Monday, October 17, 2016

Skyrim vs Inquisition - Dawn of Obsession

Just recently I picked up playing The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim (Skyrim) again, and now that we've purchased an Xbox One, we've started over with Dragon Age: Inquisition (Inquisition). Back when we first acquired Inquisition for the 360, I started to write a comparison of the two, and now that I've refreshed my memory a bit, here goes.

Both Inquisition and Skyrim provide an expansive game world, and allow your player-character to wander off the beaten path and explore. If you want to ignore the main plot quests and roam the countryside in search of herbs for crafting potions, or see if you can acquire 50 bear hides, you can do that.

Both games are set in medieval fantasy worlds, where your character can cast spells or fight with a bow or sword. Both games pit you against a variety of opponents, from bandits to necromancers to giants and dragons. Both also allow you to collect plants, game, and minerals that you can use to craft weapons, armor, and potions for your characters.

The two games also place your character in a world that is engaged in a civil war, where the character must choose a side. There is also an outside danger that provides a much greater threat than the war. While you can choose to create a character of several different races/species and either male or female, your character will be the "Chosen One" who can help to save the world from an outside danger that threatens to destroy everything.

The setting for Skyrim is much more open than Inquisition. You can go anywhere on the available world map, even underwater (as long as you have some way to breathe). The entire game is limited to a single country in the game world, but you can explore every nook and cranny of that country if you choose to. Inquisition actually offers a bigger game world, as you visit several countries during the course of the game, but you can only explore a limited part of each location. In Skyrim you can access the next jarldom of the kingdom by simply walking to it, without having to complete any quests or unlock any map locations first. But in Inquisition you can only access other locations by unlocking them through quests, and you can only reach them by utilizing the game's travel mode, which skips you past the intervening landscape and takes you directly to the new map location.

Both games include crafting options. You can gather materials to make potions, weapons, and armor. You can only craft at certain designated crafting stations. The mechanics of doing this differ significantly between Skyrim and Inquisition, but the concept is the same. Skyrim's crafting process is more a series of experiments to find out what combination of elements you need to create a particular type of item, especially when crafting potions. You can spend hours combining various substances to see what kind of results you get. The same is true of crafting weapons and armors. Inquisition gives you specific recipes for potions and schematics for weapons and armor that you must fulfill. You can only craft what you have a schematic or recipe for, as well as the necessary type and quantity of ingredients.

As I mentioned above, in both Skyrim and Inquisition, a civil war has begun, and your character is expected to choose sides. Choosing a side opens up some different quests and causes some non-player characters to react differently to encounters with your character. This is much more noticeable in Inquisition. Once you've chosen a side in that conflict, some quest and character interaction options become unavailable to you. In Skyrim it doesn't matter as much which side you've chosen, as you still have most of the same quest options available to you and the NPCs still treat you largely the same way. It's actually possible to play both sides of the conflict in Skyrim, even if you've technically chosen to support only one.

As mentioned above, in addition to the civil war, the game worlds of both Skyrim and Inquisition are threatened by powerful outsiders seeking to expand their influence. Your character is the Chosen One who is the only person capable of saving the world from these powerful villains. You can, if you choose, shirk that responsibility indefinitely, but if you want to reach the end game you’ll eventually have to complete all the quests related to that Save the World plotline. This is especially true in Inquisition. Skyrim doesn't really push you to complete the main plot. You can play for hours without ever completing one of the quests in the main plotline. Your character becoming the Chosen One doesn't really have that much weight in the game world. Nothing bad happens if you don't pursue the 'Save the World' part of the story. By contrast, Inquisition pushes you pretty hard to follow the main plot. If you don't you'll rapidly run out of places to explore. Many areas are locked until performing certain main plot quests unlocks them, so you can't even leave the starting map area if you don't stick to the main plot.

