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.

* * *

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.

Dragon Age II: Wrath of Mod

I’ve always felt rather torn over Dragon Age II. I loved the story and the characters, but hated the gameplay. Normally it is my habit to play through Bioware games several times to see different plot branches, but due to the bad gameplay, I never managed to get myself to play through DA2 a second time.

Cutscene art from Dragon Age IIBut the desire was always there. Recently I got it into my head to try playing it with some player-made mods to make the gameplay a bit more bearable.

Normally, I’m not a fan of mods. I’m always paranoid about technical problems resulting from the use of unofficial software, and it feels a bit like cheating (which, let’s be honest, it is).

But in this one case it seemed like an exception might be warranted.

To keep the risk of technical difficulties low, I tried to limit the number of mods I used. These are what I settled on:

  • Total Freedom: Remove all prerequisites on learning abilities and reduce ability cooldowns by 50%.
  • All Specs – All Abilities: Unlock every specialization and talent tree for every character, including companion-specific trees like Dalish Pariah or Tevinter Fugitive.
  • Modest Run Speed Increase: Slightly increases Hawke’s movement speed out of combat.

Of them all, the reduced cooldowns made the biggest difference. After a few levels, it removed virtually all the downtime from combat and made it simply dull, instead of excruciating.

A battle during the Legacy DLC in Dragon Age IIThis also obviously had the effect of lowering the game’s difficulty, but it didn’t make as much of a difference as you might expect. The only really broken thing I was able to achieve was getting Fenris to 100% magic resistance.

It was a success in that I was able to play through the game to completion, though I have to say that even with all the changes the combat did start to drag me down a bit near the end.

I’ve also come to the conclusion I’m not a big fan of lady Hawke. I really like Jo Wyatt in SW:TOR, but she just sounds a bit too refined and imperious to be believable as an underdog refugee.

It was interesting to revisit the game, though, and I was reminded there’s a lot about it I truly appreciate. It has better pacing than most other Bioware games, and it’s the only Dragon Age game to date to display any particular style or personality in its art or world-building.

Also, it’s so much vastly better to actually get notifications when companions have new conversations. Why on Earth didn’t this become standard for every Bioware game? It’s such a basic convenience…

Fenris and Hawke in Dragon Age IIOne of my big goals for a second playthrough was to romance Fenris and see how he reacts to it if you’re a mage. I’m coming away from that with mixed feelings.

First of all, it’s definitely possible to romance Fenris if you’re a mage and support mage freedom. It’s difficult, but it’s possible. I will admit I turned to some guides online to smooth the process.

It doesn’t feel very natural, though. There are some lines that make mention of how he thinks you’re one of the good ones (or words to that effect), but mostly the game kind of glosses over his mage prejudice during the romance scenes.

Other than that, it was well-written. I’d say I recommend romancing Fenris; just don’t do it as a mage if you want it to feel natural.

I do like how he lunges at you. He and Sera should compare notes.

This was also my first time playing through with Carver instead of Bethany.

Oh my gods is he ever an asshole. I mean, just, wow. There have been some unpleasant Bioware companions, but this guy just might take the cake. He’s like Alistair’s whining crossed with Vivienne’s condescension and Jorgan’s prickliness sandwiched between two thick slices of unrepentant spite.

My mage Hawke and her party in Dragon Age III was disappointed he didn’t side with Meredith at the end. I so wanted to murder him.

Beyond that I didn’t do much differently this time compared to my first playthrough. There’s no way in hell I’m ever going to side with the Templars in this game. I still lost Isabela (too bad; I was hoping to sell her to the Qunari), but I managed not to have to fight any companions at the end. I thought I’d have to fight Avelline because I wound up with a pretty toxic relationship with her this time, but she had a last minute change of heart. I still supported Merrill and Anders at every turn, and I was still friends with Varric — is it even possible to get on his bad side?

I did pick up the Legacy DLC, since it ties into Inquisition, but it was actually a bit underwhelming. Normally Bioware’s “set up the next game DLC” is amazing (see: Arrival and Trespasser), but Legacy didn’t really impress on any level. Corypheus came across as more of a confused old crank than the world-ending threat he was in Inquisition. I wouldn’t say it was a bad DLC, but it’s definitely not a must-play.

The one change that I really don’t get is that for some reason I had a dog this time. I have no idea how that happened. I figure it’s either some side-effect of the mods or something to do with the flailing at the DLC page I did before starting. But I definitely didn’t have a dog the first time I played this game.

I named him Rufus. I liked how Merrill told him Dalish stories about dogs.

WHO'S A GOOD BOY?!?