This is a review of Bioware’s newest installment of their Dragon Age series, but specifically focusing on the user interface (UI) aspect of the game. I’ll highlight what works and what doesn’t work. (Seriously, this isn’t meant to bash everything about the game, which I rather enjoyed.)
Just to setup, I finished a playthrough, clocking in around 120 hours to do all the missions and side quests. I started a few other playthroughs to see the differences in character classes and to try to experience story branches that I didn’t see the first time. This is my first foray into the Dragon Age series but I was an advent fan of Bioware’s other series, Mass Effect. While I won’t be able to call back to previous DA games, I’ll definitely be using MA as reference points.
(Also, I don’t have a setup to take screenshots from my TV so will utilize Google for all images in these posts. So credit goes to those owners.)
Let’s do this!
Once you get underway, the first thing you get to choose is your class.
The main element are the large tarot cards that you can slide through to see your options. This is a great touch to elegantly and simply begin to immerse the player into the world. The stylized art on the cards creates a sense of the world and makes it stand out from other video games. There are even unique cards and illustrations for each gender within a class. Bioware didn’t skimp on this element of the game and it works wondrously. They even manage to keep it as a consistent element throughout which makes it feel like a tight, cohesive experience. I think it’s my favorite graphic concept of the whole game, and I’ll probably keep gushing about it as we go.
The rest of the screen is pretty on point as far as hierarchy of importance and visual flow. The text at the top lets you know what you’re looking at. The gender option is easily seen. The class selector takes up most of the space, as it should. And the button map is tucked away at the bottom, unobtrusive but still informative.
The only misstep here is the class description. Bioware makes the bizarre choice of presenting all of the game information that comes in lengthy paragraphs in small caps.
Small caps, for those of you who don’t know, is where everything is written in capital letters with the first letter in each sentence larger or taller than the rest. It’s generally much harder to read than normal sentence case (lowercase letters with the first letter in a sentence capitalized), so is not preferable for text longer than a quick sentence.
Using small caps for large amounts of text is probably Bioware’s biggest UI mistake of the game.
The human eye tends to be lazy and doesn’t want to be strained to recognize objects. It generally uses visual shortcuts to read letters to understand the words and meaning. Shortcuts like the differences in the tops of lowercase letters make it easier to read. There’s a ton of info you can look into if you’re inclined about typography and readability, like this article in the NYTimes about roadway signs and making them easily read at high speeds.
But back to Dragon Age, using small caps for large amounts of text is probably Bioware’s biggest UI mistake of the game. If anything, they should have swapped small caps for the titles and regular case for the paragraphs.
It took my third playthrough before I even tried to read what was under the title. I’m griping on this at length, but it’s a huge problem throughout the game. Anyone who’s played the game knows there’s a lot of lore and backstory to read and putting it in small caps just makes the player not want to try to read it at all.
Moving on, the subsequent screens utilize the same layout and thus the same positives (unique tarot cards) and negatives (small caps). I did really like that the Nightmare difficulty tarot card was very worn and torn. Small touches like that go a long way, Bioware.
Character Setup Grade: A-
World State Import
This is a minor section but it could’ve been so much more. Since it was my first DA game, I didn’t have prior game info to port in, but Bioware created a separate site, The Keep, where you could choose the elements that would affect your game. I won’t go into detail about the UI of the site, but the graphics are pretty nice.
I’m wondering why this wasn’t built in to the game itself. When Mass Effect 2 was released for the PS3, they had an element where you could watch the events of Mass Effect 1 via motion comic and make choices so that you could sculpt the story as if you’d played the game. The Keep is essentially the same thing. So why a separate site and not part of the console experience?
Previous Game Info Grade: F
So now we get into the meat of our customized hero. Here, rather than forging more innovation like the tarot cards, Bioware reverts back to some of its old habits. I can’t speak for the prior DA games but these controls seem directly lifted out of the MA games.
First, you get five option bars for pre-fab Heads. Yet the screen only initially shows three. What’s baffling is that if you get down to Head 3, you can see that all five options fit on the space allotted. It’s a minor quibble; I’m not opposed to having to scroll, especially if you have more options than space, but when you have the space for your number of options then it’s just bad graphic layout.
The button mapping is fine and generally consistent, which wasn’t always the case in a Bioware game. It’s strange that the Voice got its own dedicated button shown through the screens. I guess it’s an important element throughout the game, but it’s strikes me as odd.
As you get further into the screens, Biowares idiosyncratic choices begin to deepen into flaws. Mainly the continued use of the sliders. (Also, here again, all options can be seen on one screen yet the developers have chosen to hide them offscreen initially.)
The sliders are one of my biggest problems with Bioware games because they just aren’t an effective way to see and select choices.
There are no notches in the sliders to indicate how many options are within. Thus also hard to keep track of a particular selection. At times, I’d see an option I liked but went through all options to see and had a hard time tracking back to the original. Even adding a text description of each option would’ve helped. “Oh yeah, I picked ‘Pale and Freckly‘.”
Sliders just aren’t a good method of showing an array of visual options. Many games have used thumbnails to show, say, different nose shapes. And categories like skin tone just scream color thumbnails. This is how Destiny utilized them in their character creation section:
Sure they take up more space than sliders. But Bioware have already shown that they’re not averse to having to scroll. Heck they’ve shown that it’s preferable to them. So why the fanatical devotion to the sliders?
But sliders aren’t the only way that options are presented in DA…
Amazingly, Bioware managed to craft something possibly more confusing to use than the sliders… the XY Grid. Slamming two separate features into one control is very strange.
Granted it works as far as being able to alter features directly, like nose length, which is an improvement over the sliders. Yet other times the element being changed is subtle enough so that I wasn’t even sure what I was changing at times. A line of description would’ve been an easy fix here.
What’s worse, sometimes the change made no sense at all. On Ear Position, I’d move the cursor up and the ears would go down.
Then, as we progress through the options, we come across the third selector method, the color wheel.
This actually works pretty well. Maybe if the joystick sensitivity was taken down a bit, since they tend to move around a little too quickly. I think there are further design refinements that could’ve been made, but of the three selectors this is the most successful.
Other basic UI features follow gaming norms, such as a large character to the side that you can zoom and rotate. And some minor categories that are head scratchers (such as Chin Shape controlling the lip over/under bite, why it’s still called Adam’s Apple for females, and why Lip Shine looks fine here but glows like a neon sign in game).
I think overall, Bioware would be doing us all a favor if they studied what was done for the Sims 4 and how they handled the character customization.
The Sims 4 did so much right in this area of gaming. In the era of touch screens and pinching and zooming, it was so intuitive to change a feature simply by hovering over the part of the face and moving it. You want bigger nostrils? Grab a nostril and pull. You want eyes at a different angle? Grab the corner of an eye and rotate. It’s so simple and obvious that I want every game to adopt this. You can check out an actual video example of this here.
Customization Screens Grade: D+
Let me know what you think below!