This year sees the release of the new Dragon Age (brilliantly entitled Dragon Age 2) and the new Elder Scrolls game (Skyrim), in early March and November respectively.
I loved both previous instalments, and, superficially, they appear very similar. They’re both approximately medieval, with magic and swords and so forth, and both are RPGs. I’m also very likely to buy both new versions as soon as they come out.
However, they’re actually very different games.
This comes in two parts: visual and statistics. In terms of appearance, Dragon Age offered far fewer options (3 races to Oblivion’s 10, fewer hairstyles, discrete rather than continuous colour options for both skin and hair). But, Dragon Age’s characters looked a lot better than Oblivion’s, and that’s what matters really (in visual terms).
Dragon Age’s had a set class system (3 classes, rogue, warrior, mage) whereas Oblivion did not, enabling any character to develop magic or other skills as they wish. It’s hard to say which way is best, given that one game is a solo endeavour and the other involves managing a party of characters.
Verdict: Dragon Age is the better
Dragon Age’s was pretty simple. Collect a set amount of experience points (XP), level up and add a skill every so often and some talents/spells every level.
Oblivion’s was more complicated, innovative and, from my perspective, a bit of a pain in the arse. Every skill (say, blunt weapons) had an underlying stat (strength, in this case). You would get anything from 0 to +5 in a stat (of which you chose 3 each time you levelled) based on the number of skill increases that had that particular stat underlying. However, several skills had to be selected as ‘levelling skills’, and when 10 of these (whether 10 increases for a single skill or 2 for 5 skills etc) had been increased the level rose.
So, if blunt were a ‘levelling skill’ you could use swords (i.e. sharp weapons), get 10 sword increases and when it came to levelling get +5 for strength despite never using blunt weapons at all. Or, if you increased 5 ‘levelling skills’ twice you’d only get something like +2 for each of the underlying stats.
This, as well as inducing headaches, made it very easy to actually grow progressively weaker as enemies levelled up as well. The Fallout 3 system (similar to Dragon Age’s) was far better, and I hope it’s changed for Skyrim.
Verdict: Dragon Age is nice and simple here
Free-roaming versus Discrete Locations
One of the most striking differences between the two games is the general approach to the world. Oblivion is free-roaming, allowing the player to wander about to various cities, join guilds, commit crimes and visit just about every corner of the map. It’s pretty enjoyable to just plunge into the wilderness and go looking for trouble.
Dragon Age opts for a more discrete approach. There are a set number of major locations (some of which, like Lothering, cannot be returned to after a certain point) and the action occurs. After the introductory period (which is a bit lengthy, I think) there’s plenty of scope for visiting the locations multiple times in whatever order the player wishes, but it clearly lacks the essential freedom of Oblivion.
Verdict: I prefer the Oblivion way here.
Freedom versus Set Storyline
Although there is a limited number of quests available in Oblivion, that number is bloody enormous. There are a number of grouped quests (say, for a certain guild) but also a huge number of individual quests that can be stumbled upon in cities and wilderness both. Not only that, but it’s possibly to be tremendously nice and heroic, or vicious and brutal.
Dragon Age also has a large number of quests, but they are clearly fewer in number than its rival’s. Discounting the central quest, which is not optional (unlike Oblivion where you can ignore it and play the game for 80 hours or more quite happily) there are real grouped quests, and most of those available are pretty simple. However, the Dragon Age storyline (which is far more important than in Oblivion) is far better.
Verdict: For quests, it’s a clear win for Oblivion. For the story, Dragon Age.
Solo versus Party
In Oblivion you can summon various thralls for a limited time and occasionally you’ll fight in a loosely knit group for a short time. It’s also possible, sometimes, to have an underling follow and support you, if you rise high enough in certain organisations. Almost the entire game is spent on your own, however.
Dragon Age is exactly the opposite. A smallish party (4 active members including the player) roams around, mixing up rogue, warrior and mage skills to slay the enemy. A fantastic addition is the fact that your companions will engage in banter between themselves, giving some extra replay value as some companions get on and others really do not.
Verdict: I prefer the party.
Hmm. Oblivion got some big names (Patrick Stewart, Sean Bean and Terence Stamp) to play some key characters, which was nice. Unfortunately, they then lumbered a small and clearly recognisable number of voice actors with doing everybody else. God knows how many hours the other voice actors put in, but I dislike the fact that in a world with hundreds of NPCs you can often recognise the voices used from numerous other characters in the game.
Dragon Age does have some big sci-fi names (Claudia Black, Kate Mulgrew etc), but, more importantly, it also has a pretty large cast. Many voice actors have a couple of roles, but it’s a vast improvement on Oblivion. Furthermore, a few actors turn in stellar performances (Loghain, voiced by Simon Templeman, is fantastic) and the overall quality is better than in Oblivion.
Verdict: Dragon Age, by miles.
Oblivion has no set longevity. It does have a main quest, which is pretty brief (maybe 20 hours, at a guess) in total, but the world is such that it can be played for over 100 hours. Replay value is high, given the enormity of the world and the large number of available races.
Dragon Age, played fully, is probably a 30-60 hour game (depending on how quickly you play and whether it’s your first time). Undoubtedly it has less replay value than Oblivion, but I played it quite a few times. There are multiple races, and six separate origin stories, plus you can vary your party quite a bit and make different, and important, decisions throughout the game.
Verdict: Oblivion can be played for months on end.
So, the two games are actually very different, but both are very enjoyable and I’m looking forward to both follow up games.