Skyrim and Inquisition both allow you to customize your character's appearance extensively. And in both games, once you've chosen your race and gender, you begin the game as a prisoner. Both games also offer you an opportunity to change your character's appearance later in the game if you decide you don't like the facial options you originally chose. Skyrim also allows you to choose your character's body type, which is an option Inquisition doesn't offer. Skyrim has more races available - 9 as opposed to only 3 in Inquisition. Inquisition has character classes - Mage, Rogue, and Warrior - while Skyrim lets you be whatever you want, though the race you choose will have some influence on how good you are at certain things, like wielding two weapons or casting spells. Inquisition actually sets some limits on what you can do based on the race you choose: dwarves can't be mages. Skyrim has no such limitation; an orc may not be as good at magic as an elf, but you can still play an orc and focus on spellcasting if you choose.

Both games give experience points that allow you to increase your character's abilities as you progress through the game. This is a very open option in Skyrim; as long as you have enough experience to progress in a particular skill, you can expend experience points on that skill. Inquisition uses a talent tree method, which encourages you to specialize a bit more. Inquisition also doesn't offer any skills for personal interactions or crafting; you're just capable at those things automatically and all your experience points go toward combat skills. Skyrim provides a huge selection of skills, including skills for crafting weapons or armor, picking locks, sneaking and hiding, or bargaining with merchants.

Inquisition and Skyrim have similar methods of allowing your character to interact with non-player characters in the game. When you approach an NPC who is available for conversation (not all NPCs have conversation options), you can trigger the conversation by clicking a button on the controller, and then select from a menu of dialogue options for your character to say. The conversation option that you choose may invoke additional options, and in some cases can influence the reaction the NPC gives.

But Skyrim and Inquisition differ dramatically in how they handle conversations, which is part of what makes the experience of playing the two games so different even though they are thematically very similar. In Skyrim your character dialogue is only text. You never hear or see your character speak to anyone, although you do hear what NPCs say to you. The number of conversation options you have are fewer, and sometimes details like your race or the side you've chosen to support in the conflict don't seem to make much difference in how the NPCs react to your character. For example, high elves aren't very well liked in Skyrim, but playing a high elf won't make NPCs treat you differently. Inquisition actually gives your character a voice. Each character gender has two voice options to select from at character creation. You can actually hear yourself speaking, and watch your character having conversations with NPCs in fully animated cut scenes. The side you choose to support in the conflict has a much bigger impact on how NPCs react to you and what conversation options you have available. Some NPCs will completely dismiss you based on your character's race or the side you've chosen to support in the civil war. You also get a much bigger 'conversation tree' to choose responses from. It makes for a much more immersive experience.

Both Inquisition and Skyrim provide your character with companions so that you don't have to adventure alone. You also have the option of playing without companions, at least to a certain extent. But while Skyrim only allows you to have a single traveling companion (not including magical constructs and animals), Inquisition gives you the opportunity to travel with three comrades. Skyrim starts you off with a housecarl, and as you complete more quests you gain other housecarls. You can also hire companions to accompany you. This means you have a wider selection of people to choose from, but there's no cheat or expansion that allows you to take multiple people along. Inquisition only gives you a total of nine companions to select from, but you get to decide if you even want to make them your companions at all. At the beginning of the game you get three starting companions, and if you want to you can just keep those three people for the entire game; or you can get rid of them as soon as you get new companion options and never take them with you again. Taking your companions with you can improve their attitudes toward you, though, so it's worthwhile to accept all nine companion characters and take turns having them accompany you on various quests. Only certain companions can unlock doors for you unless you've chosen to play a Rogue, and some companions will have special knowledge about the various locations you'll visit during the game. In Skyrim your companions don't give you any advantage in social interactions or dealing with certain locations. Even if you have a housecarl who was assigned to you by a particular jarl, having that housecarl with you when you go to see the jarl doesn't improve the jarl's attitude toward your character, and your housecarl can't help you find locations within that jarldom any more quickly than you'll find them if you go alone.

