As much as it does have a lot to offer, Dragon Age: Origins: Awakening, feels like something of a misstep for Bioware. It’s a $40 expansion that offers upwards of 20 hours of gameplay–less than Origins, but more than most other full single-player games–and yet it doesn’t feel like a tremendous value. It has a satisfying story and a new cadre of interesting characters, but the whole of the experience made me feel like this expansion was rushed out the door without being given the usual Bioware polish. At the same time, if you like the first game and you want more, then you really do have to play this. It extends on the end of the original game in a meaningful way while offering plenty of additional gameplay to justify your investment of time and dollars.
In Awakening you can either reprise your role from the original game as the hero of the Grey Wardens or start a new character, an Orleasian Grey Warden whom you can immediately level up to 18. (You can also bring in a beginning-level character from the main game and immediately level her up.) Considering it’s possible your main character didn’t survive the end of the original game, it’s nice to have these options at your disposal. What makes less sense, however, is that you cannot preserve your original ending if you do elect to leave your character taking a dirt nap and instead choose to create a new one. Consequently, characters who sacrificed themselves at the end of Origins may lose some of their choices unless they let the game revive their fallen hero (which is done by pretending he didn’t die in the first place). This is just the first of the cut corners that await.
Regardless of how you choose to bring your character into the expansion, you’ll soon find yourself as a newly appointed lord of the territory and city of Amaranthine, which once belonged to the Howe family featured in the main game. One of the game’s finer points is that as lord you have to make a slew of decisions that affect not only your castle, Vigil’s Keep, but also the people in the land. Do you use your troops to protect trade routes that are vital to your land’s economy? Do you protect the farmers in the fields who are falling prey to marauding darkspawn? Do you protect the city of Amaranthine, the crown jewel in your territory? There’s no right answer to these questions; rather, it’s a matter of priorities. Having you deal with these sorts of decisions, which crop up consistently throughout the game, is a fantastic way of keeping you invested in your role as you move forward through the main plot.
The main story itself isn’t bad, but if you’re suffering from darkspawn fatigue, you’ll find no relief here. The Blight may be over, but for reasons unknown, the darkspawn have not gone quietly underground as has always been the case in the past. Worse, as your adventure begins you’ll soon come across an ominous sign that the problem may be worst than anyone realizes (who’d of guessed?), when you encounter a talking darkspawn who’s both cunning and clearly getting his marching orders from someone far more dangerous. What ensues is a new series of quests and adventures that will see you gain new allies (that you need to bring into the Grey Warden fold via The Joining ceremony), exploit a host of new character skills, talents, and spells, and adventure into entirely new areas of Ferelden.
It’s hard to argue Bioware didn’t make a full-bore effort to offer up a slew of new content to justify the game’s price tag. At the same time, it’s not particularly well-balanced. Your characters level up very quickly, which becomes rather anti-climactic after awhile. By the time I finished the game, leveling up was a pointless chore. I maxed out the skills and talents that mattered to me fairly early on and at some point there’s little thrill to be had from leveling up your Cunning score from 60 to 63. Likewise, you’ll find equipment that leaves you insanely overpowered for the monsters you’ll face in this game.
Origins, on the PC in particular, was a very challenging game. Awakening is incredibly not. The news skills and abilities may leave you with plenty of new tactical options, but you won’t need to employ them. Just send your characters into battle and let them hack their way through. There will be little need to plan ahead or make your characters work in concert, which is unfortunate. Yes, you can turn up the difficulty to make things more challenging, but there’s still a clear disconnect between the difficulty of the original and this expansion and it gives the distinct impression there wasn’t nearly enough time set aside to play-balance the game. It’s either that or Bioware spent too much time listening to people who thought Origins was too hard.
A good game expansion gives you more of what’s good in the original game, while enhancing gameplay within the framework of the existing engine. In the case of Dragon Age: Awakening, that should’ve meant more in-depth character interactions, more intricate quests that have a worthy payoff, and tactical battles against beasties that aren’t horridly over-matched when facing off against your band of renown. Awakening meets some of these criteria and comes up short elsewhere. There is, for example, a plotline towards the end that was as good as anything from the first game; in some ways it was better than. On the other hand, the rushed ending takes you from epic victory over the game’s antagonist to a series of text-based epilogues without any sort of the terrific in-game wrap-up we got in Origins. It all makes for something of a schizophrenic experience that ultimately makes Awakening feel like it would have benefited greatly from a few extra months of development time. For fans of Dragon Age it’s still worth playing, but let’s hope the next Dragon Age-branded product in Bioware’s pipeline gets the time it needs to reach Bioware’s usually high standards.
Publisher: Electronic Arts
ESRB: M (Mature)
Genre: Fantasy RPG
Platform: PC (also 360, PS3)
*Originally published, 5/2010
*Minor text updates 2/16/2016