The Elder Scrolls: Arena (1994)

The first entry to the long-lasting The Elder Scrolls series is an interesting, ambitious and highly flawed experience. Arena, just like its sequel Daggerfall, is greatly pulled back by the clunkiness of the technology of the era, albeit the things Bethesda is doing with the games is, for the time, both highly ambitious and groundbreaking in a way that hasn't really been perfected even decades later.

See, back in 1994, there wasn't that many free-roaming 1st person RPG's with a 3D engine capable of portraying fully textured worlds with people and monsters. There were games like Eye of the Beholder, which were 1st person, but the engines they used weren't real 3D and definitely not free roaming. Ultima Underworld had a better 3D engine, but the games were confined to a more typical level design instead of a free world that you could roam at your leisure. So technically speaking Arena was trodding new, untested grounds: not only is the game using a free-roaming 3D engine with an open world, it also has around 400 locations, cities and dungeons and procedurally generated quests that give you things to do if you have completed the main quest. And, as far I know, a great deal of the locations were procedurally generated as well, which was a technique that was turned to the max in Daggerfall.

The scale of Arena: the leftmost map shows the provinces, which all can be visited. The second map is the province of Hammerfell, showing all the cities and towns you can visit. The third map is just a small partition of the city of Rihad and the last is just a dungeon map.
But, as I said, the limitations of the technology are really holding the game down: the game itself, does not only suffer from horrible controls, it also is, all in all, a very, very dull experience. And the main quest itself is one of the biggest middle fingers I've ever seen any game giving its players.

On a paper, Arena looks like a great idea. It's basically a game that will never run out of stuff to do. You can, if you want, spend tens of hours in the first city alone, hunting for the random quests, building up your character and gearing up for better equipment. But then, relatively quickly you'll notice that the quests really revolve around a handful of basic things: escort someone to somewhere, bring something to someone, go kill or capture someone and so on. They don't really have any plot, just a basic description blurb that changes names and locations and amount of rewards you'll be getting. And that's how it is in every city.

The cities themselves, at first, look like a magnificent achievement, but then you'll just notice that they're just full of randomly generated and placed cubes with no real architecture and very little variation in textures from area to area. Sure, they have inns and temples and stores, but they all sell similar stuff and it soon just becomes annoying hunting the locations down, as you keep stopping people on the streets and asking them basic questions, like "where's the closest inn", so the name and  the location will be added to your map or that they'll at least give you a general direction to go to. So, while the city system is technically impressive, it's also creatively weak, which is an issue that still plagues procedurally generated games, like Elite Dangerous for an example. Luckily enough the map keeps notes and names saved, so you can, if you're so inclined, rummage all the cities and jot down every location, but that would be just insane.

The map is kinda annoying as well, as the area map shows actually very little at a time, as you can't zoom it. As it's locked to a certain level, you'll need to pan it in all directions, trying to figure out where to go next.  It had the right idea but didn't really pull it through to the end. But at least it HAS a map so it could be worse. And to ease things, the cities are already mapped, so the only thing you'll need to do is try to pin names of the locations on it.

And then there are the dungeons. Twisty, maze-like, filled with rivers and potholes and monsters and redundant loot. Basically, you can complete the game by visiting 20 or so dungeons, so all the other dungeons you might locate are just filler stuff, allowing you to play the game infinitely if you so choose. But why would you, as the dungeons themselves aren't that fun. Without helping spells like passwall, which allows you to burrow through a wall surprisingly enough, the dungeon design is nothing short of infuriating. And to add insult to injury, if you go to an another level, all the monsters you've killed just respawn, so be prepared to run back to the exit, dodging enemies, when you leave, as far I know there's no handy "teleport to exit"-spell.

Handy spells like Passwall can't get you in every place though, as you also need to hunt down some keys on occasion. That by itself wouldn't be bad, but it's made a tad annoying task by the level design and the fact, that despite the game uses a 3D engine, you can't look up or down. So if the small key happens to be on the ground, you'll need to position yourself just right, so that you won't be too far of the key and can get the loot mouse cursor on the top of the key in order to get it. No a huge deal, but annoyance enough for a game that is already far from optimal design.

The loot you get from the dungeons is also a more than a bit underwhelming. Sure, you get magic items and whatnot, but you also get minuscule amounts of gold and seemingly endless stream of basic, cheap weapons and armour. As your inventory is limited, you'll be using the clunky inventory UI a lot in order to drop stuff down.

Before tackling the main quest, I'll need to say something about the UI and controls. Okay, the game itself is played by using mouse and keyboard. There are actions, like an opening map or spell menu that can be done by a quick key or a with a mouse icon. You can also move the character by using a mouse, but that's just awkward.  But so is using the keyboard, as you're confined to only using the arrow keys to move and are not allowed to customize the controls in order to make it a bit more bearable. Using WASD and the mouse, as you do need the mouse as you fight using it, would have felt so much better. Then again, if you're fluent using both of your hands or just left handed, then the setting is more ideal, but for me, it is not. The combat is probably the best feature in controls. It's fully mouse driven and requires you just to press the right button down and fling the mouse left, right, up or down in order to swing the weapon in a direction or an another.

Shopping has also been made a bit of a chore here, as you can only buy one item at a time, after which you're allowed to either accept the price directly or haggle. This by itself is fine, but you're thrown between UI's here from the shop menu to the dialogue box, so it feels a bit skewed and not fully thought out.

So, right, the big middle finger of the game, the main plot. It's actually very simple. Emperor Uriel Septim, like he seems to have a habit by now, has been betrayed, this time by a battlemage Jager Tharn, whose apprentice Ria tried to warn the council, but was killed for her efforts. But she didn't give up there, instead she, as a spirit, hires you to collect together 8 pieces for a Staff of Chaos that can be used to kill Tharn. And the middle finger: after you've collected the pieces Tharn informs you, that the staff is useless, as he used its power ages ago.

What you need to do is to go the imperial palace, beat him senseless and destroy his life force gem there. Sure, you can look at the staff collecting as an excuse to level up, and I guess for the plot it's important that you do so, but personally, I think, also makes the whole main quest mostly an annoying diversion. Not that any of the later Elder Scrolls games have been masterpieces in storytelling, but Arena is an interesting level of low in using a plot device that is useless in the end.

And the way getting the staff pieces is done is not that amazing either. After you've found the first piece, you get a hint from Ria of the location of the next one, so you trod where you think the piece is, ask around, and if you are in the right place, you just locate the person who has the info and gives you a task you'll need to complete before you can get the location of the piece, after which you roam yet another dungeon, get the piece, go back in town to sleep for an another clue and repeat the previous as long as you've gotten all the pieces. And no, there's no variation to these ventures. You get all the pieces the same way, just from different holes.

So that's the first entry in the Elder Scrolls series. An ambitious, yet hugely flawed game, that is mostly held back by the technology of the era. Arena ended up becoming very different kind of a game than it was originally envisioned: it was, after all, meant to be a game about gladiators fighting in arenas (hence the name), but in the end, it turned into a wonky prototype of an open world RPG on an immense scale. And, before you ask, no, the game itself has nothing to do with the title.

What it boils down to is, that it's not really a good game. It is, however, an interesting piece of gaming history just because what it is and what it gave birth to.

If you want it, Bethesda has made it free for grabs. If you want an alternative source, you can get as a free bonus form GOG if you buy other Bethesda titles from there.