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.

Review: Mass Effect: Andromeda

It’s funny to think I was so skeptical about a continuation of the Mass Effect series. For a while there are I was considering not trying Andromeda at all. But having now finished the game, I’m very glad to have kept an open mind.

Ryder and Jaal in Mass Effect: AndromedaI will be avoiding major plot spoilers as much as possible.

Exploring the unknown:

First of all, let me say that this is very much a Mass Effect game. A few things are different, but nothing’s radically changed. If you liked the previous ME games, you’ll like this one. It does have its flaws, but most of them are things you would naturally expect of any Bioware game.

That doesn’t entirely excuse the problems, of course. One of the biggest is that this is once again a game that has favoured side content to an unhealthy degree. In the end, it’s maybe not quite as obnoxious on this front as Inquisition was, but it’s still kind of obnoxious.

It’s not just the amount of side quests and exploration, but how repetitive a lot of it is. I think something that dragged Andromeda down is how little environmental variety there is. More than half the worlds you visit are empty deserts, and the monotony of the scenery really wears you down after a while.

It’s very disappointing in a game that is supposedly about exploring the unknown and discovering wonders, and doubly so when you contrast the endless wastes with the sections of the game that are more creative. One of the most memorable parts of the game for me was the planet Havarl, a bioluminescent jungle world that is absolutely breathtaking.

Planet Havarl in Mass Effect: AndromedaWe needed a lot more locations like that, and a lot fewer endless brown desert zones.

Something else that inhibited the game’s sense of exploring the unknown is how much time you spend fighting criminals elements of your own people, the Andromeda Initiative. I’m okay with the idea that some people went Lord of the Flies when confronted with the challenges of Andromeda, but it’s, like, half the game. How did so many immoral, unstable people even get admitted to the Initiative?

I know this much: I didn’t buy a game about exploring another galaxy so I could fight generic human crooks.

In general some more variety in threats would have been nice. Andromeda has a better variety of enemies than past installments, but it’s still mostly lacking boss fights. When they want to ramp up the difficulty, they just throw more of the same old trash mobs at you. Some more creativity would have been nice.

The one exception is the Remnant Architects, open-world bosses analogous to Inquisition’s dragons, but even these quickly become repetitive.

You see, every Architect fight is exactly the same. The mechanics never change at all. And their mechanics also happen to be virtually the same as those of Dark Matter Monoliths in Defiance, which made them feel even more repetitive for me.

A Remnant Architect in Mass Effect: AndromedaI have killed a lot of Monoliths.

But when those issues don’t apply, exploring the Andromeda Galaxy can be a real treat. You may spend too much time trekking through the desert, but you’ll also marvel over wondrous new worlds and delve into profound alien mysteries.

A few weeks ago I said that Andromeda is the best Star Trek movie in years, and while I was half-joking, there is a lot of truth to that. There is an incredible sense of mystery and discovery running through many parts of this game. Not as many parts as there should have been, but when it delivers, it really delivers.

It’s not just about the sights and the story, either. A wealth of puzzles and environmental hazards constantly remind the player that exploration is a difficult business. It makes the game world feel much more like a real place — it’s not always an easy road, but that’s what makes it rewarding.

The feeling of exploration even helps make the wealth of side quests a little more tolerable. It’s easier to justify wandering all over and investigating every little thing as a Pathfinder exploring a new galaxy than as an inquisitor in a race against time to stop the world from literally exploding.

Similarly, the combat has its repetitive elements, but fundamentally it’s still very fun, and it can offer some real thrills. Andromeda doesn’t change a lot about Mass Effect combat, but it changes enough to matter.

Unleashing biotic charge in Mass Effect: AndromedaCombat in Andromeda is a lot more mobile, a lot more dynamic, than in past installments. You can’t just camp out in cover and snipe enemies with impunity anymore — not all the time, anyway. It’s a little more challenging and a lot more exciting.

The build system helps with this. In Andromeda, classes are gone, and you can instead pick any skills you want from combat, tech, or biotics. You can even save multiple skill sets and swap between them in combat.

Now, this isn’t quite as much flexibility as advertised. It took me until relatively late in the game to unlock a second set of skills (a vanguard-style melee set-up) without compromising my main build, and I never had enough skill points for more than those two builds. But it’s still much more flexibility than we had in past games, so I call that a win.

One final thing about the gameplay that bugged me is that Andromeda has taken a step backward by returning the Mass Effect franchise to a vertical progression grind wherein you have to regularly update your gear, and where loot (most of it entirely worthless) drowns you at every turn. Not a change I welcome.

