The first thing that comes into my mind when seeing the wide range of DLCs studios struggle to come up with is this: “Why the rush?” I have to admit that curiosity sort of killed the cat this time, because Return to Ostagar made me less enthusiastic about additional Dragon Age content. So, when Awakening started to friendly wave to websites on the Internet, I stood back in doubt. I could already visualize the boring and useless fights, the mechanical Darkspawn kills and tons of loot being thrown down my throat.
So I have to thank those who didn’t doubt Dragon Age: Origins Awakening for giving me the advice and chance to play it. Because, although this expansion pack takes less than a quarter of the original story to complete, it is exactly what his daddy should have been. Awakening is all about o bugs, fairer fights, missions whose briefing deserves to be read and some abilities that are designed to make your life easier. In addition, spanning over 25 hours of gameplay, the game has more to offer than most 50 euro titles on the market (although the price is a bit tricky; you still require Dragon Age: Origins to play it).
But enough thank you’s. In Awakening, there have been six months since the defeat of the Archdemon and driving the Darkspawn back beneath the earth. In the same six months, in the real realm, the Mass Effect 2 team was getting ready to go home after the final game launch, when BioWare relocated them to the fantasy department in order to cut cost.
So you shouldn’t be surprised by the fact that in Awakening you can use the main character from the original campaign, or by the fact that NPCs react differently according to the decision you have made before shooing away the Darkspawn. And even if the Origins plot doesn’t have as big an impact upon Awakening as Mass Effect has upon Mass Effect 2, at least historical references are coherent and satisfying.
For example, because I was a female elf, the living proof that Alistair was not gay, I had to bear his royal soap-opera love throughout the whole of Awakening. Talk about bad decisions… And of course, the Mass Effect stench can also be felt at the level of storytelling.
The game may be missing the film grain effect that enraged SF fans worldwide, but the fighting scenes are definitely much better rendered than in the original game. They’re more fluid, more alert and realistic and dialogue themselves now have the same kind of wordplay I have only seen with the space heroes of Mass Effect. Some scenes become picturesque through violence. Try visualizing the opening scene of the expansion, where a soldier starts punching a dead Darkspawn frantically.
There’s no place like home
Let’s not jump to conclusions, but rather return to our plot. Saviors of the realm of Ferelden or mere Grey Warden that have just journeyed from Orlais (BioWare has invented a new origin in order to justify your lack of implication in the Blight; in this case, the developers have designed a default outcome of the main story) you will receive your own keep from the king. Vigil’s Keep dominates the land of Amaranthine and you have to make sure that everything is in order.
And, because there’s no place like home, once inside your keep you realize that everyone is dead and that you still have some Darkspawns to chase. Moreover, it seems that your enemies have become semi-intelligent and are now willing to negotiate, communicate or whatever. So yeah, we’re talking about a shift from quantity to quality.
Their mumblings from the main campaign have been substituted by complex plans of raising the different power factions in the world one against another. This sudden burst of intelligence also split the Darkspawn in two: those following the Architect, and the Mother’s children. That’s all I can say without spoiling the surprise of the Blight.
Too bad Awakening is not too talkative on this subject either. The game unfolds as if the players already know who the Architect and his six-booby enemy are. Actually, these enigmatic figures are very well portrayed in one of the novel that relates to the series (The Calling), so I suggest you start reading if you want this expansion pack to seem less absurd.
Things are clear without a lecture anyway: you have to put the Keep back on its feet and eradicate the Darkspawn. You achieve this not only through recruiting new Grey Wardens, but also by checking the defense of the keep or shopping for the local blacksmith. You’ll even get to attend boring court meetings, where you’ll have to give the verdict on absurd peon trials. To calm the spirits throughout the realm, you’ll have to guard trade routes or even play pranks on rich people, for the sake of orphan kids.
Just watch out on your decisions. You’ll constantly have to choose where to station your troops, whether to allow the Black Market to flourish and event whether to save forsaken villages. And you do it all, just like in the case of Origins, through the realm map, which contains only one city (Amaranthine) this time around.
In general, I had the feeling that all the decisions I made in Awakening had a huge impact upon plot evolution and the emerging of a well shaped enemy. The game lets you tackle with everything. For example, you can now clearly state who you want transformed into a Grey Warden, and if you prefer killing a potential team mate, no one will stop you. Characters themselves are less vital, because the Apocalypse is over, remember? Nothing is excusable anymore, and those Grey Warden wannabes all have spots on their CV, so to say.
Oghren the dwarf, the only character that was part of the Origins team and can still join your new happy bunch, is a lousy alcoholic. Even if you can ignore his breath, you surely won’t be able to ignore his bad humor. Anders, although a skilled wizard, has some problems with the Templars. Sigrun is charged with desertion. And Velanna the elf, although so in tune with nature, has anger management problems. The only pure character is Justice, the spirit of justice in person. His problem is that he is has been trapped into a human body through a dark ritual, which transforms him into a yucky zombie.
