Saturday, February 26, 2011

Nice Shiny New Toys On The Horizon

As many of you in the gaming world know, Elder Scrolls 5 was announced recently.  And with panache.  New site.  New engine.  New concepts.  New story.  New ad infinitum.  Release date is supposedly Rememberance Day 2011 (or November 11th for the newbies).  Cool.

For those of you aren't "in the know" about the Elder Scrolls series, it takes place on a fictional continent called Tamriel.  All of the core games in the series are played in real time by way of first-person perspective.  The continent is divided into nine provinces, and each game other than the first, Arena, focuses on a different region.  Unlike most RPGs that rely on getting Experience Points to level up, later Elder Scrolls games employ something different entirely - you increase your core character skills, which in turn lead to levelling up after so many have increased; unlike the staggered character development found in everything from Final Fantasy to Fallout, this means that your character is literally getting stronger all the time.

The first game in the series, Arena, allowed you to explore the entire continent; you could visit each province, their capital cities and go traipsing through dungeons in each.  Unfortunately, when the game came out in 1993, the dungeons were 2D labyrinths that all looked and felt the same, except for the core dungeons of each province. 

The premise of Arena is that the Emperor has been deposed and replaced with an imposter, and it's your job to find eight artifacts to assemble a staff that will bring the Emperor back.  Before you do, you have to escape from prison.  Being a prisoner will be a common theme throughout the series; at least in this one, you know why - your character knows that the emperor is an imposter.

The artifacts that you will need to find are hidden all over the continent, one in each province excluding Cyrodiil.  To find them, you will need to visit each province, learn of where the all-important secret dungeon is, find it and then track down the artifact, all while killing monsters and even solving riddles.

Arena was still fairly innovative for its time due to its sheer size, although character depth was questionable.  Each of the 18 character classes had their core strengths and weaknesses, but character development was little different than, say, the first Final Fantasy game where you simply gained levels. 

Overworld, the towns and cities that you visit try to look 3D, but generally have a 2D feel to them.  You can commit crimes overworld such as theft and murder, and you can be punished for these, although I have yet to experience that; I killed the guards and ran and never got arrested, such the brutal killer was I.

Bethesda offers Arena as a free download from their Elder Scrolls site, and it's worth a look, if only to get an idea of the series' origins.  A word of warning - find some way to throttle the processor, or this game is going to glitch on you.

The second game in the series, The Elder Scrolls 2: Daggerfall is the first game in the series to take a regional approach, taking place in The Illiac Bay, which in essence are the provinces of High Rock and Hammerfell.  It's also the first game in the series to employ the skill-based levelling system.  It's also the first game in the series that allowed you to join guilds (which gave you random quests) and make potions, spells and magic items.  And finally, it's in the Guiness Book of World Records because it's played in the largest game world ever built; it's the size of the UK.

There is another first and, in the case of Daggerfall, only:  It's the first and only core game in the series in which you do not play a prisoner - at least so far.  However, the combat system remains mostly the same, although a few spells no longer exist.

Character development is much deeper in Daggerfall, and is in fact possibly deeper than the rest of the games in the series because of how deep you can go.  Where it will take you five minutes to make a character in Arena, it will take you 20 minutes or more in Daggerfall - it was also the first game in the series to let you build custom character classes.  Sure, Arena let you pick gender and face.  But Daggerfall let you set stats, pick class strengths and weaknesses, weapon proficiency bonuses, health regeneration, mana regeneration.  You could pick far more core skills, and there are skills that no longer exist, like climbing.  The strengths and weaknesses were turned into the birth signs that we see in the later games.  This is most likely due to balancing the game, as these strengths and weaknesses allowed users to churn out some absolutely destructive characters.

Daggerfall's character development is so deep that you can later become a Vampire or Werewolf, both of which have their strengths and weaknesses, but allow you to create very elite characters.
The world was the first 3D world in the series, and the dungeons were sprawling; in fact, they put the dungeons of most RPGs to shame.  And these were not simple dungeons; even the randomly generated ones had secret passages and hidden nooks and crannies.

The story of Daggerfall starts off less urgently than that of Arena, but it is much deeper and, for effect, there are six different endings.  You have been summoned by the emperor to investigate the death of King Lysandus of Daggerfall, the capital city of High Rock.  He haunts the city with a legion of ghosts, and emperor wants this to stop.  On the way there, your ship is caught in a storm and you find yourself in a dungeon called Privateer's Hold.  From there, it's your job to unravel the mystery of King Lysandus's death.

Daggerfall is available for free download from The Elder Scrolls site,  Like Arena, it's best to use some sort of processor throttling program as the game will actually become unplayable.  You generally want your computer to emulate nothing faster than a 200 MHz Pentium, that would probably be the sweet spot.

