In the first part of this piece I covered the areas of Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect which are non-interactive: the setting, the player character, the NPCs. In this part I want to look at the parts where the player has to press buttons and move the mouse around. For the record I have played both on PC, so I can't speak to the console versions.
The first difference, and a fundamental one, in the two games is the basic interface. Mass Effect adopts a standard third person shooter UI, with the player taking direct control over Shepard. Objects such as crates and doors are interacted with using a standard 'use' key.
DA:O provides two modes of interaction. The first is a control scheme that is used in many PC RPGs in which you have a cursor moved by the mouse that is used to click on places in the environment you wish to interact with. To move, you click on a part of the landscape and the player character moves, etc. While this has been a long used standard in PC games, it subtly removes the player from their character. Rather than "I'm going to move to here," it feels more like "I'm going to select that guy and tell him to move over there." Although this is minor, in what is purportedly a character driven narrative it adds a level of distance between the player and the actions taken by his character. The second interface is a cut down version of the one used in Mass Effect in that you can take direct control of the character, but interacting with objects in the environment still requires the use of the on screen cursor.
Add to this the fact that you can take direct control of any member of your party and the connection between the player and his carefully constructed avatar is expertly severed.
I've already covered the difference in the way conversation is presented in the two games, but there are also some key differences in the game mechanics of it. In Mass Effect, the conversational options are presented a few seconds before the NPC finishes talking and if you choose one before they finish speaking, Shepard will reply straight away which leads to quite natural conversations. This doesn't need to happen in DA:O because the protagonist doesn't speak. This leads to what Radix once described to me as conversation grinding: having to go through every part of the conversation tree to ensure you get the quests rather than because you're interested in what they have to say.
Disclaimer time: I don't like loot management gameplay. I'll save that rant for another time, but suffice to say I think it adds nothing to a game. That said, both games have extensive loot management and I get the impression that Mass Effect's is more streamlined while DA:O's is more intricate. Someone who enjoys spending ten minutes picking which items to equip, which to sell and which to keep for a rainy day can decide which is better.
DA:O has a level of crafting gameplay in which players can make potions and so forth from raw ingredients gathered as they travel around the world. This level also feeds into the item management gameplay, because most of the raw ingredients can be used before being crafted, although for smaller benefits. Keeping a balance between expedience and future use adds an interesting tweak to the game.
Phenomenal cosmic power
Both games use a level based class system for progression. In Mass Effect each character has a small number of total powers, around six to eight depending on your class choice, of which half are passive and so don't need management. There is very little power dependency (for example you need four points in pistols before you unlock shotguns, but that is the extent of it) which means that you only have the powers you want and don't have to spend points on things that are of no use.
DA:O uses a much more traditional power system with a skill tree, character stats, and class specializations. I have a character at level fourteen who has more powers than I can fit alongside the health and mana potions in the shortcut bar, as do two of my three party members (the third being fairly unskilled on account of being a dog). While it is not inherently bad to have a lot of active powers, it is only good design if each power is both specific and unique. Specific in that ithas one effect, and unique in that it is the only available power which has that effect. Most of the powers in DA:O are specific, but they are not unique as there are multiple powers which have similar effects. For example, a shield and sword warrior can take Shield Bash, then Shield Pummel, then Overpower, which knock down, hit three times and then stun, and hit three times the third being critical and then knock down, respectively. The warrior now has three powers to do almost the same thing, where a single power that inflicts more hits and has a quicker cooldown would achieve the same purpose.
Overall, DA:O produces a very complicated power structure which does not translate into complex mechanical interactions within the gameplay, which means complex tactical gameplay decisions are replaced with choices which have little impact on the flow of combat. Which leads into...
Round 1, Fight
Combat is the central game mechanic of both games, and both follow the same outline: see bad guys, use powers, pick up loot, go to next encounter. This takes up the majority of your time with the game, and so it is disappointing that DA:O's combat is so bad. It is essentially turn based with real time trappings, which is a workable but tricky genre (the Grandia games do it well, FFXII wasn't too bad at it), especially as you move close to the real time end of the spectrum.
Powers in DA:O take period of time to invoke (the activation time, listed with the power) but then they also take some time to execute, which is essentially the animation time of a fireball flying to its target, or an ogre swinging its club. This wouldn't be a problem in a turn based game, as the combatants don't move when it's not their turn, however in a real time game the instinctive behaviour when you see an ogre lift its club is to run away. Sadly, in DA:O, the point at which you see the power effect, it is too late. Run as far as you want, the ogre's club will hit you, get behind the thickest wall in the castle, if that fireball had you targeted at the end of its activation period, you're getting set on fire. The purpose of the visual part of a game is in many ways simply to inform the player of the goings on of the underlying mechanics, and DA:O does a poor job of doing this.
Given how independent and stubborn your party members are, it's remarkable how dependent they are on instruction to get anything effective done in combat. There are the tactics slots, which help a certain amount, but even then most of the time your team mates' most useful powers get no use unless you do so explicitly. This further adds to the feeling that you are a puppet master controlling a group of on screen combatants in which you have no personal interest, which is at odds with the character driven aim of the game.
On top of all of this, the view you get of the combat, no matter your choice of camera angles, is atrocious. The zoomed out view never zooms out far enough to take into account the archer on the nearby hill, which leaves you constantly switching between characters trying to get line of sight to targets so you can assign party members to actually do something.
I'm done with this guy
The aim of this piece is not to say that Dragon Age is a bad game or that Mass Effect is flawless (the fact it crashes every hour or so is quite frustrating). Nor is it to provide an exhaustive critique of either game, I haven't gone into the things that both games do badly or really what they do well. Rather it is to observe the apparent regression that has occurred from the latter to the former. Dragon Age feels in many ways like a throwback to games from ten years go, ignoring the improvements that have been made in the intervening period, even games made by the same developer a year or two earlier.