A Look at the Elder Scrolls Anthology

If you missed any of the Elder Scrolls games but want to explore the world before Elder Scrolls Online launches, here's your chance to try them all.

A Look at the Elder Scrolls Anthology

The Elder Scrolls Anthology is going to bring back a lot of happy memories for some of us. This bundle packages all five major Elder Scrolls titles into one massive collection that can potentially consume literally hundreds of hours of your gaming time. Personally, I've sunk between 100 - 200 hours apiece into each of the last three games. I can therefore attest that the Anthology is absolutely worth the money, especially if you are new to the Elder Scrolls universe and want a crash course before the Elder Scrolls Online goes live next spring.

So here's a look at each of the games included in the Elder Scrolls Anthology: the stories, the connecting threads, the recommended mods, and why you should play each one.

Elder Scrolls Anthology - Arena Box ArtThe Elder Scrolls: Arena

March 1994

PC Only

The first game in the series introduces the familiar game opener: you are a prisoner escaping from a dungeon and becoming embroiled in an epic political plot. In Arena, your goal is to assemble a collection of artifacts to take down the Imperial Battlemage, Jagar Tharn, who has imprisoned the Emperor Uriel Septim IV in another dimension.

Arena is a very difficult game. The introductory dungeon contains powerful monsters and zero decent weapons. You may, for example, wander into a room - quite near the new-character spawn-in cell -  containing a hard-to-hit Imp. Or you may attempt to rest and heal back up, only to be bushwhacked by an archer or assassin, and attempt to fight it using your crappy rusted iron dagger and no armor. This is not a fight you will win, even if you have already mastered the awkward non-standard controls. Arena was released in 1994, after all, and RPG designers had not yet figured out the now-ubiquitous WASD keyboard control scheme.

Elder Scrolls Anthology - Arena Screenshot

If you do manage to survive this intro dungeon, you will discover a massive game world covering essentially the entire continent of Tamriel. Characters will visit major cities in every province. Wilderness areas outside the cities are randomly-generated and do not actually connect the cities together, but there are still hundreds of towns and dungeons to be found and explored. The name "Arena" refers to the continent of Tamriel - life in Tamriel is as bloody and violent as a gladiatorial arena.

Arena has been available as a freeware download directly from Bethesda since 2004, but because it was originally designed to run in DOS, it requires the use of an emulator (like DOSBox) to run on modern machines. Arena turns 20 in March, 2014, so that's not all that surprising for a game that's older than many college students. The version that ships with the Anthology also requires a DOS emulator to run on modern operating systems, but there are modified versions available for download that have built-in, pre-configured emulators and Windows installers.

Elder Scrolls Anthology - Daggerfall Box ArtThe Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall

August 1996

PC Only

The second title in the series started out the same way as its predecessor - in a dungeon, as a prisoner tasked with an epic quest. This one takes place entirely within the provinces of High Rock, homeland of the Bretons, and Hammerfell, home of the Redguards. The player character is sent to High Rock by the Emperor to deal with the ghost of a murdered king, and to find a key called the Mantella, which will resurrect an ancient iron golem called the Numidium. Daggerfall has a number of different endings, depending on what the player chooses to do with the artifact he has found and which factions he has aided.

As one might expect, Daggerfall is more advanced than Arena, and is arguably the most complex Elder Scrolls title to date. It features a bewildering array of different skills, including languages and other non-combat skills, and new systems for enchanting items and creating new spells. Players are able to become vampires and werewolves, which became staples in the later games, and also had the option of becoming a wereboar, which, sadly, fell out of favor later in the series. While Arena featured set classes, Daggerfall gave players the opportunity to create their own classes to play the game however they wanted.

It is also the largest Elder Scrolls game - not just within the series, but of any game. The game world encompasses about 188,000 square miles, twice the size of Great Britain. Most of the explorable terrain is randomly generated and lacks the kind of detail found in later games, and because of the small number of "building blocks" used in its construction, a lot of that terrain seems monotonous... but 188,00 square miles is still frickin' enormous. 15,000 cities, towns, villages and dungeons. Fifteen thousand.

Elder Scrolls Anthology - Daggerfall Screenshot

Graphics-wise, Daggerfall isn't a vast improvement over Arena. They both look like nearly-20-year-old games built for DOS. But if a player can get past the horribly dated mid-90s look and clunky playstyle, it's a very rich and deep game, and has been available as freeware from Bethesda since 2009. It's worth noting, however, that Daggerfall was specifically aimed at an adult market, and features full frontal cartoon nudity on the character sheet "paper doll" by default and without mods.

There are a number of community-built mods for Daggerfall, but these are not the same easy-add mods that are available for later games. And because of the age of the game and the degree of complexity of getting it to run on modern machines, these mods may have limited appeal to most young gamers.

