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The Elder Scrolls: Evolution

Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls series is a fantasy role playing adventure renowned for both its detail and scope. The dedication necessary to build such a world requires years of careful craftsmanship. That helps explain why the past few titles each have been released four to five years apart. I decided it might be interesting to chronicle the evolution of this franchise by briefly revisiting them in turn, and in the process perhaps revealing how Bethesda has arrived at its winning formula.

I was most curious to play The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (2002) on Xbox again, as I never made much progress in it the first time around. Frankly, I'm not sure how much time I invested previously (the load screen didn't help in this regard), but was impressed that I hadn't played it in six years! The familiar Skyrim symbol, however, was a welcome sign.

I can't tell if my character, Lyandreil, is a Khajiit or just a peculiarly groomed human male with a predilection for old-timey mustaches. Nevermind that his raggedy wardrobe is frankly a little embarrassing especially when trying to establish a reputation as a feared warrior with a deadly skill set. At this point it appears a harmless Lyandreil is patiently awaiting a drink or a room.

NPCs appear oddly antisocial, even in a social setting, though I do have a vague recollection that last time I played I might have attacked a few. However, I don't think I saved upon doing so as I tend to try and play as the hero. Regardless, their interest in standing despite chairs and staring into space despite company made for an awkward time spent in this establishment.

The first creatures that assaulted me were giant annoying ants and leaping larvae. Good thing the Orkin Guild provided me with pest control training and this trusty bug repellent.

I was pleasantly surprised to find flying predators so early in my journey. He took my health down a few notches but I stopped this Cliff Racer dead in its tracks. (Why it's called a Cliff Racer is beyond me and my patience to look up the Wiki.)

The presentation is clearly substandard by today's expectations, whether relatively bland textures, jagged edges, poor draw distance or stilted animations. Nevertheless, I was drawn into Morrowind's world by its variety and creativity. Landscapes, characters, enemy designs, elemental effects, gameplay, etc. all help immerse gamers in the experience.

Shipwrecks are always a welcome feature of any self respecting role playing game even if only for its loot grinding potential. Initially this vessel held little booty but since the game facilitates underwater exploration with an O2 bar the partially submerged cabin promised some hidden treasure.

Indeed emerging on the other side revealed the remains of a lost soul and a few items worth taking though the haul, frankly, was underwhelming.

Still, I enjoyed the opportunity to explore this wreck. That is, until I turned around. It didn't look familiar so I couldn't figure out how to return through such tight quarters. I remember a beam I had to pass to one side of, however, neither side this time seemed to offer an exit.

Through trial and error that lasted at least 20 minutes I finally found that sweet spot that was inexplicably easy to navigate on the way in. In any event, I was relieved to escape the same fate that befell my skeletal friend.

Upon exiting I was struck by the view in the morning light. It was simple by today's standards but the colors, silhouettes and shading made for a beautiful image. It proves, in my mind, that thoughtful design can stand the test of time.

Likewise, the sky reminded me of successive titles, which of course is a good thing considering they all take place in the same world. The impressive celestial bodies were complimented by the shifting light of the day/night cycle and the game's cloud movement, all of which are essential to helping suspend one's disbelief and ground you in the virtual world.

The landscape in general but the flora especially create a unique environment that still commands one's attention despite the dated presentation. Such compelling design encourages exploration, a must in an open world adventure game.

Inhabitants of this world, too, hold one's interest whether their distinctive appearance or sometimes colorful dialog. Their movements might lack fluidity and their comportment leave something to be desired, but their presence enriches Morrowind.

So I'm minding my own business when ... Holy smokes, what the hell is THAT? A giant blood sucking tick thing towers over a city. As a near, I see a bridge leading to it and sense it's benign. However, it reminds me of other fantasy/sci-fi creature designs but nevertheless is an inspired addition, especially as a mode of transportation for this world's denizens.

I was reminded of Saint's blog on video game weather patterns when a rain began to fall. Draw distance never seemed very pronounced but the way a kind of mist enveloped the landscape as raindrops fell all around me was a sublime moment that had me sit back and appreciate the result.

The nearby city likewise was shrouded in the stormy mist for an evocative scene that was familiar and foreign at the same time.

I'd remembered a doorway on my way to the city so backtracked for an opportunity at exploration. Inside was a chamber with several doors and noises behind at least one. It turned out to be an evil spirit (why do they have to be so angry in video games?) who was impervious to my desperate attempts at self defense. I happily ran away.