While it's theoretically possible to adventure solo in Inquisition, it's not a good idea. You'll need the extra firepower in combat, because everything in this game is tougher than what you'll fight in most of Skyrim. Your companions also provide interesting tidbits of information, as you can chat with them while you're back at your base, and they'll talk to each other while you're traveling, providing both their own backstories and extra details about the game world. You can have a maximum of three companions accompanying you at any one time, and if you add all nine companion characters to your choices it can become challenging to decide who to take along on individual missions. By contrast in Skyrim your companion serves primarily as extra storage space. You can't have a conversation while you're traveling, except to give simple commands, and you learn very little about your companions or the game setting from talking to them. It won't make much difference to your experience of the game if you play the entire game with your very first housecarl as your only companion, or if you decide to change companion every time you set out on a new quest. If you decide to forego the extra carrying capacity a companion provides, you can still successfully complete all the quests in Skyrim with only your player-character. In both games your companions can die, although they're more difficult to kill in Skyrim. You don't really have any options to direct what your companion does in combat in Skyrim, and sometimes they'll act in ways that create disadvantages for you, by ruining your stealth or getting in your way when you want to make a ranged attack. In Inquisition if your comrades die during combat you can revive them, and you can use some character abilities to provide protection or bonuses to everyone in the party. You can also assign your companions tactics so that your can coordinate their abilities better. If you fall in combat control immediately switches to the nearest companion character, and you can continue to play that character until your player-character can be revived. You can also let your companions take the lead in some social interactions if it seems like they'd be better at it than your character is. In Skyrim the NPCs behave like your companion is invisible.

Both games provide the opportunity to forge romantic relationships with your companions, and some of those relationships can be same-sex. But the complexity of these relationships vary widely between the two games. In Skyrim you just need to pick a companion who is available as a marriage partner (not all companions have that option), acquire a special amulet, and then get married. There's no real romance taking place; you don't even ask if your companion wants to get married. Acquiring the amulet takes the place of that step. In Inquisition you need to pick the right conversation options to get to the romantic ones, as well as be of the right gender and/or race (some companions only respond romantically to certain genders or races), and it takes time for the relationship to develop. If you make a decision your romantic partner strongly disagrees with it can ruin the relationship. There's no marriage option in Inquisition, but the relationships feel much more realistic and believable. If you choose to have a romance with a companion, you'll also see cut scenes of your private time with them - nothing overtly sexual, but definitely more romantic and personal than just acquiring an amulet.

Since both Skyrim and Inquisition are fantasy RPGs with a roughly medieval European setting, you’ll encounter some similar types of monsters in both games. They both include everything from sheep, wolves and bears to dragons, giants, and demons. But as I mentioned earlier, everything is a lot tougher in Inquisition. In Skyrim your character can defeat many of the dragons and giants solo at first level, but in Inquisition you're better off not even trying to fight a dragon until you've got more than 10 levels under your belt and a well-prepared party of four with plenty of healing potions available to do it. Giants are similarly challenging. Even bandits can kill you if you're not careful. And bears in Inquisition are an extreme hazard in certain map areas, especially since they seem to be attracted by the sounds of combat.

You can walk – or run – everywhere in both Skyrim and Inquisition. You can also acquire a mount to ride. In Skyrim your only option is a horse (even if you’re playing an Argonnian or Khajit, which both have tails that would make riding a horse rather problematic). Your horse can also attack in combat, and you can fight from horseback. If you’re not riding your horse you need to leave it in a stable, which can be found outside a major town. If you get a horse, your companion doesn't get one and just has to run along behind you and catch up to you when you stop moving. Inquisition provides several additional options besides a horse, though they function the same way as a horse. Inquisition makes mounts disappear shortly after you dismount, but you can call them again at any time as long as you’re not in the midst of combat or back at your stronghold. Your companions don't get their own horses, but they are somehow able to keep up with your horse without falling behind. Inquisition mounts are also indestructible, but they can’t help you in combat, and you can’t fight while mounted in Inquisition.