The version that comes with the Anthology requires a DOS emulator to run in modern versions of Windows. But if you are interested in playing the game without a lot of added hassle, there are tweaked versions available for download that come with pre-configured DOSBox emulators and Windows installers, so it can be played on modern operating systems.

Elder Scrolls Anthology - Morrowind box artThe Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind

May 2002

PC, Xbox

The first of the "modern style" Elder Scrolls games, Morrowind stands as one of my personal all-time favorite RPGs. Set in the province of Morrowind, it tells the story of a pardoned prisoner arriving by boat on the island of Vvardenfell, where he fulfils the prophecy of the Nerevarine, the mortal who challenges the immortal Dagoth Ur, who wants to conquer all of Tamriel and infect everyone with the blight disease, Corprus. But, like all other Elder Scrolls games, the character is free to do whatever the hell he wants as soon as he leaves the Excise Office in Seyda Neen.

Morrowind features a stripped-down, minimal UI compared to the previous two games, and the more modern WASD keyboard movement setup. It's the first truly 3D Elder Scrolls game, and can be played in first or third person perspective. The skill system is less bewildering than Daggerfall's, but is more varied than later games. The character creation system of Morrowind is probably one of the best ever designed - rather than a boring option screen where you just pick a bunch of options all at once and then jump into the game, it's part of a fleshed-out process that takes place over a series of voiced conversations with NPCs. By the time you're finished your character, you've learned the basic mechanics of the game.

It's also worth noting that this is the first game in the series to feature ten playable races: Altmer, Bosmer, Dunmer, Breton, Nord, Redguard, Khajiit and Argonian have been available since the beginning, but Morrowind is the first game in the series to add Imperial and Orc as playable races. It is also the first in the series to feature music by composer Jeremy Soule, who wrote about 30 minutes of music for a game that can take hundreds of hours to play through. Luckily for us, those 30 minutes are golden, and the haunting themes of Morrowind are instantly recognizable to the players who have heard them repeated over and over again during their play time.

The Elder Scrolls Anthology also features Morrowind's two expansions - Tribunal, which follows the continuing stories of the Dunmer ancestor-gods after the events at the Red Mountain, and Bloodmoon, which extends the explorable area of Morrowind to the island of Solstheim, northwest of the main island of Vvardenfell and introduces lycanthropy to the land of the Dunmer.

Morrowind shipped with the Elder Scrolls Construction Kit, which gave players the power to modify the game world and create their own adventures. The game was also built to make it easy to install and play community-made mods, and as a result, there are thousands of mods available. Morrowind mods were the impetus behind the launch of NexusMods, a website dedicated to mods for a number of games. And despite the game being over 10 years old, people are still making new mods for it and posting them on NexusMods.

Elder Scrolls Anthology - Morrowind Screenshot

One of the most recommended mods, however, is not hosted on the NexusMods site: Morrowind Sound and Graphics Overhaul (MGSO), which is hosted by its creators at Ornicopter.net. This mod does exactly what is says on the label, bringing the decade-old graphics up to a more modern standard, and is the mod I use in my screenshots. It won't quite bring it up to Skyrim levels - the character models still have those weirdly-long legs and polygon counts are still fairly low - but it will be enough to make the game a lot more appealing to the younger gamers who are spoiled by more current games. Though the game was cutting-edge and resource-intensive when it was new, it hasn't aged particularly well. Start with MGSO, then grab a few interesting weapon and armor mods from NexusMods, and your whole game experience can change.

Morrowind was the first Elder Scrolls game to be ported to a gaming console, but the PC version's moddability did not make the transition to the Xbox version. Another first: Morrowind can be installed and run on modern versions of Windows without the use of a DOS emulator.

Elder Scrolls Anthology - Oblivion box artThe Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

March 2006

PC, Xbox 360, PS3, mobile phone

The fourth title in the series sees the pardoned prisoner in the province of Cyrodiil, homeland of the Imperials, failing to save the life of Emperor Uriel Septim VII, the last of the Septim line. The Emperor is assassinated by members of a Daedric cult named the Mythic Dawn, and with the death of the Emperor, the way is clear for the opening of a number of gateways to the hellish plane of Oblivion. The player is tasked with finding Septim's bastard son, Martin, and then with gathering a collection of powerful artifacts that will allow Martin to do battle against Mehrunes Dagon, the Daedric prince behind the Mythic Dawn cult. While the "deus ex machina" ending may leave you feeling a bit flat, the journey up to that point is awe-inspiring.

Oblivion takes the character creation process even deeper into the game. You may be playing for over an hour before your character is finalized and you are ready to leave the starting dungeon. Character skills are somewhat stripped down from the Morrowind set, with a number of related skills lumped together and others streamlined out of the game entirely. Armor sets were made much simpler in order to accommodate more realistic character models. NPCs were given "Radiant AI" which allowed them to make decisions and engage in complex behavior rather than simply follow rigid scripted routines.

