Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening – Staff Review

What often separates a good adventure from a classic one is whether it leaves you immediately wanting more. So it is with last year’s Dragon Age: Origins, a game sometimes hampered by technical and balance problems but broadly acclaimed for its storytelling and depth of character. The first proper expansion for the game, Awakening is at once familiar territory and new ground, taking established lore and mechanics from Origins and making smart additions to both. Small but recurring issues keep Awakening from ever quite stepping out of Origins‘ shadow, but it takes a lot less time to do much of what Origins did right.

In the normal run of things, the death of an Archdemon triggers the end of a Blight, and so it seemed with Origins; the massive dragon went down and its darkspawn horde fled Ferelden and scattered. Instead of retreating underground, however, they somehow organized into small factions in the neighboring country of Amaranthine. More worrying are rumors that some now show signs of intelligence, and the point is driven home with a surprise attack on the new Grey Warden fortress at Vigil’s Keep. As the resident Grey Warden who just happens to stroll in during the attack, it’s on you to rally the defenders, investigate this resurgence of darkspawn, and work with the nobility of Amaranthine to secure the region. As you might expect coming from Origins, things don’t quite stay that simple for long, and suffice it to say the darkspawn threat is not as straightforward as it may first appear.

Nothing major has changed about the interface or the gameplay, though there are additions: extra skill trees for core classes and weapons, new subclasses, and the ability to make your own runes as a trainable worldskill. Along with new items such as stamina potions, the expansion content rounds out the gameplay in sensible ways, filling in gaps from Origins. One of the rogue kits makes for a viable front-line fighter, and new mage abilities provide ever more exotic means of crowd control. Movement and interaction use the same keyboard and mouse setup to control both character and camera, and overall there’s nothing new here to trip up returning players. You have the option of importing your Warden from Origins or starting one from scratch, and if you import some of your choices will carry over, albeit in fairly non-critical ways.

Our crew bravely battles the Withered, presumably just a poor darkspawn wizard with a lisp.
Our crew bravely battles the Withered, presumably just a poor darkspawn wizard with a lisp.

Tactics still take time to set up right, but your team comes with competent settings by default and can generally hold their own without constant input. Obviously the darkspawn are again your main opponents, though Awakening has a few new critters to throw your way. Of particular note are the disgusting, grub-like Children, who evolve throughout the story and become progressively more dangerous. New varieties of ogre, treant, and one extremely cool optional dragon will test your mettle, and you’re less likely to be forced into unfair odds; or at least, you’ll have more options available for large groups of enemies. One welcome change is having a more balanced party right off the bat, as you can recruit a mage during the intro at Vigil’s Keep, and a thief shortly afterward.

Speaking of the story, Awakening is structured in a very similar fashion to Origins, if more compact. After the intro, the plot opens up to three key objectives, to be tackled in any order. In between these you’ll be called to settle matters at the keep, often settling disputes between the nobility who now answer to you. As with Origins, Awakening doesn’t shy away from giving you tough calls with long-term consequences. To name one, the decision of where to deploy your small number of soldiers – to the farmland, trade routes, or the capital city – will matter throughout the game, and it won’t be the only judgment call you’ll have to make with limited information. Right down to the finale, your actions will have unintended consequences, and this is by far one of Awakening‘s strongest points.

With a new story comes new characters, and once again BioWare has lined up a pack of likable characters with excellent banter. Although a few faces from Origins make brief appearances, the only returning party member that stays is Oghren. Love him or hate him, Dwarven Jay Blum is as quotable as ever (“Spectaculous!” “That’s not a word.” “It is now!”). The newcomers vary wildly in personality, each standing out in their own way. On the tame end are an unassuming thief with an axe to grind against you – especially if you’re of human noble origin – and an elven mage on the hunt for her sister. More eccentric ones include an irreverent apostate who loves cats, an irrepressably cheerful dwarven legionnaire, and a man who becomes a Grey Warden on an interesting technicality. They can develop in drastically different ways depending on how you treat them, and half the fun is finding out what really makes them tick.

Participants in the Spontaneous Combustion Game argue about who started burning first.  Billy Joel is being summoned to mediate the dispute.
Participants in the Spontaneous Combustion Game argue about who started burning first. Billy Joel is being summoned to mediate the dispute.