In the city, I found a merchant to upgrade my wardrobe and items. Unfortunately I didn't have enough gold to buy the merchandise. Because I couldn't offer more, I offered less. And she took it! I left with five gold pieces in my pocket and the knowledge that I am an expert negotiator!

The guards in the city are extra vigilant and keep a watchful eye out of sight from its citizens. Unless you count the transparent walls they hide behind.

Lyandreil is finally beginning to look the part, whether he is in fact a Khajiit or facial hair aficionado. The further I progressed in Morrowind the more I wanted to continue playing. Thankfully, I had other Elder Scrolls titles to fulfill that wanderlust.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2006) is one of those titles that I've barely scratched the surface of, however, it's easily one of my all time favorite games. The detailed fantasy world is expertly realized, from creative settings to epic score and interesting people or creatures. You feel part of a grand tale.

At the time I spent more hours in this game (on Xbox 360) than in practically any other title I'd played. Still, it was a fraction of the reportedly 200-plus hours of gameplay Bethesda included in the original game (not including add-ons like Knights of the Nine or Shivering Isles). A year and a half later, I returned to Cyrodiil.

After 35 hours, my character of Gaiemedes Alnor was much better equipped to combat the predators in this world. Of course it doesn't hurt that the game's enemies scale to one's level or that one can likewise use a sliding scale to adjust the overall difficulty. Still there are some foes that don't scale and that distinction is appreciated.

It figures that the first creature I would face in my return to Bethesda's open world RPG would be a giant rat. They are ubiquitous in caverns and dungeons, but they still manage to surprise me every once in a while. 

Lockpicking is a skill that doesn't differ too much from one game to the next, but even subtle variations can make all the difference between an easy test and a frustrating one. It took me several lockpicks before I figured out how to unlock even Easy locks LOL.

Oblivion likewise has flying foes and imps are no slouches when it comes to putting up a fight. Their ranged magic attacks can prove nettlesome especially when in numbers. Speaking of, the particle effects in this title are well done and animations are smooth and convincing.

This Bandit Hedge Wizard ended up in a hedge! Close enough anyway. Made me laugh.

The competition mounted by this cavern's occupiers made the payoff that much sweeter. Between gold, soul gems and other items, this expedition proved worthwhile, as do many in this well crafted loot grinding game.

Bandits apparently have a sense of humor given their penchant for placing treasure chests at unambiguous locations throughout the otherwise dark and labyrinthine cavern -- or they're not that clever and to do otherwise risks misplacing them. Either way it makes my task much easier.

Ha! A wolf born with a silver spoon in his mouth! But without a penny to his name at the end. A classic riches to rags story. Or is that riches to wags? Ba-da-bump!

This Bandit Bowman was a discredit to his trade.

Imagery is more detailed and settings have a longer draw distance. Along with other enhancements, this version of The Elder Scrolls does more to engage players than before.

Character models, too, are more lifelike and interactions feel more natural whether between your character and NPCs or among NPCs themselves.

I'm not sure whether this guy is a player, a wildlife hunter or someone named Hunting Tail. Regardless, I think he's been in the wilderness a tad too long. And he's shedding skin. Eww.

Although I know gamers now take issue with the presentation when judging by today's standards, I still am in awe of what Bethesda accomplished with Oblivion and believe it holds up well. Combined with the sweeping score, depth of ambient noises, breadth of gameplay, and variety of flora, fauna and inhabitants both human and otherwise, Cyrodiil is an impressive accomplishment.

I could have dispatched this melee opponent at range given how she telegraphed her attack, but then I wouldn't have gotten the action screenshot I was waiting for. Thank you, hapless foe.

There is no doubt that I've invested more time in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011) than in any other game I've played. At 70 hours so far (Playstation 3), it even eclipses the 56 hours or so that I put into BioWare's Mass Effect 2. Consider, however, that it is still only a little more than one sixth of the reported 300 hours of total gameplay. And the Dawnguard DLC is around the corner.

I'm not sure how many of those 70 hours were spent wearing the Amulet of Mara but it was enough that Lydia's sudden interest upon booting up the game again was a shock. Even though I had my eye on a righteous female warrior in Riften I must have been desperate because I leaped at the chance. Her less than enthusiastic response, however, did make me reconsider.

