About Tyler F.M. Edwards

Freelance writer, fantasy novelist, and nerd of the highest order.

Why I Prefer Mass Effect to Dragon Age

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.

Rescuing some Salarians in Mass Effect: AndromedaAnd 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.

Continuity

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.

Anders unleashes Justice in Dragon Age IIDragon 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.

Combat

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.

The Reapers descend on Earth in Mass Effect 3Both 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.

The ship

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.

Corypheus in Dragon Age: InquisitionWhat 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.

Commander Shepard confronts the Illusive man in Mass Effect 3Dragon 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.

The inquisitor is crowned in Dragon Age: InquisitionIt 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.

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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).

Sara Ryder and Cora Harper in Mass Effect: AndromedaI 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.

The Division Revisited

When I tried The Division’s beta last year, I knew I would end up buying it sooner or later. It was just a question of when. A recent Steam sale coupled with a lull in other major gaming projects to pursue provided the perfect storm of conditions to finally pony up and get the full version.

My character in The DivisionThe Division is a strange game. I went into the beta expecting very little and came out enjoying it far more than expected, but now that I’ve bought the full game, I question whether I made the right choice.

Magnificent desolation:

Everything that I initially liked about The Division holds true. It is a game that does some things very well, and overall is rather charming.

Its best feature by far is its attention to detail. The Division’s vision of a ruined New York is spectacularly detailed, incredibly well thought-out, and beautifully realized. The graphics are stunning, and the game design is solid, providing an excellent formula of exploration.

The game is empty enough to sell the loneliness of a dead city, but not so empty as to become boring. There’s always something neat to find, be it loot, missions, lore, or just a cool set piece.

Cell phone recordings reveal haunting slices of life from those who died in the outbreak. Storms roll in, dusting your character with snow and cutting visibility down to virtually nothing. Distant gunfire rattles the otherwise tomb-like stillness of the city.

A rescued musician plays for the survivors in The DivisionAn early mission has you rescuing the sister, a musician, of one of your fellow Division agents. Much later on, I stumbled across the sister in the base of operations, strumming on her guitar for an audience of refugee children. It was an incredibly charming scene, and somehow far more satisfying of a quest reward than XP or loot could ever be.

“Immersion” has become almost as much a buzzword as “epic” these days, but it’s still a valid concept, and The Division has it in spades.

And yet I already myself struggling to find motivation to log in, to the point where writing this post seemed a significantly more appealing prospect than actually playing. Why?

Stumbles:

Certainly The Division does have problems. The actual main plot of the game is underwhelming at best, from both a story and a gameplay perspective.

While it may become more interesting later on, so far the main story has been quite simplistic — terrorist attack, yada yada — and it’s just not written very well.

An NPC in The DivisionThe dialogue is so cartoony and ridiculous it almost achieves a sort of kitschy, “so bad it’s good” charm. It’s hard to believe it comes from the same game as the achingly real recordings you find while exploring, or even the goofy but fun NPCs who deliver your side missions.

The main story missions also aren’t that fun to play. As I noticed in the beta, the difficulty is oddly tuned. I don’t think you’re meant to solo the main story, which is an incredibly strange decision in a game that otherwise seems to hew closer to a single-player game than an MMO (while obviously having elements of both).

I don’t like being pressured into things, though, so I’ve stubbornly continued to solo the main missions, frustrating as it can be at times. It’d be fine if player characters in this game weren’t so squishy, but your incredibly low health pool severely punishes the slightest error.

You can mitigate the issue a bit by outleveling the missions via side content, but as much as I enjoy the side missions in The Division (much more so than I usually do), it doesn’t feel good to do them because you have to, and it detracts from what could otherwise have been a pretty solid sandbox-ish experience.

There are also smaller hiccups. The Division may well have the worst character customization of any game I’ve ever played, and I’ve been gaming for twenty years. The options are shockingly limited, and made even more so by the incomprehensible decision to tie certain options together. For example, only about half the female faces can have ponytails.

My character in The DivisionYour guess is as good as mine.

Even with my relatively small amount of time in the game, and even playing entirely solo, I’ve still managed to find someone who was pretty much my character’s exact doppleganger, minus only the lip piercing I gave her in a vain attempt to inject some personality into my avatar.

I think the idea is you’re meant to rely on clothing to make your character stand out. TSW had a similar philosophy, and I don’t hate the idea, but in this case, it doesn’t work as well as it could.

There are a lot of clothing pieces in The Division, but there isn’t that much difference between them. The game clearly tried very hard to make them all realistic choices for the setting. I’m torn because I really admire the commitment to verisimilitude, but it also means that your choices are pretty much down to what colour of winter jacket and pants you want to wear.

Less than the sum of its parts:

Still, none of these seem like crippling flaws. I’ve been able to overlook bigger issues with games. So why am I losing interest in The Division so quickly?

I don’t know. It’s not even that I’m not enjoying myself. It’s fundamentally a good game to play. But I just find that my motivation to keep going is rapidly dwindling.

The deserted streets of New York in The DivisionEven if this is the end, I don’t necessarily regret buying the game. I maybe should have waited for a better discount, but I did get at least a few good hours out of it. I explored a lot more than I was able to in beta, and I generally had a good time.

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One final note before I go: I was deeply amused to discover that the very first safehouse you’re sent to is actually Illuminati headquarters. Both The Division and The Secret World replicated the same neighbourhood of New York, and the first safehouse is in the exact same building as the entrance to the Labyrinth.

There’s even some blue pyramid graffiti in the area. I kind of wonder if one of the environment artists was a TSW player…