Spoilers for Dragon Age: Origins ahead.
When word first came that BioWare would soon release a Dragon Age: Origins expansion, I imagined another EA-inspired project like the recent and pointless DLC Return to Ostagar. With such little development time, I was worried that DA:O – Awakening would sap some power from the amazing core game. I hoped that Awakening would uphold the quality set forth in DA:O. The final result was a complete mixed bag. Although Awakening rarely achieves the excellence of the core game, it nevertheless offers more Dragon Age delights with a compelling main story, hundreds of new items and abilities, and more phenomenal inter-party dialogue.
Awakening begins a bit awkwardly. The last Grey Warden in Ferelden reaches the fortress of Vigil’s Keep, where he or she plans to repopulate the illustrious order, thinned as it was after the grim events at Ostagar. Too bad the Keep is under attack by darkspawn. What makes this confusing is that if the player’s character died at the end of DA:O, that detail is simply forgotten, and the game continues as if that had not happened and one of the other endings had played out. Seeing the self-immolating Grey Warden revived feels a bit off-kilter at first, but importing a character still remains the most satisfying option. If it’s too much to stomach, however, players can create a new, high-level Warden.
From there, the newly appointed Commander of the Grey must discover the origin of the darkspawn attack and more importantly, its intent. The legions should have returned to the Deep Roads after the death of the Archdemon, and yet they did not. The first several hours of Awakening aren’t overly impressive, and the creeping sensation sets in that BioWare rushed the development of the expansion. Compared to the core game, NPC dialogue is stiffer, voice acting more stilted, and quest content less thoughtful. Repeated environments, down to the interiors of buildings, and slow character development mar the beginning stages of Awakening. Part of this depends on which areas players decide to visit first, but regardless there are points in the expansion, particularly early on, that indicate a rushed development. That extraordinary BioWare inspiration doesn’t shine through the entirety of the experience.
Awakening may have a rough start, but as the player gets deeper into the story, something happens. It sort of… awakens. And from there, it’s all Dragon Age goodness. Several new environments present themselves including a gothic swamp and a spooky section of the Deep Roads that manages to feel entirely different from anything in the core game. Party members gain levels quickly and to great effect. Characters start to show some personality and unique themes, and the narrative quality improves all around. The main story is the best single reason to play Awakening.
The plot explores the nature of the darkspawn, and while you might groan, BioWare couldn’t have chosen a better subject to elucidate. I had hoped that in the Dragon Age sequel, the true nature of the darkspawn would be illuminated, but here it is now. This alone makes Awakening a must-play for anyone with a vested interest in the setting and lore. Plus, with new gameplay content the game is as fun to play as its parent game, warding off any nasty feelings brought about by the lesser aspects. I only wish BioWare had held Awakening back a few weeks because as it exists now, that richness of setting, that hint of history behind every stone and under every discarded helmet isn’t always present as it was in DA:O.
Awakening requires the Commander of the Grey to lord over an entire Arling: the Arling of Amaranthine. As such, there are troubles that arise, which is expected in any position of power. Additionally, Vigil’s Keep must be kept in proper condition should the darkspawn mount an attack against the ancient fortress. The keep management aspect isn’t as impressive or developed as one might hope, but it’s hardly the focus of the expansion. There aren’t many issues or decisions associated with the Keep, and the area is actually very small, despite the sizeable interior shown in the opening scene. Fortunately, there are some upgrades to obtain and some interesting problems that could only be possible with the Keep. Awakening is better off with it than without it.
For Awakening, BioWare decided to go with a new cast of playable characters with the exception of one (hint: he was born without dignity). Out of the six, players might not immediately connect with half of them, but in time, they grow to be likable and interesting with the exception of the harpy of a Dalish elf. They never reach the quality of DA:O’s cast, however, partially due to the fact that players can’t converse with them at will. Conversation only occurs with interactive objects, gifts, and periodic scenes. Character design and voice acting is solid, but it’s not exceptional. Fortunately, character quests make a return, and most characters expand the lore of Ferelden in notable ways. Writing is generally excellent here, as expected, and inter-party dialogue is worth the cost of Awakening, but it will certainly leave players wanting more.
As far as gameplay is concerned, Awakening adds more items and abilities to what the core game provided as well as offering experience enough for level 30 and beyond, which allows the Warden-Commander to become rapturously powerful. As a downside to this, Awakening is very easy. Only the final boss could kill my main character on the highest difficult setting. The sense of progress and epic power is worth the ease of every kill, however. And it makes sense. The Warden-Commander is likely the single most powerful entity in Ferelden, and players will feel every bit the part.
Lest players exhaust the talents and skills relevant to characters’ combat roles, Awakening includes a bevy of new talents for each class, resulting in some of the most devastating and useful abilities yet. In particular, warriors, arguably the weakest class, receive a significant upgrade. In addition, new class specializations open up, and each character receives another specialization point at level 22. Finally, hundreds of new items can be found, bought, and forged in the Arling, from stamina potions to swords loaded with special traits. All these pleasures combine to make being the Warden-Commander a fantastic treat. It’s too bad Awakening only lasts about 15 hours, including side quests, of which there are many. With a $40 price tag, that may be the most discouraging factor of all.
Awakening is never a bad game. It’s never just an average game. I just expect more from BioWare, and I wish they had spent more time developing the expansion to one of the best RPGs in recent years. As is, the expansion has some weak spots. By the end, however, Awakening satiates the urge for BioWare creations. Great locations, fantastic new abilities and items, and points of hilarity all make Awakening worth a purchase. Awakening might feel rushed at times, but it tells an important story and allows the Commander of the Grey to kick tremendous ass, and there’s little more satisfying than that.