I spent at least an hour managing my inventory. Between going back and forth to my storage chest in Whiterun's Breezehome residence, the local merchant, and my companion Illyia, it took time to decide what to part with and what to purchase. Nevermind that the merchant used up his gold buying my materials before I bought a few choice items from him.

Although I thought I had wandered around Whiterun enough to have experienced the lay of the land, I think this was the first time I encountered mudcrabs. In the process of reacquainting myself with combat controls, I wasted a shout on them, though the speed with which two scurried away almost made it worth it. Though not bipedal, they did remind me of Fallout 3's Mirelurks.

I finally decided to take on a Giant after having been soundly pwnd by them in previous encounters. Illyia and I were managing the one until another appeared and nearly clubbed me to Oblivion. But we prevailed against both as my hit and run, run, run tactic seemed to work (though Illyia might disagree).

Apparently I fulfilled a quest objective by killing them. I always accept quests but rarely pursue them intentionally, usually completing them in the course of my exploration. Their camp did prove impressive not to mention rewarding in terms of found loot. But the refined combat, whether using favorites, dual-wielded weapons/spells or my follower's skill, helped demonstrate how far the franchise had come.

Exemplifying the variety of gameplay options available, my character (Vorhyym Serpensmide) features an eclectic wardrobe and arsenal of Dragon Priest mask, armor, bow and arrows, enchanted axe and flame attack. The favorites option increases his arsenal to include staffs, two handed weapons, a shield and other elemental attacks. A Renaissance Man with a Mission.

I also fought a sabre cat, which heretofore I had only encountered in different climes, but was eager to test my mettle against other deadly fare so also took on a rabbit and goat in short order. At least we ate well that night. What was funny was how Illyia also unleashed bolts of ice against the goat. I'm glad she has my back, even if against unsuspecting wildlife.

The environments that Bethesda has crafted in its Elder Scrolls games never ceases to amaze me. The tundra like settings are fascinating enough but when caught in a snowstorm at higher elevations, the snowdrifts, howling winds, sounds of footsteps in the snow, and blowing foliage or banners almost makes one cold to the bone.

Speaking of, I found myself once again climbing sheer mountainsides in my ongoing exploration of the furthest reaches of Skyrim's outer rim. Indeed, in my 70 hours I've spent most of it in the mountains circumnavigating the world instead of in the vast interior. Of course there are glitches in such a massive undertaking, but they pale next to Bethesda's unparalleled accomplishment.

And then I got stuck. One of the risks of wandering off the beaten track in any game, it's a constant danger in the open world games of this series. I did get stuck in a similar situation outside a bandit fort but if I recall managed to free myself after maybe a half hour. Here to I think I extricated myself maybe after 20 minutes or so. 

So naturally I returned to mountainclimbing. The world of Skyrim is just too vast and well rendered to restrict oneself while exploring.

The vistas, which feature dramatic draw distances (alliteration be damned!), are reward enough for intrepid explorers.

In fact one of the game's real treats is finding a scenic perch to watch the day/night cycle transform the landscape underneath the shifting day/moon light and bath it in colorful but subtle hues as time passes.

There are few spots where one can be unaccosted for extended periods of time so an otherwise inaccessible outcropping on a mountainside can provide a rare opportunity for reflection and introspection. Assuming your Dovahkiin is prone to such fancy pants self-analysis which, let's face it, would likely be unfamiliar territory for the Dragonborn.

As happens too often when traversing mountain ranges in Skyrim I lose direction and end up backtracking to an area I'd earlier cleared. But thankfully unfortunate bandits have since made their home among the ruins and provide me with an opportunity to flex my combat skills once again. Interestingly their speech doesn't vary much whether attacking or under attack.

I thought I'd already discovered this mountain passage but apparently only explored the other end. Always happy to find a new location I was impressed to see the detail and creativity that went into the design of this area. Plus a soul gem awaits!

So that concludes my return to Bethesda's three most recent Elder Scrolls titles. All impress in their own right and demonstrate how the talented developer has refined its formula from one entry to the next to create games that improve upon their predecessors.

I enjoyed this endeavor enough that I just might return to chronicling my progress in these titles or explore other franchises in a similar fashion. I might even use the same treatment for similar titles that aren't part of the same series. Either way, I hope you enjoyed it. 

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