The third game, Morrowind, takes place in the province of the same name.  It's the first fully 3D game in the series, and it's much more regionalised than Daggerfall, as it takes place not within an entire province, but only a small region of it - the volcanic island of Vvardenfell.  It is also the first game in the series to appear on a game console, as opposed to being PC-exclusive.  Many changes occur with how the game is played; while still in a first-person perspective, the combat system was drastically altered.  Many skills are cut and character creation is also drastically altered.  Some spells were removed as well as an entire spell system.  Many of the spells removed are spells that could drastically effect game balance (such as Disintegration - aka instant kill), and the spell system that was removed covered these spells, so it makes sense.  Lycanthropy, the opportunity to become a werewolf, was removed and then re-incorporated with the Bloodmoon expansion.  This was most likely due to the fact that it could be used as the ultimate game breaker for combat-based character builds in Daggerfall.  You also couldn't ride horses anymore (although that was  moot point anyway; it wasn't as cool as it sounded).

However, unlike Daggerfall, there are no random quests.  Everything - everything - is hand crafted.  There are stories everywhere you go.  The weather system is much more realistic; the game is much more atmospheric, and despite the significantly smaller world, the game is still huge.  Plus, there new spells and weapon types added that compensate for what was removed, included a swath of summoning spells.

As previously mentioned, Morrowind also has two expansions - another first for the series.  These enrich the story further and even go so far as to add new gameplay elements.

The premise of Morrowind is that there is trouble brewing under Red Mountain (the massive volcano in the middle of the island), and the emperor believes that you are the one to stop it.  The people are split because the religion is not as credible as it used to be because the three living gods that rule Morrowind are not as powerful as they used to be.  To add to that, another power is rising up - the malevolent Sixth House, which is associated with a royal family, House Dagoth, that was believed to be wiped out.  In short, the crap has really hit the fan from the get-go (as opposed to building up to it in Daggerfall).

The first expansion, Tribunal, is a follow up to the events of Morrowind and it starts off with you being marked for death.  Unfortunately, if Trinunal is part of your Morrowind installation (or disc if on XBox), you'll be dealing with this as soon as you start playing the game.

The second expansion, Bloodmoon, runs along side Morrowind's storyline and it takes place on the northern island Solstheim, which borders the province of Skyrim.  Needless to say, there are lots of Nords (a viking-like human culture) inhabiting the place.

The fourth game in the series, Oblivion, is the latest release to date.  Like every game in the series, its skill and spell systems have been revamped.  The ability to fly (levitiation spell) as well as Mark and Recall have been removed due to engine limitations and the combat system has been given an action-oriented touch.  Attacks are now based on whether or not the weapon physically strikes as opposed to being based on chance and blocking is mapped to a button instead of a percentage.  You can also use spells alongside weapons.

Oblivion was released for the PC and all current-generation consoles except the Nintendo Wii (because it wasn't potent enough) and is considered the title that pushed the XBox 360.

Oblivion also has two expansions, Knights of the Nine and Shivering Isles.

The premise of Oblivion is that emperor has been assassinated and all known heirs have been as well.  A new heir needs to be found.  Like Morrowind and Arena, you start the game off as a prisoner.

Neither expansion is really a continuation of the Oblivion's storyline; they just run alongside it.  Knights of the Nine is about an order of paladins and stopping a new coming evil.  Shivering Isles is about preventing the Realm of Chaos from being destroyed by the forces of Order again.

Oblivion's world is much larger than Morrowind's and, considering the hardware, much prettier.  It's combat is more enjoyable, and unlike the previous game sin the series, you can cast spells while fighting as well due to a clever use of the face buttons.

And coming up this year, the newest entry in the series, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.  What I know about it so far is that the combat is being upgraded again to incorporate things such as dual wielding weapons and/or spells; combat will be based on the fact that you have two hands.  Make of that what you will.  Double-bonus, you can finally actively shield-bash.  Daddy likes.

Oh yeah, the graphics are better, too.  Skyrim will be released on the same platforms as Oblivion was - so, PC, 360 and PS3 owners rejoice. 

The premise is that dragons have returned to Skyrim.  They're wreaking havoc, and the only one that can stop them is the Dragonborn.  I'm not going to go into what that might mean for newcomers to the series as it will most likely throw out some huge spoilers (yes, I actually know enough of the Tamriel lore to know what Dragonborn may refer to).

Also, The Darkness II is not only in development, but there are already in-game screenshots.  The Darkness II is the follow up to the 2007 video game based on the comic series of the same name.

For those who havent played it, The Darkness is a first person shooter where guns are not your only weapons. 

It was released on both the XBox 360 and the Playstation 3.
The main character is a mafia hitman by the name of Jackie Estacado, and the game takes place on his 21st birthday.  On that day, his boss betrays him and he learns about The Darkness, the festering creature living inside him.  The Darkness is both an offensive and defensive ally and it can be used to heal, summon allies and attack your enemies.  It's also used to solve some of the simpler puzzles in the game.  The Darkness was unique not only for its story-telling but also the flow of the game as you could take on what were essentially side-quests that affect potential obstacles that you may or may not run into later on.

The game more or less ends on an open note, so a sequel was expected.  However, the sequel is not being developed by the original studio, Starbreeze and is now under the wing of Digital Extremes. 

Here's a screenshot of the upcoming The Darkness II:
The Darkness II is expected to come out on the XBox 360 and PS3 at the end of the year.

1 comment:

The Dread Pirate Guy said...

Nice article. I like reading up on the early days of Elder Scrolls. I personally can't wait until Skyrim, though I could honestly probably play Oblivion until the end of time.