(This is a repost of my latest Elder Scrolls entry on Google+.)
Well, one thing’s jumping right out at me: Daggerfall has the spellmaker that I loved so much in Arena, and Skyrim doesn’t. It’s not even a weakened, lame version. It’s just straight-up not there. Meanwhile, Daggerfall pretty much mandates it, since for some reason the Mage’s Guild doesn’t even sell heal spells.
That’s what I keep noticing about these two games. Daggerfall is tremendously, almost intimidatingly open and random. You really can do almost anything you want. You don’t even need to walk if you don’t want to; the game’s version of levitation isn’t just Arena’s barely-above-the-ground levitation, but actual honest-to-goodness flight. You can craft your own spells, items, potions, and whatever, and are sent by the enormously faceless Guilds to go into dungeons that are these gigantic, randomly-generated monstrosities.
Skyrim, on the other hand, is very much a crafted experience. Sure, you can create and enchant weapons and armor. There’s no spellmaker, though, and the spells that you get feel fairly straightforward. The dungeons are obviously created by real human beings, and are deliberately placed on the map with authored, voiced quests leading into many (most?) of them. Instead of the omnipresent-but-anonymous Guilds of the earlier TES games, you have very specific factions, with a very specific questline for each of them. Other people have pointed out that you don’t even need to be an adept in the skills of the new “guilds” in order to do the quests. You can apparently become an Archmage with very little magical ability at all.
Both have their upsides and downsides. I called Daggerfall “intimidating”, and that’s really what it is; it’s SO gigantic that I find myself with little idea as to what to do beyond heading over to the local Guild branches and seeing what they’ve got to do. There’s a wee bit of content involving the main plot that you need to do right away, but I sorted that out quickly, and now I find myself able to do whatever I please, wherever I please. I can level up whatever faction I please, I can go clean out dungeons, I can follow the main plot, or even travel to some town far away. It’s a heady thing…but TV Tropes’ “quicksandboxed” term doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Skyrim, meanwhile, just comes across as very structured and authored at all times. It’s an excellent game for wandering in, because a wander in any direction (or even in the direction of any of the cities) will come across a multitude of caves, forts, towers, and all manner of other neat places to check out. And once you get there, you generally have a pretty good time; even your generic Fort Whatever situation is satisfying to go into and sort out.
The fortuitous happenstances can be amazing, as I saw when I broke into a random cottage in the middle of nowhere and discovered that it was the entry point for a gigantic underground bandit complex. It’s an excellent experience…but it’s definitely an experience under someone else’s control. Even the “Radiant Questing” AI system is basically the game taking you by the nose and leading you to the fun bits that someone made for you.
(Skyrim doesn’t even allow fast-travel to places you haven’t been yet. You have no choice whatsoever about seeing the province first-hand. It’s a kind of “enforced wandering”. Works really well, but that’s what it is.)
Daggerfall isn’t really like that. You don’t run around and come across random stuff in Daggerfall, really. You don’t even have a local map between the main areas. It’s just these endless procedurally generated seas of low-polygons ground meshes. So while it’s this gigantic area, you’re just fast-travelling everywhere anyway.
Paradoxically, I didn’t feel the immense size of the province at all. Skyrim’s barely a thousandth of the size, yet I’ve felt its size quite a bit more.
So which is “better”? Neither. I’m not really looking at it like that. I’ve been playing a bit more of Skyrim, but I still feel like Daggerfall’s got its hooks into me a bit more. Fast-travel or no, I still want to hit different parts of the province and see what’s going on. I want to rank up with the Guilds, and the Temples, and all the other factions. I want to see more of these randomly-generated dungeons; the mapping system is still abominable, but I’m getting a better handle on it, and I’ve made a few spells that help with getting around. Not that I don’t want to play more Skyrim; both are solid games.
But I’m still really, really interested in how two games in the same series that both promise “openness” and exploration deliver it in such very different ways.