The RPG world has evolved considerably in the past decade. Turn-based combat is rapidly disappearing, and largely thanks to the success of MMOs like Everquest and World of Warcraft, the modern RPG experience usually includes at least some interaction with other players. However, there are a few big-name RPGs that still offer interesting solo play. 2011 will bring at least two highly-anticipated single-player sword-and-sorcery RPGs to the table, including The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Dragon Age II. So, how will each of these games attempt to carve its own niche in the RPG scene? Here's a breakdown.
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ES5: Bethesda's community manager, Nick Brecon, hinted in a Twitter update that Skyrim would feature an all-new engine, and it has been more recently confirmed that the Gamebryo engine used in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is not being reused for Skyrim. Some common complaints about Oblivion were the stutter when loading pieces of the overworld map, the NPC's awkward facial movements, and the clumsy combat. So we're crossing our fingers in hopes that this new engine will result in changes to all of these, making for a much smoother and more immersive experience.
DA2: Dragon Age 2 is taking notes from its predecessor, and so far it sounds like it will be a much better product for its willingness to do so. The controls are said to handle better this time around, and the UI is getting redesigned to show star ratings of items you find in the world. This rating makes it easier to tell whether or not an item is appropriate for your level at a glance, while more complex stats can be found by "inspecting" the item. The graphics will bring more detail to the foreground at the expense of a less detailed background. But this doesn't mean the background looks cheap; the designers simply made a lot of decisions to take advantage of negative space. Overall, Dragon Age II promises to look better than Origins.
ES5: At this point, very little is known about the gameplay of Skyrim. However, it has been confirmed that this will not be an MMO. Whether there will be a co-op mode or this will be an exclusively solo campaign is not known, but it's fair to speculate that Skyrim will take a similar approach to Oblivion's single-player focus.
DA2: Similar to the Mass Effect series, saves from Dragon Age Origins can be imported into Dragon Age II, meaning the decisions you made in the first game will have an impact on things that happen in the sequel. Though you won't actually bring your Origins character over, you will find references to your choices from the first game. The combat structure, still built of a combination of real-time fighting and pause-and-play strategic maneuvering, is getting a much-needed overhaul. It sounds like the buttons are going to feel a lot more responsive, and that characters will obey commands more quickly than they did in Origins.
ES5: While The Elder Scrolls V is a sequel to Oblivion, it's been suggested that the events take place 200 years later. The name, Skyrim, comes from the mountainous region in the northern part of Tamriel (the game world in The Elder Scrolls), so we can be pretty confident that this new chapter will focus on this region. The official reveal trailer from the 2010 VGAs suggested that there will be some sort of return of the dragons, and that they will fear the Dragonborn. Who is this Dragonborn, and will we get to actually play as him/her/it? We'll have to wait and see, but the trailer certainly invites speculation.
DA2: The new Dragon Age is set up in a "framed narrative" structure. For less literary gamers, this means it is a story within a story. A better way to look at it is a story about people telling a story. Players will take on the role of Hawke, and will play their part in a decade-long tale as told by two different storytellers. According to the official press release, Hawke will rise to power and will "become the single most important character in the world of Dragon Age." Of course, this means that Dragon Age II features story elements that will permanently impact Dragon Age lore.
The Final Verdict
Since so little has been revealed about The Elder Scrolls V so far, it's difficult to speculate about which of these two games will ultimately be the better experience. However, Oblivion was an incredible game, and with a few tiny little tweaks, Skyrim could prove to be 2011's best single-player RPG. Dragon Age II is going to have to work extra hard to make up for the flaws in its predecessor, but if it can iron out the wrinkles (and this certainly sounds like something the BioWare team has worked very hard on), it's definitely going to offer some solid competition in next year's RPG market.
CCC Freelance Writer