Computer role-play games growing in sophistication


August 22, 1994|By MICHAEL J. HIMOWITZ

My older son, Ike, has been fooling with computers for 11 of his 15 years, so he knows a thing or two about games.

In fact, he's reached that jaded point in life where he'd rather read a good book or play roller hockey than play a bad computer game, so when I find something that keeps him glued to the screen, I usually take a look at it.

What has him hooked these days is The Elder Scrolls: Arena from Bethesda Softworks, a role-playing game which, he says, extends the genre far beyond its previous limits for those who prefer to vacation electronically in worlds of knights, dragons, magicians, trolls, goblins, orcs, serpents and evil wizards.

For the uninitiated, role-playing games have their roots in the rich literature of fantasy fiction and in the game of Dungeons and Dragons, a long-honored pastime that involves a group of people sitting around a table, constructing adventures in magic worlds according to a bizarre and arcane set of rules, which is generally known only to the dungeonmaster, whose main job consists of settling arguments.

These kind of games made their way to computers early on, although the original text adventure titles left much to be desired. Typically, they involved some kind of quest, such as freeing the beautiful Princess of Mylar from the evil spell of the sorcerer Tsuris, and players navigated by typing commands such as "Go North," or "Get Sword," or "Kill Troll."

The computer responded with a comment telling them whether they were successful or had just become troll meat.

As computers and programmers became better, games advanced from simple adventures -- one character and one quest -- to true role-playing games, which allow you to choose your character (a knight, a peasant, a magician) and specify the character's attributes -- strength, speed, thieving ability, swordsmanship, magic, etc., down to the last detail. Straight text also gave way to detailed graphics and the inclusion of arcade-style animation, although brains continue to be more important than reflexes.

True to their roots

Role-playing and adventure games are now the second-largest category of entertainment software, right behind flight simulators. While adventures have taken on many topics, ranging from futurist conspiracies to modern angst (witness Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards), role-playing games remain true to their fantasy roots. The original Dungeons and Dragons game has spawned an entire series of computer titles, and Arena, which has been in the Top 10 list among entertainment titles, is likely to beget its own.

Bethesda Softworks boasts that Arena offers hundreds of graphics, 400 cities and towns, 2,500 magical objects, 18 different types of characters and 150,000 words of text. I didn't count, but having seen it, I wouldn't doubt the company's word. An enhanced, CD-ROM version of the game is due out this fall, and a sequel called Daggerfall is scheduled for release in January.

Since I believe in deferring to experts, I decided to let Ike write this review. Herewith is his report:

The Elder Scrolls: Arena is not a standard computer role-playing game, or RPG. In many RPG's, a player is forced down a predestined path. Instead, Arena is more like the old paper and pencil games run by people. It allows the player to choose his or her own quests for hundreds of magical objects or treasures.

Staff of Chaos

Arena does have a main objective for those who wish to follow it: the player must save the rightful Emperor of the known world from an evil Battlemage who has usurped his power and placed the Emperor in another dimension. To do this, the player must gain all eight pieces of the Staff of Chaos hidden around the continent and then confront the evil Battlemage.

However, the player is allowed to continue to play in the game's world after completing the quest.

Arena is strong in many areas. The player has total control over the race and occupation of his character, allowing for a large number of options, ranging from a Woodelf Sorcerer to a Khajiit Thief. This also forces the player to use varying strategies. For instance, being from a race of thieves, a Khajiit might decide it's better to run from a knight when caught in the act of burglary (which seldom happens), whereas a Woodelf Battlemage may simply decide to cast a spell on the knight. However, the Battlemage is caught considerably more often than the thief. Also, magic is much more powerful because Arena allows the player to create thousands of different custom spells from 80 different magical effects.

Impressive graphics

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