In addition to mounts, the games offer “fast-travel” options. You can go on foot or ride to every destination, but because both games involve a lot of back-and-forth from your base of operations when you want to complete quests or off-load loot, players often weary of seeing the same landscape over and over. That’s where the fast-travel option comes in. Skyrim allows a player to fast-travel to any location they’ve already visited and marked on their map. Need to stop exploring that mine because your inventory is full? Well, actually you can’t fast-travel when your inventory is full, but if you drop a couple of less valuable items you can fast-travel back to your house to stow some gear and then fast-travel to the mine again to finish clearing it of monsters and loot. Skyrim also let's you hire a wagon to transport you to towns, so you can add them to your fast-travel map locations without having to walk all the way there first. Inquisition’s fast-travel option is more limited. You can only fast-travel to your headquarters or established campsites, and from there you have to run/ride the rest of the way to your destination. But Inquisition also provides a sort of locator beacon you can set on destinations to help you find your way there a bit more easily. These “waypoints” show up on your quest map and your radar, so you won’t accidentally set off in the wrong direction or overshoot your destination if you use this feature. Since Inquisition doesn't allow you to traverse any of the territory in between the different quest locations, fast travel is really the only way to get there.

The two games follow the current RPG trend of having some loot show up after your characters kill a monster, and other loot just lying around waiting to be found. Random chests appear in the middle of nowhere, and you can walk into houses and take stuff. Skyrim does make walking into strangers’ homes to take their belongings a bit more challenging by locking doors and forcing you to use lockpicks to get in. You can also be arrested by the authorities if you do too much of that, or aren't stealthy enough about it. Inquisition doesn’t include this type of mechanic, because the houses you find mostly tend to be abandoned, their owners driven off by the rampant warfare. Inquisition does occasionally present you with a locked door, but if you have rogue in your party you can usually get past it with little difficulty.

In Skyrim your player-character always picks up the loot. You and your companion have separate inventories. When yours gets full, you can hand off some items to your companion as long as their inventory still has space. You can generally use anything you pick up immediately, and items are usable by either you or your companion as long as you fulfill any prerequisites. Once both your inventories are full, you can go to a shop in a town and sell some items, or you can take them to your house (if you have one) and leave your excess treasure there. You can also just drop items to lighten your load. You are notified that your inventory is full, and if you leave it that way your movement is dramatically slowed until you get rid of the excess, and you're unable to use the fast-travel option. When you gain character-building points by leveling up, you can increase your character’s ability score for carrying capacity. You can also craft magic items that improve your capacity to carry things. If you give an item to your companion and the game's AI determines that it's better than a similar item the companion already has equipped, the companion will automatically start using it without any input from the player.

In Inquisition the character you are currently controlling is the one who picks up the loot, but you can use the Inventory menu to assign specific items to your companions. The items in inventory are treated as a global pool if they’re not equipped by a specific character. The inventory size limit is also global. Once you hit the limit, you simply can’t pick up any more loot until you either sell something, or craft an item using the excess loot. You cannot store extra loot in your headquarters (at least, not in your initial headquarters location), so it’s generally better to sell or craft to reduce your load. You can't drop items you already have in inventory, though you can destroy items to reduce your load if you don't want to head back to base to get rid of them. Some loot items are only usable by certain classes or races, by characters of a specified level, or even by specific named companion characters. Your companions will not equip new items unless you assign those items to them through the inventory menu. You can only increase your party’s carrying capacity by spending ‘Inquisition Perk’ points that you earn by completing quests related to the game’s main plot.

As both game worlds are fairly open, your character can climb any mountain that isn’t too steep, ford rivers, and splash through marshes. Both games permit your character to climb especially steep slopes by jumping, although you can’t climb vertical surfaces. Inquisition uses some very nice animation to show your character descending slopes. The character walks like someone walking down a slope, and can even slide down on her backside if the incline is too steep for walking. Characters in Skyrim tend to move as though they’re always walking upright no matter how difficult the incline. Skyrim also allows your character to swim, although you’ll drown if you stay underwater too long without a magic item that allows you to breathe. Inquisition dispenses with swimming altogether; if the water isn’t shallow enough to wade through, your character immediately drowns. Both games will let your character die if you jump from too great a height, though as your character's hit point total increases the height you can safely fall from increases as well. But there are some falls in Inquisition that will always kill you, no matter how many hit points you have.

