The Elder Scrolls: Arena review – June 1994, US edition

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Tyler Wilde comments ahead of our original review of the first Elder Scrolls game from the first issue of PC Gamer US.

Oh, how quickly things can change – no one says “FRP” anymore to refer to fantasy role-playing games, the 1994 Summer Consumer Electronics Show, which preceded the first E3 by a year, was visited by Sierra On-Line, Interplay, and MicroProse, and if things turned out a little differently, we could play Terminator Online instead of The Elder Scrolls Online.

Twenty years ago, “arriving” developer Bethesda Softworks was best known for three DOS games based on the James Cameron films, but it sealed a very different future when it released The Elder Scrolls: Arena, which we have called a “tour de force” and “astonishing technological achievement” in the May / June 1994 first issue of PC Gamer US.

One of the coolest things about this review is how the graphics have been praised for replicating effects like fog, fire light, and reflective water. When I think of Skyrim, I see comparable details: the way the snow swims around mountain peaks, the transparency of streams, the sparkle of flames. 10 or 10,000 polygons, it’s always the little moments when physics and light do something that we recognize from the real world that creates a compelling sense of place.

My favorite thing about this 20-year-old review is the way it approaches the tropes of the budding fantasy game with a fresh look, exclaiming that you can end the game as an assassin character (!), but also finds some familiar criticisms, such as the lifelessness of NPCs, which hasn’t improved as much as I would have imagined after 20 years of character writing, animation, and voice acting. Much has changed since 1994, but so much has remained the same.

***

_Bethesda’s first fantasy role-playing game is a graphic tour de force

that is already making fans drool for more.

Oh, how quickly things can change, especially when it comes to fantasy role-playing games (FRP). This genre, which seemed to be experiencing some kind of rebirth after last summer’s CES in Chicago, is sort of in limbo. Twin Dolphin Games’ Forgotten Castle, which looked incredibly promising, is both dead and forgotten. Dynamix’s Dream Thief, the sequel to Krondor’s fascinating Betrayal, is in limbo and SSI will no longer be developing TSR’s Advanced Dungeons & Dragons games. And Stonekeep, Interplay’s magnificent first-person 3D dungeon, seems to be perpetually hanging around the corner, just out of reach.

The time has come for an upstart, and Bethesda Softworks is up to the job. The company that brought us three Terminator games has unveiled its first FRP, The Elder Scrolls, Volume 1: Arena — and it’s just breathtaking.

Like Origin’s Ultima Underworld series, Arena is a fantastic single-player role-playing game with smooth-scrolling 3D graphics, presented from a first-person perspective; unlike Ultima Underworld, Arena doesn’t limit your explorations to underground settings. There’s a whole world to explore here, with a myriad of villages, towns and dungeons (of course) waiting for you, all rendered in jaw-dropping 3D graphics. While Arena’s graphics engine isn’t quite as sophisticated as Ultima Underoworld’s (you can’t look up or down, for example), it’s still very impressive.

Bethesda has created a true virtual world, using the light source and the shadows for a magnificent effect. The puddles of water in the soggy streets reflect the lightning in the distance; fog, snow and haze affect your vision as you move through the countryside; you can make out caves lit by firelight in the distance and peek through keyholes before entering potentially dangerous rooms.

“Expect to find yourself spinning around in your chair to see if a villain creeps up behind you.”

The sound effects and the music of Arena are also up to par. The game sounded just amazing on a Sound Blaster 16 / Wave Blaster setup, with General MIDI support and stereo panning effects greatly enhancing the experience. The digitized wolf howls and the sound of crawling zombies brought a real sense of atmosphere and anticipation. Expect to find yourself whirling around in your chair to see if a villain creeps up behind you.

But there is one area where Arena could be improved: the storyline. The plot feels rather shallow compared to games like Betrayal at Krondor or Ultima VII, and could never be a story on its own. To be fair, though, Arena’s storyline is as good or better than most of its recent peers. Here’s the skinny: The Emperor’s sorcerer-turned-traitor Jager Tharn used the Magical Staff of Chaos to hide the king in another dimension. This nogoodnik also killed one of your witch friends and threw you (as an unsavory guy with possible heroic tendencies) in prison to rot, while taking the Emperor’s place on the throne.

“The plot feels rather shallow compared to games like Betrayal at Krondor or Ultima VII.”

The only way to save the Emperor is to collect the staff, which has been broken and hidden in remote locations across the world. Your witch friend’s life force, held in place by her magic, brings you out of your cell and sets you off on your quest to kill the treacherous mage and restore the emperor. There’s a lot of trekking through huge dungeons (what are all those dungeons doing here, anyway?) This is pretty standard fantasy role-playing fare, reminiscent of The Bard’s Tale II, in which your heroes had to recover the sections of the Destiny Wand.

But if it’s a standard fare, at least it’s implemented very well. Bethesda has created a unique magic system and new character classes; although you can choose your character from heroic professions like knights and rangers, you can also play as an assassin (!) and successfully complete the game. There are several classes of mage, such as the Spellsword or the Battlemage, whose specialty is the use of magic in combat. You can purchase spells or have fun creating and naming your own at the Mages Guild with a simple but flexible “spell editor”.

Game controls are a snap to master. A left click on the mouse starts you off – the location of the cursor on the screen determines your speed and direction. The combat system in Arena is just as smooth and natural. Click and hold the right mouse button, then move the mouse as you would the weapon you hoist – left to right (or vice versa) to slice or strike, down for a smashing blow, or until it stings or stabs.

“The arena game world is littered with crypts, abandoned castles, dungeons and huge cities.”

Movement can also be controlled via keyboard control, a method I preferred over mouse-only control. Arena also sports an automatic map where you can jot down descriptions and reminders; there is also an automatic quest management notebook that keeps track of the various tasks that you have not yet completed.

And, oh, the places you’ll go! The Arena game world is littered with crypts, abandoned castles, dungeons, and huge cities with their own indigenous population marching through the streets during the day. You can click on passers-by and ask for their name, where the nearest hostel is and any rumors they may have heard.

On the other hand, each NPC can have their own name and profession, but it doesn’t matter to your heroine whether NPC Wendel is a butcher, baker, or candlestick maker. The identity of the non-player character has no bearing on your interaction or quest, and as a result conversations mostly consist of isolated questions and answers, never expanding to reveal truly unique characters. Actually the interaction with the NPCs is pretty lifeless, you learn things like “go get the gods empty shoe polish box in the crypt, and I’ll tell you the location of the mystical dog polisher.”

But despite this, Arena is still spellbinding. My character has completed a few quests and is looking for the next piece of staff. There’s a huge and dazzling (albeit a bit shallow) world to explore, more than enough for a jade player like me to play long after completing this review. If Arena had a better developed history and NPC interaction, that would be almost perfect. But stay tuned, Bethesda has released a winner, the sequel is possibly the best FRP ever for computers. – Bernie Yee

Category: Play a role

Developer: Bethesda Softworks

Editor: Bethesda Softworks

MSRP: $ 69.95

Obligatory: 3860X / 33 MHz: 4MB RAM (with 2MB EMS); DOS 5.0 or later;

25 MB of hard disk space; VGA; Mouse.

We recommend: 4860X / 33 MHz; Disk caching utility;

Sound cards supported (General Midi strongly recommended).

The Elder Scrolls: Arena is always free from Bethesda, and can be played with DOSBox .


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