My son came into the room the other day while I was playing Dragon Age II, asked me why I was still playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and walked out. That got me thinking: “Why am I playing this old, non-award-winning game with a host of flaws in it instead of a new, award-winning one with a host of flaws in it?”
While I like them both, I would really like one giant mashed-up uber-game, if you will. Sky Age, perhaps. Or Dragon Rim. No, scratch that last one. Ew, just ew. Hell, let’s just begin with a look at what Skyrim really should improve upon, using Dragon Age II’s example.
Better voice acting
First up, what is with the same five guys voicing all the parts in Skyrim? Yeah, there’s Max von Sydow, Christopher Plummer, and Joan Allen to raise the bar, but in a game as expansive and fully voice-acted as Skyrim, there have got to be hundreds of parts.
I’m not suggesting that publisher/developer Bethesda hire hundreds of actors, but how about someone who can convincingly do a Norse accent without sounding like the Swedish chef? Dragon Age had Claudia Black (and who wouldn’t, right?), and Dragon Age II has Eve Myles. The supporting cast, however, really shines. I care about the side characters as much (or more at times) as the main ones. Skyrim just feels like local theater.
Better lip syncing
This might be more of the reason why, of course. In Dragon Age II, the lips, teeth, and tongues generally move in the way I expect them to, even given the fact that it’s a video game, uncanny valley, yeah yeah, etc. The facial expressions and the synchronization between voice and mouth allow me to suspend my disbelief and engage with the characters.
In Skyrim, however, I might as well grab a couple of ventriloquist dolls and act things out on my own. The puppet-y lip sync and facial movements just make me look away in pity. Honestly, Bethesda, you can do better.
Easier quest management
While some might complain about the quest map in Dragon Age II, I found it to be a lot easier to use. Yes, Skyrim’s map looks cooler, what with all the 3D and cloud cover, but boy is it fiddly.
I get the point behind making me travel to far-off places before I can fast-travel to them, allowing me to see the expansive environments of the game (really, the best part of Skyrim). But the little arrow always points in odd directions, mountains get in the way, and I just want to get to the next quest.
If I’m not engaged in the story, I’m not playing the game. I can only roll so many cheese wheels off a mountain before I’m longing for some direct gameplay.
Better combat animation
Look, I like Skyrim’s combat a lot better than Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion’s, but no one is using the word “visceral” to describe the battle system here. Fighting still feels like controlling a marionette with rigid strings, and even the dragon skirmishes are more about toddling around in circles until they land and then shouting at them to death.
Frequent weapon changes are encouraged, but the lag between choosing a new weapon and actually getting to use one is, well, laggy. I can’t count the number of times I switched to the Axe of Whiterun only to be stabbed to death by a dead Nord in the time it took to do so.
Dragon Age II, while more of a button-mashing fun-fest, is responsive and quick when choosing tactics, selecting spells, or even switching weapon sets.
More variety to colors/environments
Oh man, Skyrim designers, I get it. Skyrim is a cold, brown, and gray place. Even the underground is brown and gray. And cold. The monsters there are brown. And gray. The dragons, for the most part, are a variety of grayish-brown.
Please, Skyrim, can I have some color? Just a little? The northern lights at night are pretty, but they are not enough to counteract all the…wait for it…brown.
And repetition? It’s like they got the same guy with the bad Nordic accent to design all the inns. Every. Single. Inn. Has the Exact. Same. Layout. And some minor variation of an annoying bard whom I continue to want to shoot in the head.
Dragon Age II, with all its maze-y back channels and Deep Roads and such, at least has some variety in color and in environment.
Not everything’s perfect in the world of Dragon Age, though. What can DA2 learn from Skyrim?
Alright, so I’ve bashed Skyrim enough, right? There’s always two (or more) sides to every coin or Internet argument, so I’ll present here my thoughts on what Dragon Age II should really learn from Skyrim:
More expansive environments
How many times have I had to carefully watch the minimap in Dragon Age II, so I could find my way around the twists, turns, mazes, staircases, and tiny rooms of the game? Too many, that’s how many. In Skyrim, if I see it, I can get to it.
That huge mountain looks sweet, let’s go there. Ooh, can you see that weird building in the distance? Yeah, we can totally get to it right now. Skyrim kicks Dragon Age II’s ass when it comes to expansive environments, and I guess I just want it all.
Allow for unscripted encounters
There’s got to be a way to bring in Skyrim’s powerful (and sometimes hilarious) dynamically generated goodness into a heavily scripted game like Dragon Age II, right?
After playing Dragon Age II for a while, I start to long for interactions with characters that will complain about their knee injuries or their brother in the army without having to slam through a dialogue tree to do so. Even the “random” fights in the bad parts of town feel fairly planned and obligatory.
I sure would like to skip some of the dialogue as well, especially the fourth or fifth time around. In one egregious example, no matter what I choose to say to that jerk of a Templar, he still cuts the throat of the Qunari and then has his followers try and kill us all. Sure would be fun to try and flatter him a bit and get out without having to fight the whole flock, right?
Dragons should be scarier
Let’s face it, the dragons in Dragon Age II are fairly insignificant. The creatures the actual game is named after are relegated to occasional miniboss dungeons, with little baby dragons, for crying out loud. What is up with that? Skyrim brings the fear of dragons to the game screen.
These are fearsome creatures, ready to burn or freeze me to death in every encounter, scripted or not. While I wish I could befriend a dragon or two in either game, the Skyrim dragons are much more terrifying, probably owing to the fact that they are the only enemy of their kind.
The Dragon Age II dragons, on the other hand, are simply another wave of monsters to get through on the way to more story moments. Not scary at all.
Make combat more realistic
In almost direct conflict with my praise of Dragon Age’s combat animations above, I really wish they had taken a page from Skyrim’s obsession with weapons and load stats and the like. It’s way too easy to just press the shoot button and let the game auto-target and kill the hordes of enemies. While Hawke looks good downing baddies, it’s really rather preposterous that she is able to take down such incredibly large numbers of opponents with relative ease.
Also, how do those Dragon Age II characters die in a battle but somehow revive when it’s over? I think they’re just malingering.
Epic story needs to be epic
I spend a lot of time in Dragon Age II running from petty ruler to petty ruler, from terrified mother to captured child, and from dwarf merchant to conniving dwarf merchant. Aren’t I “The Champion?” Where’s the epic?
The quests, while easily figured out and managed with a fantastic visual interface, feel a lot less fraught with world-spanning intensity than those in Skyrim.
Learning how to shout the dragon tongue, getting my first dragon soul (and wondering what the hell that was, anyway), learning about the Dragon Born legacy from sages across the map really lent the whole thing a gravitas somewhat lacking in Dragon Age II’s regular quest progression.
Yes, a lot of this is nitpicky, and yes, some of my points conflict with other points I just made, but isn’t that the joy of gaming? I can want it all, right? I want a game that has the storyline, voice acting, humor, and color of Dragon Age II with all the seriousness, realistic combat, and scary dragons of Skyrim.