But, if you can overcome all the big and small flaws of your companions, you’ll get a team that can compete in any stand-up comedy events. Their random chats are a lot more flavored than what the original team could come up with (with the exception of Shale and his birds). It was probably the nearing of the end that made the old team so serious.
Just as small kiddos, the new team mates ask a lot of silly questions and also have a lot of sexual jokes up their sleeve. I heard Oghren asking Anders why mages wear robes and whether they are uncomfortable in romantic situations. At one point, the wife of the same good ol’ Oghren came to visit, just to scold the poor alpha-male.
What’s more interesting is the fact that you can play along. For example, I was pleased to find out that I can offer my friends a gift of soap on a rope, which they could bend for. Of course the most female male character in my team was the most impressed with the gesture. If you want to relax the atmosphere even further, you can also adopt a kitten (Sir Pounce-a-Lot). The ruthless warriors will literally melt to the meows in your inventory.
Although characters react better to your decisions and other exterior situations, the interaction has been limited. Throughout missions, you can no longer ask your team-mates how they feel, so you can no longer influence them through dialogue. And they’ve also lost all that romantic playfulness.
You’ll have to rely on gifts, but you’ll also have to carefully choose your words when taking a decision. On the other hand, you’re better off chatting with your Darkspawn enemy this time around, because they’ve honed quite the rhetoric skill.
The Toy Shelf
We’ve got new people and places, so it’s time to ask for new gameplay elements! Magically, the level cap has been raised to 35, allowing the hero to choose one of two new specializations, for each of the three base classes. In addition, each class has received a new round of four general talents that help fix some limitations of the main campaign.
The new specializations act towards class hybridization, so that they become a bit more balanced. For example, the Battlemage is a wizard that can easily resist direct attacks, while the Spirit Warrior is a fighter with some magical tricks in his repertoire. The talents address the problem of stamina regeneration (in the case of the Warrior and Rogue classes), the efficiency of the hide ability and also bestow some nifty area-of-effect spells upon mages, which they can use to immobilize enemies.
The three skills, on the other hand, focus on the same problems and don’t seem as natural in the game world. The first two allow the obscene expanding of the mana and health reservoir, while the third skill, Runemaking, is truly useful. Runes are less prone to be found in the game universe now, unlike in the main campaign.
You’ll also benefit from some new traps and potions, like the stamina bottles which once again try to make life easier for non-magical classes. And the arsenal has been richened with weapons up to tier 9 (in contrast to the tier 7 limit before). The general recipe is the same and you won’t have armors to spontaneously invoke the spirit of the dead. Nor will you have talking swords, tributary to the Neverwinter Nights franchise.
Because I got to mention Neverwinter Nights, there is one element in the present game that makes it resemble the old D&D goldie: the mission structure. The objectives in Awakening are stories that don’t rush in developing themselves and which try to steal your attention in the process. If in Dragon Age: Origins you were more interested by the socio-cultural implications of the different mission zones, here the plot is more powerful than the context.
You’ll kill to find out what happened to the inhabitants of a haunted city. You’ll battle the murky waters of a swamp to find a wedding ring for a lover who began his love declaration with the wrong foot. And maybe the best part is when you’ll be captured by the Darkspawn and will get the chance to go through the Architect’s stuff. The good news is that all this internal coherence of the missions has been seasoned with puzzles that were unfamiliar to the original campaign.
The Dragon Age universe doesn’t seem narrow anymore, because battle maps, however small, are no longer exclusively horizontal. They also span across the vertical axis. Brigands hide between the ruins of a church, underneath which steep cliffs can be seen. You can access a zone through a rumbled canyon, just to discover a subterranean tunnel masked by a waterfall. And the cursed city I mentioned above has a hard copy in the Veil, the realm of the lost souls.
The attention to detail is impressive, even if we’re talking about the floating boats in the ethereal realm or just the white dragon bones. BioWare sprinkled some new enemies into the expansion. The Children are some resistant Darkspawn abominations that have different stages of evolution, just like larvae. And there are also some nifty bosses, but I’ll let you discover them alone.
I admire the talent with which the developers have managed to transform the already existent assets, without tiring the player: the Armored Ogre is just one such example. Another one is the spectral dragon, a pulsating version of the original model, which is just as fresh as a piece of new content because he decomposes in wisps to regenerate his health. Darkspawns themselves seem less impersonal with their newly found opinions.
So, I have to shamefully admit that Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening made me aware of my own prejudices. The final aim of any video game might be income, but the financial aspect must not and actually cannot paralyze the creativity of a studio such as the word-wielding, world-bending Bioware.