Of Bioware’s two main franchises, you would think Dragon Age would be my favourite. While I enjoy both genres, I prefer fantasy to sci-fi by a significant margin. The very fact that Dragon Age has Elves should be the trump card.
And yet this is not the case. Quite the opposite. I strongly prefer Mass Effect to Dragon Age. It’s a franchise I’m genuinely passionate about, whereas I didn’t start to gain any unvarnished enthusiasm for Dragon Age until Inquisition’s DLC.
So why is this? Why do I enjoy Mass Effect so much more than Dragon Age despite my strong preference for fantasy? I can think of a few reasons.
I think one of the biggest factors is simply the continuity of the series. The first three Mass Effect games were far from perfect, but the fact that they formed a continuous narrative allowed them to become far more than the sum of their parts.
Take Garrus. He is, when you get down to it, really not that interesting of a character. But after three games of fighting alongside him, you can’t help but form a special bond with him. By the end he feels like family, and it becomes easy to forget how cliched he is.
There’s also something very special and unique about being able to develop Shepard over such a long period of time. It makes them feel so much deeper and more real than most video game protagonists, despite ultimately being a faceless cypher for the player.
Dragon Age, on the other hand, has jumped around between different plots, settings, and protagonists quite schizophrenically. Some elements may carry over between games, but there’s not the same sense of continuity. By the time you get really invested in a set of characters, it’s time to move on again.
As an aside, I would like to reiterate how hard I’m going to nerd rage if we’re not able to play as the inquisitor again in Dragon Age IV.
I’ve spent a lot of time complaining about Bioware’s combat over the years, but even so, Mass Effect is the clear winner in that arena.
The combat of early Mass Effect games is a little shallow and extremely repetitive, but fundamentally, it works. The mechanics are sound, and the moment to moment gameplay feels good enough.
By comparison, early Dragon Age combat makes me want to claw my own eyes out. Cooldowns are so long and characters so resource-starved that you spend half your time just watching your party auto-attack. It’s excruciating.
Both franchises saw the quality of their combat improve immensely with their most recent releases, but while I enjoyed both, I’d still give the crown to Mass Effect. Andromeda’s combat was more visceral, more satisfying.
Inquisition had better boss fights, though, so I’ll give it that.
This is a smaller thing, but while playing Andromeda, I was reminded how much I enjoy having the ship as a home base to come back to. It’s just comforting to have a bit of the game world to call your own, to kick back and relax in.
The continuity of the original trilogy obviously helped the Normandy feel like home, but even after one game, I have grown very attached to the Tempest, as well.
Dragon Age games have home bases that are analogous to the ship, but none of them quite click. Origins’ camp is too dull and generic. The Hawke estate wasn’t used enough. Skyhold was too big, cold, and empty.
Thedas is an ugly place
And I don’t mean in terms of how it looks, although it’s kind of ugly that way too.
What I mean is that Thedas is not a place where I would ever want to live. It’s a monstrously corrupt society where injustice and cruelty are everyday events. I suppose the defense would be that this is realistic, and maybe it is, but while I can enjoy a dark story, I’m not particularly enamored of wallowing in awfulness the way the Dragon Age writers seem to delight in doing.
In a strange sort of way it fosters my engagement with the franchise, because I hate Thedas so much I always want to change it for the better, but it still ends up leaving a bad taste in my mouth, and I leave every game wishing I could have done more.
I prefer Mass Effect’s setting, which has enough bad people and societal flaws to create drama but doesn’t make me hate every culture and institution until I want to cleanse all I see with holy fire.
New game plus
One thing I love about the modern era of gaming is the concept of new game plus. Not having to start over from scratch makes replaying a title a much more appealing prospect.
Mass Effect has always made very good use of the idea, and it’s one of the driving factors behind why I’ve replayed the original trilogy so many times.
Dragon Age, for reasons that I can’t begin to understand, has never offered new game plus. That coupled with the poor combat has made replaying Origins or DA2 to the extent I have Mass Effect games fairly undesirable.
Inquisition has the Golden Nug, at least, but it’s still a pretty poor substitute for a real new game plus mode. I can only hope such will finally be included in the next game.