This being the same graphics engine, Awakening has few visible upgrades over Origins. That said, major quest areas are excellently designed; an old dwarven citadel keeps things interesting by providing flashbacks and snippets of life before a darkspawn invasion, and an abandoned village tells an eerie tale as it blends reality and the spirit world known as the Fade. Vigil’s Keep grows more lively and fortified as you upgrade it, and Mass Effect 2 players will find this aspect very familiar, minus the whole strip-mining of planets thing. The city of Amaranthine is slightly larger and busier than the Denerim marketplace from Origins, but you only see one section and it still feels a tad small. Side areas are perhaps reused too often, and blood splatter still looks silly, but those aside the visuals are handled as well as in Origins; the more going on, the better it looks. Of course, expect the occasional battle-effect-during-dialogue silliness to rear its ugly head, as evidenced in the screenshot to the right.

Audio is as strong a standout as ever, largely due to superb acting and writing by which BioWare often distinguishes itself. Apart from returning actors, a handful of familiar voices show up here and there, each doing credit to their roles; Baldur’s Gate veterans won’t have much trouble picking out Grey DeLisle (Viconia) as Velanna, the elf mage, and there’s no mistaking Robin Sachs (Zaeed from Mass Effect 2) as Varel, the steward of Vigil’s Keep. The new additions to the cast easily hold their own as well. An early standout is Anders, the cat-loving human mage who’s on the run from the Chantry but otherwise a remarkably cheerful fellow. Every minute of dialogue of his with an adopted cat threatens to steal the show, illustrating that a certain XKCD strip about the correlation between proximity to a cat and talking like a child holds true even in fantasy. The charming Sigrun happily steals it back, clearly playing with the image of dwarven Dead Legionnaires as stodgy, serious types who never have any fun.

Regrettably, a broad range of small but numerous technical issues dot the game, some more persistent than others. For instance, two characters joined and immediately had their approval maxed out. Along similar lines, most gifts gave identical approval boosts regardless of who they were given to. One character’s personal quest only appears in a random encounter, yet due to a strange glitch I was unable to trigger it normally. A quest in the city stayed available even after a parallel mission led me to kill the quest giver. Character importation, and specifically the choices you made in Origins, can have the occasional hiccup, as you can draw from in-progress saves and the game may fill in the blanks if your Warden wasn’t that far along. Interesting side note, booting the game up to fact-check this caused a full lockup that required a hard reset. And if you happened to be wearing DLC armor at the time, you may feel a slight draft upon startup. These are relatively minor issues, to be sure, but issues nonetheless.

All right guys, you know what to do: ignore the main quest and help random people on the street with their shopping lists.
All right guys, you know what to do: ignore the main quest and help random people on the street with their shopping lists.

Other problems are less defensible. There is little variety in your team’s personal quests. Most consist of either going to the city and talking to someone or waiting for them to talk to you. Some quests have great potential but end flatly, particularly a donation box for “Blight Orfans” that is quite obviously beer money and prank supplies for a pair of drunken idiots. Although the quest line is amusing, nothing interesting happens when you clear the last request. You’ll put certain party members through the Joining to make them official Grey Wardens, but it’s handled carelessly, and with one early exception it’s quite obvious that none of your party is in any danger. A late-game placement of a dragon fight is rather sudden as the thing just drops right on top of you without warning, like the game felt the need to cram one in at the last minute.

Awakening‘s running time, a comparably slim twelve to fifteen hours to do everything, is a mixed blessing. On the upside, dungeons don’t run as long and sidequests don’t take as much time. The story is kept rolling and individual sequences feel much more efficient. With the exception of Dragon Out of Nowhere, boss fights are fun, engaging, and well integrated, particularly the aforementioned optional dragon fight. On the downside, less playtime means less time spent with the characters and the story. By the time you’ve rounded up a full party, the game’s almost over. There are no romance options, and certain conversations will only trigger by observing easy-to-miss bits of scenery or checking into Vigil’s Keep regularly. Perhaps most jarring is the game jumps straight to epilogues after killing the final boss, skipping any denouement — a letdown after one particularly grim and well-executed choice that results in one of two very different outcomes.

In spite or perhaps because of all that’s been said so far, the decision to pick up Awakening is fairly cut-and-dry. Those who liked Origins and were chomping at the bit for a second playthrough before the credits finished rolling probably have this already. Those turned off by the samey sidequests and endless dungeons may find Awakening more forgiving, if only because the expansion keeps a closer eye on the clock. However, anybody curious about out how their decisions in Origins changed things may be somewhat let down until a proper sequel. Still, Awakening is a respectable follow-up to Origins and manages to capture a lot of what made it special in the first place. It’s not as polished as one might hope, but on the whole it hits the right notes: a compelling plot, meaningful choices, and enjoyable characters.

Consider this an appetizer for the next full Dragon Age. Dust off your Warden, gather your party, and venture forth.

This game was played to completion and reviewed using a retail copy.

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