Discussing travel brings up the topic of the game world itself. Skyrim is set in the same world as the other games in the Elder Scrolls series, but this game is limited to the country of the same name, Skyrim, which is the homeland of the Nord race and analogous to a Scandinavian country. Skyrim’s terrain is mostly rocky and mountainous, with the only variation in the presence or lack of snow. By contrast, Inquisition allows you to visit two countries, Ferelden and Orlais, and includes a whole variety of different terrain within those boundaries. You can travel from desert to snow-capped mountains, from perpetually gloomy and rainy marshes to lush rainforest. The types of creatures, plants, and minerals you find vary for each terrain type, and even the appearance of the NPCs changes with locale, which you don't see in Skyrim because the terrain is more homogeneous. But because Skyrim allows you to fully explore every part of the map, it also includes a day/night cycle and weather effects. Your character can rest in homes and inns during the night when it's too dark to travel, or you can light a torch and keep going. It may rain or snow on you, and you'll see the seasons change as the calendar advances. Since Inquisition limits where you can go, it also limits the apparent passage of time and changes in weather. You only experience night when you visit one of the desert locations where it's too hot to do anything during the daytime. Every time you visit a location, the weather conditions there are always the same; for example the Storm Coast is always rainy, and there's always snow on the ground at Haven.

The world of Inquisition is simultaneously vaster and more empty than that of Skyrim. Skyrim has a number of towns and villages, but their populations of NPCs are relatively small. In Inquisition you don’t visit many towns, but you find a lot of people roaming the countryside, although quite a few of them want to kill you. You can’t have a chat with them or bribe them to leave you alone as you can in Skyrim. When they’re identified as enemies, your only options are to fight them or avoid them. All of these wandering enemies do serve to reinforce that this is a world at war. Skyrim's war seems more distant, since there's little sign of destruction and the towns you visit don't reflect any reduction in population or amenities as a result of the conflict.

The size of the world of the Dragon Age setting is further emphasized by the variety of accents given to the characters. Orlesians sound French, Antivans sound Spanish. Elves always have British or Irish accents (although you can choose an American accent for your character if you elect to play an elf). The characters of Skyrim don’t have accents specific to geographic location, although some races like Argonnians and Khajit do have racial accents. Skyrim uses a much smaller voice cast than Inquisition, too, so you’ll hear the same voices over and over though coming from different NPCs.

Repetition occurs in Skyrim in other ways than the limited voice cast. Every mine or dungeon or cave contains basically the same elements as every other location of the same type, just arranged slightly differently. Inquisition does some of this too, reusing familiar architectural or landscape elements, but because the terrain options are more varied, the repetition isn’t as obvious. You also don't spend nearly as much time exploring random caves and mines to gain loot in Inquisition as you do in Skyrim.

Probably the most obvious repetition in Inquisition is that you find the same Requisition Officer at every camp you establish in each of the game’s map regions. If you’re in the Hinterlands, for example, your Requisition Officer is always a British-accented female, but in the Hissing Waste it’s a British-accented male. Both games also tend to have non-conversational NPCs make the same random remarks repeatedly when your character passes by them.

But in general the game world of Inquisition feels much more expansive than Skyrim, even though Skyrim is more open about allowing your character to freely explore its world. This is because not only does Inquisition allow you to visit more of the game world than Skyrim, but the game characters in Inquisition talk about the rest of the world often, including areas of it you can't actually visit as part of the game. The titular Inquisition organization is in contact with other parts of the world even if your character never travels there. In Skyrim you only read about other parts of the world in books and scrolls you can find. If you don't read the info-text or have never played another game using the Elder Scrolls setting, you won't learn much about the rest of the world in which Skyrim exists. Locales outside of Skyrim are seldom mentioned in the NPC dialogue.