The soundtrack for Oblivion is twice as long as it was for Morrowind, and Jeremy Soule almost died in a car crash while he was in the middle of writing it. Evidently, his brush with death left him appreciating life all the more, and the soundtrack for Oblivion is a celebration of the beauty of life. The game also features some top-notch celebrity voice acting from Wonder Woman, Captain Picard, Ned Stark and General Zod.

The Anthology also includes Oblivion's two expansions - Knights of the Nine, which is more of a collection of official mods than a proper expansion, and Shivering Isles, which takes the player to the realm of Sheogorath, Daedric prince of madness.

Elder Scrolls Anthology - Oblivion screenshot

And of course, there's more to do in Oblivion than just troll around killing monsters and grinding quests. There are loads of unscripted distractions, as well; for instance, you can build a sizable skull collection to store and display in one of your houses. You can gather up all the watermelons and cabbages you come across and go bowling down the side of a mountain. You can rank up your Sneak skill and go around picking pockets. You can become a vampire and feed on sleeping innocents. You can try to make everyone love you by using the Persuasion wheel on everyone you meet. These are the things that make all Elder Scrolls games truly great.

Oblivion is just as moddable as Morrowind, and the graphics are far superior. There are nearly 10 times as many mods for Oblivion than there are for Morrowind on NexusMods, but the one I would recommend most strongly is the Oblivion Mod Manager. At one point, I was running over 100 mods at a time, and the mod managers from NexusMods make that a lot easier to do. I also recommend the Unofficial Oblivion Patch, which fixes a huge number of minor bugs and glitches not tackled by any of the official patches. Start with those two things, and build your own massive collection up from there.

Elder Scrolls Anthology - Skyrim box artThe Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

November 2011

PC, Xbox 360, PS3

The Dovakhiin starts out 200 years after the events of Oblivion, as a prisoner in the Nord province of Skyrim, headed for an execution at the hands of the Imperials. Just before the axe falls, the prisoner is saved by the intervention of a fire-breathing dragon, who burns the town of Helgen as the prisoner and a few other lucky survivors - including Ulfric Stormcloak, leader of a Nord rebellion - flee to spread the tale. Dragons are the stuff of myths by the Fourth Era, and few believe the stories of a dragon attack on Helgen... at first. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the prisoner is the Dovakhiin, a Dragonborn who can use words of power, called Thu'ums, in the same way as dragons. It is his task to take down Alduin, the world-eating dragon.

Skyrim, arguably the most popular title in the franchise, follows the natural curve of progression in the Elder Scrolls series. It is far and away the best-looking Elder Scrolls game, and set the bar for what single-player RPGs should be. The UI is even more stripped down than previous games, and was clearly designed to work well with a console controller rather than a mouse/keyboard setup. The selection of skills has been pared down to pretty much just combat skills, with few considerations for non-combat activities. The character class system has been eliminated in favor of a more "organic" approach - instead of trying to shoehorn your playing style into one cramped set of key abilities, you play the game the way you want and improve your skills by using them. And composer extraordinaire Jeremy Soule returns with an epic 4-CD soundtrack filled with choirs of chanting barbarians.

Elder Scrolls Anthology - Skyrim screenshot

One of the key improvements in Skyrim over previous games is the ability to dual-wield, and to use magic and a melee weapon at the same time. A character can hold a sword in one hand and a healing spell in the other, or use a sword in either hand, or the same spell in both hands to cast a more powerful version of it. 

The Anthology comes with all three Skyrim expansions: Dawnguard, which makes Skyrim's vampires even more fearsome and powerful; Hearthfire, which adds three huge customizable manor-style homes to the landscape and allows the player to adopt kids; and Dragonborn, which opens the way to the island of Solstheim in Morrowind, which features some of the creepiest dungeons I've ever seen. Seriously - like a cross between Lovecraft's Chthulhu stories and the library episode of Doctor Who where the shadows eat people right out of their space suits.

Again, NexusMods is the go-to place for Skyrim mods. In addition to the mod manager and unofficial patch, try the Skyrim HD high-resolution texture pack, which retextures the whole of Skyrim in ways that will make your video card bleed. Also worth checking out are UI-improvement mods like SkyUI, which makes the user interface less console-y and more PC-friendly, or mods that upgrade the world map to make it less confusing.

Elder Scrolls Anthology box set

The Elder Scrolls Anthology is retailing for about 80 bucks, but when you break it down, that's actually a pretty solid deal. You get around 500 hours' worth of gaming glory, all on physical media instead of digital downloads, complete with gorgeous maps and packaging, for the approximate price of two new games. If you're new to the series, or if you got started with Skyrim and want to know the rest of the story, or even if you just have money to burn and want the fancy maps and packaging, you won't be disappointed with this collection.

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