The best gear by far comes from crafting, which means you don’t have to be at the mercy of RNG, but it also means all the dropped gear is just a waste of space.

Finding a home:

The crew of the Tempest in Mass Effect: AndromedaBut the story and the characters are the true heart of any Bioware game, so let’s talk that, shall we?

The main story in Andromeda is pretty sparse, but unlike Inquisition or ME2, it doesn’t feel underdeveloped. It tells all the story that it needs to.

The villains this time are a race of imperialistic aliens called the Kett. The Reapers were some of the greatest antagonists in sci-fi history as far as I’m concerned, and the Kett can’t live up to that legacy, but they’re scary and alien enough to serve their purpose.

Really my only complaint is how dorky they look. Everything about the Kett themselves and their technology looks like it came from the bottom of Star Trek: Voyager’s reject pile.

But ultimately the Kett are just one part of the grand galactic mystery that makes up Andromeda’s story. I can’t say much without spoilers, but it’s a story that exemplifies the sense of wonder that lies at the heart of speculative fiction. I loved it, and the ending is magnificent.

The characters, too, are strong, as one would expect from Bioware. This is perhaps the first game I’ve played from them where I didn’t strongly dislike any core characters. Liam started getting on my nerves after a while, and Vetra’s a little boring, but there’s no one I truly hate the way I did Vivienne or Zaeed.

Nakmor Drack in Mass Effect: AndromedaThe biggest surprise was Drack. I’ve never been a Krogan fan, but he actually became one of my favourites. Turns out “adorable Krogan grandpa” is a pretty good character concept.

Jaal also stood out. It took me a while to warm up to him, but in the end he really won me over. He reminds me of Garrus — he’s the one you can trust to always have your back when it hits the fan — but he’s warmer and all around more likable than Garrus was.

However, I was disappointed by the amount of character content. It’s definitely less than you’d expect from a Bioware game, and it’s quite imbalanced, too. Some characters get a lot more attention than others.

PeeBee seems to get quite a lot of content — of course the sexy Asari is going to get plenty of time in the spotlight (eye-roll) — and Jaal and Drack also get a decent amount, but Suvi has hardly any content at all. Which is a crying shame because she’s easily the game’s best character.

Anyone who complains about the facial animations in this game has never seen Suvi nerdgasm.

I also found Ryder, the main character, a little flat-feeling. This despite the fact I like Fryda Wolff a lot better than Jennifer Hale (sacrilege, I know). I think the dialogue changes might be to blame.

Dr. Suvi Anwar and Sara Ryder in Mass Effect: AndromedaI don’t mourn the rigidity of paragon/renegade, but the new tone options are so similar to each other it’s hard to define a specific personality for your Ryder.

There’s also a surprising dearth of “mean” options. It’s like instead of blurring the lines between paragon and renegade, they just made everyone paragon. This shouldn’t bother me since I was always pure paragon anyway, but somehow it does. Being the good guy doesn’t feel as meaningful if you don’t have the option to be the bad guy.

Still, there is enough character here to give the game real heart.

We made it:

I’ve been reviewing things on this blog and elsewhere for a long time, and I’m coming to the conclusion reviews can be surprisingly hard, because there’s a lot about how things fit together and how things feel in the moment that can’t be explained in rational terms. Andromeda is a good example. I can rattle off no end of things I didn’t like about it, but the end result is still a game I deeply and truly enjoyed. It’s somehow more than the sum of its parts.

Reading it back, this sounds like a fairly lukewarm review, but the fact is I loved Andromeda. Partly it’s that a lot of my favourite things about it are things I can’t talk about without spoilers, but partly there’s something special about this game that can’t be readily quantified.

Sara Ryder, Jaal, and Cora Harper in Mass Effect: AndromedaI can’t wait for DLC. I’m most hoping for stories relating to the “benefactor” and Keelah Si’yah.

Overall rating: 8.7/10 Familiar enough to be nostalgic, but fresh enough to be exciting.

One another thing: I was surprised and delighted to discover the song that plays during Andromeda’s credits is by none other than Norwegian prodigy Aurora Aksnes. I’ve been a big fan of Aurora’s for a while now, and I can’t believe I didn’t know she was involved with the game.

I hope the extra exposure gets her more fans; she totally deserves it. If you’re looking for it, the credits song is called Under Stars, and while you’re at it, I recommend checking out her other stuff, too. Warrior, Winter Bird, and Runaway are my favourites.