Mass Age & Dragon Effect

Posted by on Saturday, 16th January, 2010

BioWare has put out some very important games over the years. (My personal favorite from the past is Baldur’s Gate.) When I finally played Mass Effect, I fell in love with the story and the characters. (See my post on Thumbsticks for more info.) Now I’m playing Dragon Age: Origins — it shares some important things with ME, while doing some things differently. Let’s compare them, shall we?

1. Story: Mass Effect ✓ Dragon Age ✓

Both games do a great job of laying out an epic conflict of good and evil, but not forcing the player to take one route or another. (Obviously in both games you’re strongly encouraged to defeat the Supreme Evil, but maybe you’ll do it for selfish reasons, wink wink.) Although ME has a more nuanced story than DA, both are engrossing enough to keep the player interested.

2. Characters: Mass Effect ✓ Dragon Age ✓

Again, both games succeed in providing intriguing people for you to quest with. Wrex is by far my favorite from ME; I chose him to accompany me on missions as much for his amusing personality as for his combat skill. As I play DA I find myself less enamored of my colleagues (Alistair in particular is a whiny dork), but I really like Morrigan’s detached cynicism.

3. Dialogue: Mass Effect ✓ Dragon Age ✗

I’m sorry, but I can’t give DA full credit here. While Mass Effect shines with crisp, direct conversations that achieve the two primary goals of dialogue (move the story along and reveal character), Dragon Age drops the ball on a regular basis, letting people drone on and on about their homelands and their boring emotions. The sublime exception here is Sten, the stubborn murderer that you release from a cage. (Once I asked him an indirect question; he answered it as if it were direct. Then, when I asked if he would answer my question, he shot back simply: “I did.”)

I also need to point out (as I have before, on the podcast) that the player character in Dragon Age doesn’t speak. This is a huge drawback from the standpoint of player involvement. I don’t care at all whether my hero lives or dies; in Mass Effect, I felt incredibly connected to Shepard.

4. Main Quest Structure: Mass Effect ✓ Dragon Age ✓

In both games, the main story quests are plainly laid out, with enough open-world options to give the player a comfortable level of control. While each succumbs to “Save all Human/Elf/Carbon-Based-Lifeform-kind” syndrome, Mass Effect does a somewhat better job of revealing an intriguing web of backstory. Dragon Age’s main quests are fairly pedestrian, but they’re well structured.

5. Side Quest Structure: Mass Effect ✗ Dragon Age ✗

Ask any fan of Mass Effect to name a flaw in it and you’ll inevitably hear “side quests”. They just weren’t very good — 70% of them were basic search & destroy missions on barren planets. The romance side quests were really dull to me, and the love connections between the characters felt forced.

Dragon Age has better variety in its side quests, but they’re structured horribly. You’ve already heard me bellyache on the podcast about the lack of waypoints and the stupid way the game slowly lets you into different parts of the city. I’ve also had to put several side quests aside until I gain a few levels — this annoys me. If I’m probably not ready for the quest at the level you expect me to be by that point in the game, don’t give me the quest yet! (Maybe they’re going for “realism”, but that’s stupid. It’s a fantasy game!)

I also don’t like the sort of quests (which appear in both games, and none of which I’ve finished in either) wherein you have to slowly collect specific plants or letters or keep your eyes peeled for grains of special sand or whatever. They did this in Oblivion, too — “Seeking Your Roots” — what a dumb idea. It’s like the orbs in Crackdown. Booorring!

6. Friendly AI Control: Mass Effect ✓ Dragon Age ✗

Maybe this is a bit harsh, but I guess it depends on what you’re looking for. With ME, we had a single radial menu that issued special orders to your Non-Player Character (NPC) comrades. Simple and basic. It could be annoying if you didn’t heal them in time, but overall I liked the centralized way I could order them around. (And of course you could tell them to move to a certain spot, fall in on your location, etc.)

The designers of Dragon Age said: “The player needs much more control over the NPCs. In fact, let’s not make them NPCs at all. They’ll be totally playable.” It certainly is interesting to switch into the bodies of your comrades. (It’s also nice to keep fighting after the main character falls in battle — in ME, once Shepard goes down it’s Game Over, man.) But there is an elaborate system of IF/THEN statements that your comrades obey. (For example your mage might follow this rule: “IF I see a group of three enemies, THEN I will cast Cone of Cold at them.”) It allows for much more fine-tuning, but dangit, if I want to spend all my time tuning, I’ll play Forza 3!

I think it’s really tough to combine real-time action combat with a group of characters. Group dynamics in turn-based RPGs are simple and fun — you can order commands one at a time, with no need to worry about how people will act on their own. Baldur’s Gate on the PC had a superb mechanism where you could easily pause the game, order your team around, and then start it up again. It was kind of annoying sometimes, but it worked. The team combat in DA is much less satisfying. (You can still pause with the radial menu, but you’ve got to keep the button pressed and it’s just more clunky.)

7. Graphics and Sound: Mass Effect ✓ Dragon Age ✓

Both games do a great job with these. DA has gotten some stick with its textures and older engine components, but to be honest, I don’t care. There’s a good variety of visuals in each game (even ME has planets that vary in their appearance), and the laser beams and sword clangs sound great. I’m not the most demanding critic of aesthetics in games, so perhaps it’s not surprising that I give each of these a thumbs-up.

Conclusions

Both Mass Effect and Dragon Age are super games. Depending on what you come in expecting, you’ll get many hours of satisfying gameplay and interesting virtual people to enjoy it with. I wish the DA team had followed ME’s lead in more areas, but then I suppose game developers are always under pressure to come up with “something new”.

At least Dragon Age doesn’t have any long boring elevator scenes.

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5 Comments

  1. TheDaddy says:

    Piter, the answer to your question is yes.

  2. My name is Piter Jankovich. oOnly want to tell, that your blog is really cool
    And want to ask you: is this blog your hobby?
    P.S. Sorry for my bad english

  3. cpmatthew says:

    you are comparing Dragon Age to Mass Effect 1 here, which is fair enough. I think you will find the Mass Effect 2 is far superior to both of them. I didn’t think it would be possible to make a game look better than ME1, but ME2 did it. Hopefully you get a chance to give it a try soon.

  4. Fat Waster says:

    Great piece Duke. You’re obviously very fond of both games and you’ve convinced me to give Mass Effect another try.

  5. Stuart says:

    Nice post Duke, Dragon Age is a game I feel I should play, but with so many great games coming up in the next few months, I just can’t justify the time, especially with Mass Effect 2 just around the corner.

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