I recently saw some preview footage of Mass Effect 2 and thought it looked pretty good. Given they've kept the same protagonist I decided to go back and play the first one to try and get through it before the sequel comes out, which in turn meant putting Dragon Age: Origins. The first impression Mass Effect made was that it's hard to believe it came out eighteen months before DA:O. This would not be a big deal if it wasn't for the fact that the two games were released by the same company and are, from a genre perspective, basically the same game.
Oh look, there's Aragorn
DA:O is Bioware's first big western fantasy RPG out of the shadow of the D&D licence which saw them produce Neverwinter Nights and the Baldur's Gate titles. The setting they have created is an unimaginative and quite frankly uninteresting generic fantasy world populated with humans, elves and dwarfs a stock array of skeletons, werewolves and ents to fight. In visual media the viewer is constantly reminded of all of the components which are taken from other works to a degree that points of difference are easily lost. By contrast written works can establish the similarity to an existing environment once and then only describe original and unique ideas. In this manner it is much easier for fantasy settings which are in many ways unoriginal to appear far more original in text than they would if converted to film or computer game.
Mass Effect in a lot of ways is no better, opting for a galactic empire of hundreds of species run by a council, with the majority of races being humanoid four limbed species who for some unknown reason display the same gender differentiation traits as humans. The advantage science fiction has in this case is that the look and feel of each species has to be decided and created because there are a lot fewer standards to fall back on. Similarly it is easier to make unique gun and ship designs than it is sword and armour designs. Easier or not, it means that Mass Effect feels a lot more like a new universe to explore than DA:O, which feels like a small province of the same medieval fantasy world many of us have been killing skeletons in for decades.
Speaking of which...
In Mass Effect you play Commander Shepard of no fixed gender or first name, in DA:O you play a character of no fixed race, gender or name. There is no better or worse here, in both cases you can heavily customise your character's look and pick a class customise their style. The place where Mass Effect's protagonist is better than DA:O's is simple: Shepard talks. In the many, many conversations that take place in the game, you pick a conversational gambit and then Shepard says something along those lines, thus driving the conversation forward. In DA:O, the conversation system is almost the same except that you pick the exact response and then the NPC responds to it without your character actually saying anything. Although this may sound like a small difference, it means that in DA:O you are subjected to a wall of voice and it feels as though you are not doing anything to influence a particularly long monologue.
Best supporting cast
Both games are story heavy, if not story driven, and as such have a large number of NPCs that the player can interact with in two main categories: party members and quest characters. In Mass Effect other people are maybe a little bit too ready to join your party, but they do at least have some interest in what you're trying to do and will have what is a fairly normal conversation given that one of the participants is a giant toad looking thing. Other people routinely ask you to do things for them and aside from the obvious puppy-rescuing missions they ask you do to understandable things like go and get evidence to prove corruption.
DA:O, however, in its failed attempt to be a morally ambiguous dark fantasy has a world populated almost entirely with annoying people. The two people who join your party who aren't completely obnoxious are Alistair, who is glib to the point of psychopathy, and a dog. It feels as though you have to cajole and coddle everyone you talk to in order to get information out of them, even when they want you to do something for them. It's as though everyone on the planet is a sulky teenager. This frustration is compounded by the structure that pervades so many of the quests: party A asks you to wreak vengeance upon or retrieve a thing from party B, who has committed some atrocity against them. Upon arriving, party B informs you that you don't know the whole story and then explains how party A is in fact the atrocity perpetrator. Then party A shows up and you have to pick which one to kill. Clearly the aim of this is to make you appreciate the gritty, shades of grey world and make difficult moral decisions. This would work better if the missions were story driving, but the most common approach is the horrible “I'll help you, but first you have to do this unrelated side quest for me,” justification.
What this means in game terms is that in Mass Effect you feel at most times as though you are furthering your aim of hunting down the rogue agent, while in DA:O you stop every now and then trying to remember why you are three levels deep in a dungeon killing skeletons while there is a traitor on the throne.
To Be Continued
I'll finish this up next post with a break down of the game mechanics so, you know, stay tuned.