So far, I've painted a pretty bleak picture of CRPG development in the early to mid 1990s, but things were not all bad.
Perhaps the key problems developers faced was how to bring the CRPG "up to date" after id's Doom and Cyan's Myst hit the scene. These two games had taken the industry by storm, and publishers were frantic to rush anything that looked like them onto the shelves.
By 1996, almost all serious PC gamers (and plenty of not so serious ones!) had upgraded their computers with the latest game hardware, which included CD-ROMs and expensive graphics and sound cards. Furthermore, what was formerly a forbidding mess of incompatible cards was solidifying into a few recognized industry standards, and a huge market was opening up for games that could really push this advanced hardware.
The publisher's creed was simple: Real-time, first-person perspective 3D or shareware. Origin's Ultima Underworld series fit the bill, but was too far ahead of the curve for most gamers to appreciate. Therefore, the field was open for some talented newcomers who could bring Doom-style graphics and gameplay to the CRPG, and a company named Bethesda soon had their foot in the door.
Bethesda entered the fray in a really big way with its Elder Scrolls series, which is still going strong today. The fourth game in the series, Oblivion was
just released in 2006 and is selling quite well. However, those new to
this fine series might not know much about its origins, or that it
played an important role in the ongoing development of the genre.
The first Elder Scrolls game, Arena, was published by U.S. Gold in 1994 for DOS. Like its many sequels, Arena features real-time 3-D graphics in first-person perspective. It also boasts of a huge gameworld with over 400 cities, towns, and villages, all of which can be explored--it's a veritable cornucopia of CRPG delights.
Although it is not as well known today as Morrowind or even Daggerfall, you don't have to look too hard to find fans who rank it as not only the best game in the series, but the best CRPG, period. While I wouldn't go that far in my praise, it's hard to deny it a venerable place in the CRPG canon.
One way of thinking about Arena is as a combination of two Ultima games: The Stygian Abyss and The Black Gate. While Arena offered real-time, 3D, first-person perspective like The Stygian Abyss, it also features a realistic game world like The Black Gate's. Not only do players observe the passing of time from night and day, but it even rains and snows according to the season!
Indeed, it's really the sophistication of this virtual world that makes the game so notable. The plot--find the eight missing pieces of the "Staff of Chaos" and use it to rescue the Emperor from a dimensional prison--is hardly original. What impressed gamers was the incredible size of the world, the open-ended nature of the gameplay, and the supposedly high replay value (starting a new game reset the locations of quest items--though it's truly debatable how much this added to the game's replay value).
Though the game offers considerably more freedom of action than most games of its type (particularly regarding stealing items from merchants), players hoping to win still need to perform a fairly linear sequence of quests. Arena also has a nice combat system, in which the position of the mouse pointer determines which of eight types of attacks the avatar performs.
Nevertheless, the game is far from perfect. Like so many other games of this period, it suffers from bug-infested code. The battles are also quite a bit tougher than some gamers could handle, and the game's formidable specs limited its appeal to those with cutting-edge machines.
In any case, the game set a new standard for this type of CRPG, and demonstrated just how much room was left for innovation. Bethesda has been kind enough to re-release the game as freeware, and currently offers it for free download on their website. I only wish more CRPG developers would follow their lead!
"No longer forced to play the way The Man wants, we are now free to ignore the pleadings of the princess, wander off, and get involved in other complex tales that change and evolve in response to our actions!"
- Trent C. Ward in GameSpot, Sep. 26, 1996.
Bethesda followed up the modestly successful Arena with Daggerfall in 1996, a game that is still widely regarded as one of the most immersive CRPGs ever designed. Players were offered Tamriel, one of the largest gameworlds ever seen in a CRPG, and almost limitless possibilities for gameplay. The leveling system was also made more dynamic; players improved their skills simply by practicing it. Furthermore, the old rigid "class structure" was abandoned in favor of a much more open-ended guild system.
Players can customize their characters however they see fit, letting their creativity run wild. There is even an Ultima-style morality quiz option for players who don't want wish to muck about with statistics. In fact, many (if not most) players soon forgot all about the game's storyline and devoted their time simply to exploring Tamriel and honing their character.
were again presented with irresponsibly buggy code, though by this time
they could probably use the net to find and install a patch to fix the
worst. Another big problem is the lack of balance in the game's
difficulty. It doesn't take experienced players long to gain enough
experience to simply walk through the game, obliterating even the most
powerful enemies with ease.
