The Acne-Pitted Dungeon Master's Verdict: The characters are almost entirely cardboard cutouts.
The Acne-Pitted Player's Verdict: No sex? No way!
My Verdict: The ultimate "stranded on a desert isle" game...
Daggerfall is chiefly a first-person perspective role-playing game that one could conceivably play completely ignoring any interactive fiction content. However, with a focus on a player creating his or her own story, Daggerfall does allow itself to shine. Somewhat, natch.
It should be noted that out of the box, Daggerfall was one of the buggiest games in history. It was beta-tested well -- one of the testers used to come into my store when I was working an Electronics Boutique, and Bethesda definitely had their crew intelligent, passionate and working well. They just didn't have enough time to fix everything they wanted. In this way, one of the game's strengths (mostly random dungeons) became a weakness (it's easy to get yourself caught in a void). However, the 2.13 patch for the game fixes most of the bugs you are likely to encounter. Nevertheless, multiple saves are definitely in order.
With that warning out of the way and the game properly patched, it's still not exactly easy to initially see the appeal of the game. You are stranded in the middle of a dank dungeon to start out. All new characters start out that way. You will eventually grow to despise that dungeon. The starter dungeon is not randomly generated, so you eventually will get a feel for it (sort of like memorizing the mazes in the Atari 2600 classic Adventure) however a new character is awfully weak and an undead monster roams the dungeon looking to finish your game off before it begins.
Getting out of the starter dungeon, however, is invigorating. The landscape and weather is perfectly implemented. You really get the feel, wandering about a snowy town right before dusk, that you are there. Very few games offer that sort of ambiance. The traveling music is catchy, never irritating. While there is a "main quest" to Daggerfall, following it is completely optional. The game doesn't end after thirty turns like, say, Borrowed Time if you're not strictly adhering to the plot. In this way, the game is like the best Dungeon Master you've ever had. One of the things a bad gamemaster (for, say, Dungeons and Dragons, Boot Hill, or another pen-and-paper role-playing game) will do is force characters to go through their game in exactly one way. No improvisation. No real spur-of-the-moment creativity. Daggerfall is never, ever like this. The land mass is larger than Great Britain. While initially that may not seem particularly impressive you try walking it. You'll feel the burn. Daggerfall offers what many games absolutely refuse to: choice. Imagine the entire world before you, and it's up to you to go where you'd like to experience personal growth.
Building up your character is fun and there are plenty of ways to do it. You can join one of a ridiculously large number of guilds by running some odd jobs for them. After doing so, you can pay money to train. You can find yourself a dungeon or tomb and attempt to clean it out. You can simply wander the countryside hoping to find random monsters as well.
Daggerfall excels when the player is able to do what he or she wishes. Don't like that NPC wandering about the town? Kill him. Want to get yourself turned into a werewolf? Find one and go for it. Player construction is virtually perfect: true, you have but one character to control, but the choice for class is unlimited. You can also create a custom class with a myriad of advantages and restrictions. (The manual is extremely well-written and fully documents this procedure)
The non-player characters, however, do quickly tire. It is here where the weakness of Daggerfall is exposed. There is simply no emotional bond you can have with anyone you will ever meet. This one oversight keeps the game as an interesting period piece instead of the Greatest Game Ever Made. It's not just about banging someone: it's about having a network of friends, enemies, confidants, lackeys, hanger-ons... none of it is in the game. People seem to have agendas, yes. However, they come off as zombies. Reputation is a very general thing: if you act like a complete assjack in one area, most commoners will have the same opinion of you. It's really a tragedy, because virtual friendship would have made the game a serious contender.
Failing that, the real fun does come from the world choices you make in the game. You can look back at your adventures and say, "My character got out of the dungeon, encountered a vampire, killed it, went on a quest, failed it, moved to another city, killed everyone there, booked across the ocean, became a hero, died encountering a ghoul." Or something. Yes, the central quest is there if you want it -- and it does offer the promise of politics and back-stabbing -- but Bethesda realized that players would most enjoy making their own game.
Unfortunately, sequels have come and gone and a game of this scale featuring an emotional network is not forthcoming. Battlespire, the next game in the series, was more centered upon hacking and slashing and killing. There is so much to do in Daggerfall, however, that it should not be ignored or forgotten. While it's a large install, a modern CD-ROM can cut down on that pain quite a bit. Daggerfall can probably be found for a few bucks: if you're looking for something to possibly waste away a weekend, it will definitely deliver. If you're looking for the next Ultima VI, it's not quite at that level.
Simple Rating: 8.8 / 10
Story: 9.2 / 10
Writing: 5.0 / 10
Playability: 7.0 / 10
Quest Quality: 7.5 / 10
Graphics: 8.9 / 10
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