dungeon crawling. The entire game focused around one massive dungeon - the titular outpost Battlespire. The premise was that the player must scale the tower to find a missing agent and discover what happened to the now empty isolated outpost.
As was stated before, Battlespire was much more of an action-oriented game than the previous titles. There were almost no NPCs in the entire game, and the plot was discovered by talking to monsters and reading notes left for the player by the missing agent. The battle system worked the same as in the other Elder Scrolls games. Magic could be customized and created much like in Daggerfall, only since there were no guilds, it could be created on the fly.
Battlespire was the first Elder Scrolls title to sport multiplayer capabilities. Players could either fight it out in deathmatches or work together to solve the mysteries of the Battlespire in a two player co-op mode. The game was also the first time voice acting had been used in an Elder Scrolls title.
Sadly, with all the work that went into the game, it wasn't accepted very warmly by critics due to serious bug problems, lack of true 3D acceleration support, and rather uninspired multiplayer execution. Still, while the game had its flaws, it showed off Bethesda's eagerness to try new things to appease its eager fan base.
The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard
The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard was released one year after Battlespire and once again, Bethesda attempted to take the series in a different direction - this time in the action/adventure genre. For the first time in the Elder Scrolls series, players were not given the option to create their own character. Instead, players assumed the role of Cyrus, a Redguard hero in search of his missing sister. As the quest progressed, the story unfolded into a tale of the Redguards' own revolution.
Departing from the traditional RPG roots found in earlier Elder Scrolls games, Redguard focused on platforming elements not unlike Ubisoft's Prince of Persia or Eidos' Tomb Raider as well as character interaction through the use of special keywords. It's the character interaction in particular that has given Redguard the most praise it has received. NPCs listen in and remember who you talked to and what you talked about, and they will respond as such. Chains of dialogue help immerse the player deeper and deeper into the story. The game also did away with the first-person view in favor of a constant third-person view. It also dropped the old experience and skill systems of the previous titles.
Redguard came with some interesting pack-ins including a comic book featuring the further exploits of Cyrus the Redguard as well as a pocket guide to the Tamirel Empire. "The Pocket Guide to the Empire" has been hailed as the definitive guidebook for The Elder Scrolls games and is a large selling point for fans of the franchise.