Skyrim and Inquisition both have excellent musical scores, musical cues, and sound effects. Skyrim warns the player that enemies are close in part by using musical cues, starting a slightly tense, ominous theme. Inquisition doesn’t have the musical cues quite as closely tied to the onscreen action. You may sometimes hear what sounds like combat music when there are no enemies in radar range. The sound effects in Inquisition for travel on different surfaces are especially well designed; footsteps on wooden floors sound like someone walking on wood, snow crunches underfoot, and walking through a cave causes a stony echo.

Inquisition does have a few sound glitches, unfortunately, probably caused by the complex programming for all the dialogue options. Sometimes the character dialogue gets garbled. Other times the characters fall silent during a conversation. There are also occasions where you can hear the sounds of fighting while passing through an area with no people present other than your party. Skyrim doesn’t have such glitches because it doesn’t have as much ambient sound or as many lines of spoken dialogue.

Speaking of glitches, when Skyrim was first released it was infamous for numerous glitches, which have been amply recorded on YouTube. Most of these seem to be related to the PC version of the game rather than the console versions, although we did experience some glitchiness in the console version as well. NPCs could be seen floating in mid-air instead of sitting on the wagon seat or horse they were meant to be associated with; characters could fall into a small crevice and be unable to climb out, necessitating a restore to the last saved game file; and there were frequent episodes of "clipping", when two objects occupy the same space that weren't meant to do that, such as a person stuck halfway through a wall. There were also occasional doors that wouldn't open, or loot that either couldn't be picked up or could be picked up and yet didn't show up in your character's inventory. Dragons frequently keep moving after they die, even when their flesh has all burned off and there's nothing left but a skeleton.

Inquisition has similar issues. There's a fair amount of clipping; characters often don't stand directly on the surface they're meant to be standing on; and sometimes when you use the travel option, your party members appear at the destination by abruptly dropping from the sky. Monsters normally fade away after they die, leaving behind only any loot they produce, but occasionally the monster corpse will linger for a long while before vanishing. One of my favorite examples in Inquisition is 'floating corpses', when an enemy dies and the body falls to a resting position in mid-air. But as described above, most of the noticeable glitches occur in relation to the complex dialogue options. Fortunately the game offers captions as an option, which can help to alleviate these bugs. There isn't much you can do about glitches in Skyrim beyond reverting to a prior saved game.

A big difference in the openness of the game worlds is reflected by the fact that in Skyrim, even if you’ve completed the end game, you can keep on playing. Your character can go on completing any side quests you haven’t already done, or find more materials for crafting, or continue decorating your houses if you’ve acquired all of the available homes. You can join every one of the many organizations the game offers. You can even become a vampire or a werewolf (but not both at the same time). In Inquisition, once you’ve completed the end game, the game is over. You may not have completed all the side quests, but to go back and finish them, you’ll have to revert to an earlier saved game file or start over with a new character. This means that the continuous play possibilities of Skyrim are greater since you can go on playing it for a long time after you've accomplished all the main quests. But the replay-ability of Inquisition may be superior, since you can start over with a different class or race, choose to support a different side in the war, select different conversational options, and/or take different companions with you on the quests, and any one of these changes can lead to quite a different experience of the game.

Which game you'll prefer will depend on what style of player you are. If you like grinding through dungeons and collecting loot, or exploring, or crafting, but aren't as interested in following a plot or getting to know the NPCs, Skyrim is probably the game for you. If you prefer an immersive game where you can get really invested in the story, but you don't care about being able to go anywhere and do anything you desire, Inquisition is probably the better choice. For me personally, it's hard to choose a favorite. Each of them satisfies a different entertainment need. Both games provide interesting game worlds, exciting visuals, and plenty of fodder for the imagination. I would happily play in either the Elder Scrolls or the Dragon Age setting for as long as the makers continue to produce quality games.

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