The opposite of what you’d expect
Lately I’ve been wondering if I’m not underwhelmed by Dragon Age despite the fact it’s fantasy so much as because it’s fantasy.
Let me explain.
Bioware is great at character building, but fairly crumby at world building. Both their main franchises feature very generic and frankly dull settings comprised mainly of the most stock standards archetypes imaginable. There’s very little that’s creative about either one.
But I have much more experience with the fantasy genre than with sci-fi, so Dragon Age’s bundle of cliches feels more tired to me than Mass Effect’s.
Everything about Thedas from its art design to its cultures seems culled from a handbook of overused fantasy archetypes. This is most true of the Darkspawn, who are such pathetically generic fantasy villains I just go cross-eyed whenever they show up.
It even applies to class design. Whereas Mass Effect offers a pretty healthy selection of different class archetypes, some of them generic and some more unusual, Dragon Age is limited to just warrior, rogue, and mage, which are pretty much the three classes someone who’s never played a fantasy RPG in their life could name if you put a gun to their head.
Even the name! “Dragon Age” is such a predictably generic fantasy title that there is at least one other fantasy franchise that I know of named Dragon Age, which is going to make my blog tags terribly confused if James Maxey continues that series like he’s been hinting he will.
Even on the rare occasions Dragon Age does buck trends — like by making the Elves an oppressed under class — it does so in such a simplistic, direct reversal sort of way that it somehow feels even more lazy than when they are directly aping the standard archetypes.
A large part of the reason I’m so keen on Descent and Trespasser is that they’re the first time it’s felt like Dragon Age has had any real colour, any real imagination. I won’t pretend the additions made by those DLCs are wildly original, but at least they don’t feel like they’ve come off an assembly line of fantasy cliches, either. They begin to add some personality to the history of Thedas, and now for the first time I want to learn more.
* * *
That’s not to just completely dump all over Dragon Age. Obviously I do enjoy those games as well, or I wouldn’t play them. I don’t have much good to say about Origins, but DA2 had a great story, if not great gameplay, and despite flaws Inquisition mostly won me over (again, helped by the strength of its DLCs).
I can also think of some things I prefer about Dragon Age. As mentioned above, those games have proper boss fights, something Mass Effect never seems to have gotten the hang of, and Inquisition’s were actually pretty good.
I would also say that on average Dragon Age tends to have more colourful and perhaps deeper characters, though clearly both franchises have lots of great NPCs, and they seem to be a bit better at romance, as well.
Along that line, I think companion approval/disapproval is a vastly superior way to track the consequences of your actions than the rigidity of paragon/renegade or Andromeda’s system of just not really having consequences at all.
But taken all in all, Mass Effect still feels like the clearly superior choice to me.
I’d love it, but I’d be really surprised if they let you play as the Inquisitor again as the main character in Dragon Age 4. I could see it working, as the ending of Trespasser suggests that they’d like to go after you know who. But it would buck the trend of Dragon Age having a totally new protagonist every game, which I think is easier for the developers to have you start in a new area as some noob that needs a reason to learn skills, rather than a fully developed character. Who knows, though?
What I’d really like to see is a single player RPG series like Dragon Age, but treated by developers like a long running MMO in terms of continuously making new DLC and expansions for like a decade rather than pumping out two DLC packs and moving on. They even started selling “season passes” for games these days, but no way does it even compare to a 22 episode TV series season.
The entire plot of Trespasser is about setting up the personal conflict between the inquisitor and “you know who.” It’s not just about establishing him as an antagonist, but the very personal rivalry between them. And I don’t think continuing with the same protagonist presents any real design challenges. If they need to reset your character levels, just say you’re weak from losing the Mark. Otherwise it makes no difference.
Now, developers have made some odd choices before, so I won’t rule it out, but it would be mind-boggingly bizarre and a colossal waste of foreshadowing and character development to not play as the inquisitor in the next game.
I think there effectively have been a couple of single-player games with MMO-like support as you suggest, though I’d definitely welcome it being more common. That’s pretty much what the original Mass Effect trilogy was, and StarCraft II could also qualify.