Bethesda developed and published two spin-offs before releasing the third entry in the official Elder Scrolls series. These were An Elder Scrolls Legend: Battlespire (1997) and The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard (1998). Battlespire is in many ways a simplified version of Daggerfall, and is often described more as a first-person shooter than a true CRPG.
Redguard departs from the first-person perspective of the other games in favor of a third-person view, with the player's avatar visible on screen. If Battlespire leans towards the FPS, Redguard leans towards the traditional adventure game. Completing the game requires conversing with a great many characters and plenty of backtracking, but also some Tomb Raider-like action sequences including climbing, jumping, and swimming.
both games have their good points, neither seems to have won over as
many fans as the main series. In any case, it's likely that Bethesda's
team used these games as an opportunity to experiment with different
interface and gameplay techniques.
Perhaps the best known of all the Elder Scrolls games appeared in 2002: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Morrowind combined the first-person perspective of the earlier Daggerfall with the third-person of Redguard--for the first time, players could choose between the different perspectives as they saw fit. Players soon discovered that each mode had its advantages. For example, third-person perspective makes it easier to dodge ranged attacks.
The leveling system had also been revamped a bit, and split into two: Primary Stats (speed, personality, luck, etc.) and Secondary Abilities (combat arts, magic arts, etc.). Primary stats only rose when the character gains a level, but secondary abilities improve with use. The system may sound complicated, but it's actually quite intuitive. Characters who run and jump often will see a spike in their acrobatics score. Characters who wield an axe will see their "axe" score raised, and so on. Besides just practicing a skill to gain experience, characters can also buy training or read special books sprinkled throughout the game.
"No matter what your preference, there's no right or wrong way to play Morrowind."
- From the Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind Manual
Indeed, there have been very few CRPGs as complex and flexible as Morrowind's. Even after I had completed the main quest, I still hadn't explored but maybe 60% of the incredibly massive and diverse game world.
Unfortunately, Morrowind has its problems. Like Daggerfall, players will eventually reach a level of experience that reduces even the game's most formidable foes into pushovers. There are also many ways to exploit the game's leveling system, such as standing in one place and casting the same spell over and over again. Nevertheless, the game continues to attract gamers and is still actively played today.
Bethesda produced two expansions for its third game: Tribunal (2002) and Bloodmoon (2003). Both expansions met with fairly good reviews, though the latter is perhaps the better of the two. I'll discuss the fourth game in a later section of this article.
Although Bethesda's CRPGs didn't necessarily bring anything new to the genre, they did introduce a nice alternative to the highly linear, story-based games that dominate CRPGs. Even though each of the games has a plot and a "main quest," players could choose to entirely ignore it, and many did so. More importantly, players were invited to indulge their creativity when selecting and developing their characters; the fun of these games is in customization. You build your character, not play someone else's.
Some critics argue that this degree of freedom puts these games closer to the original D&D tabletop game, in which good dungeon masters encourage players to take a more creative role in the unfolding of the adventure. Why not let a player dash past the monster, grab the treasure, and make a run for it? Why not let her swipe that armor when the merchant’s back is turned? Most games would require players to do the “right” thing, but Elder Scrolls let the player decide.
Naturally, other developers weren't content to let Bethesda dominate the real-time sector of the CRPG market. As soon as games like Arena and Daggerfall demonstrated the technical and commercial feasibility of real-time 3D graphics and the immersive potential of first-person perspective, several other companies jumped on the bandwagon.
Some of these games we've already mentioned, such as Shadows Over Riva and the last two Lands of Lore games. Shadows Over Riva hedged a bit; although exploration takes place in first-person perspective, combat is offered only in a somewhat cramped third-person isometric.
A more ambitious (though perhaps more misguided) effort was Westwood's Guardians of Destiny, the second game in their Lands of Lore series. Released in 1997, the game tried to take ride the wave of full motion video games and is loaded with live action scenes (think The 7th Guest or Gabriel Knight II). It also incorporates many arcade elements, including some timed sequences and lots of running and jumping.
The last game in the series, Lands of Lore III, ditched the live action actors for motion-captured animation and voice acting, but most critics consider it the weakest of the three. You are not allowed to create your own character, and critics complained about the repetitive gameplay, unbalanced graphics, and constant need to find food for the main character. It was also plagued with bugs, which certainly didn't improve the game's reputation.