WARNING: This review is written primarily for people who have finished Dragon Age: Origins. Consequently, there may be a couple spoilers. Consider yourselves warned!
Let me start first with a little bit of WTF. As those of you who finished the original campaign well know, your main character might not still be breathing after the Battle of Denerim. Therefore, it is a bit of a surprise to me that you are given the option to continue as your old character without any explanation whatsoever. No kick ass Altered Beast-style “RISE FROM YOUR GRAVE”, not even a Raise Dead, nothing. They just gloss over that whole “deceased” thing, and your corpse is tromping all over Amaranthine. I could usually roll my eyes and let this one slide, but why did they let us get all emotionally invested in the big massive life/death/freaky god-baby choice at the end of the original campaign if our actions were to have no consequence? Worse, Mass Effect 2, from the same developers, keeps track of whether you fed your space-fish and if you washed your hands after you use the space-toilet. It just makes no sense, and looks really bad for a company known for emotionally investing players in their characters and the choices they make.
That being said, I really enjoyed this expansion. After kicking the Archdemon’s ass, you find yourself with a big promotion. You’re the Commander of the Grey Wardens in Ferelden, and you get to run the lands vacated by Rendon Howe‘s death during the campaign. Great, huh? Except the darkspawn are still around, appear to be getting more intelligent (some of them talk now?!), and their forces are growing daily. Your job is, as usual, to find out what’s going on and stop it. However, you also have tend to the needs of your people and keep your military forces well-supplied. There are limited resources, so somebody’s going to get shafted. Conflict is the mother of drama, and one of my favorite parts of this expansion was trying to figure out how the choices I made as Arl would play out. (As it turns out, poorly. But it was still fun.)
You leave the entire map from the old campaign behind and get a whole new set of areas to explore in Awakening. I was happy to have new places to explore, but it would have been interesting if they’d used these older locations to stage new scenes. (Of course, if they had, I’d probably be complaining that they reused too much. This is a right granted to all reviewers when we take our sacred oath.) Most of the locations themselves feel a little bit “more of the same” from the original campaign. A city is a city, a forest is a forest, the Deep Roads are hazardous. The designers seemed to like putting little mazes inside each area to make you figure out how to get around, which I found annoying. For instance, getting anywhere in the forest takes forever because it’s difficult to tell what rocky slopes you can traverse and which effectively function as walls. There’s also a lot of very poorly-constructed fences or piles of debris keeping you from getting to certain areas that weren’t very believable as obstacles. I don’t like it when puzzles smack you in the face and announce their presence. If I have to figure something out, I like it much better if it has been given context in the game rather than “we needed a way to keep you from going here easily”.
Gameplay is exactly like it used to be. The expansion gives each class several new abilities, and a couple new subclasses to play with. Mages can now become a Keeper, which gives them nifty nature powers and rich, hoppy druidic flavor. Rogues can become Legion Scouts, which gives them lots of resistances to various things including damage, spells, and heart failure. Warriors can now become Guardians and have lots of ways of taking one for the team. Some of the mage abilities are either way overpowered (or awesome, depending on how you look at it). For instance, there’s a mage spell that resets all your cooldowns. If your party seems hell-bent on meeting the Maker like mine does, this rules when you have to use Revive a lot. One annoying thing from the original game that has gotten much worse is the over-the-top spell effects, especially passive ones that are on all the time. One of my mages constantly had a huge black and red cloud swirling around her feet from some energy drain spell she had active, and it obscured things to the point where sometimes I’d have to move her somewhere else if I needed to look closely at something. Nothing was as annoying, though, as the Air of Insolence ability warriors get. It sends out a shockwave, once per second, that makes a loud “SHHUMP” noise each time. I tried to keep that warrior in the party. I really did. The ability’s effect is very nice – but I have precious little sanity remaining as it is.
Be advised that all of your equipment might not make the journey with you into the new expansion. (Go figure – you can’t die, but your equipment may.) You’re never going to see anything you leave equipped on one of your original campaign’s teammates ever again. I’ve also heard reports that equipment you get in other DLC doesn’t make the journey, but I had a couple of the items from Return To Ostagar stay in my inventory. It’s not too big of a deal, even if you lose some stuff. You’ll get way better gear pretty early on. Think of it like a WoW expansion, except you didn’t have to grind for three months to get the gear you’re about to ditch.
For the most part, you won’t be adventuring with your old teammates this time around (except Ohgren, who is as charming as usual), but you will see several of them. Instead, you have a whole new batch of teammates. Though these characters are interesting and fun to play, I was disappointed that there didn’t seem to be quite as many character-based side quests, as that is my favorite part of any BioWare game. I was also rather disappointed that there were no opportunities for office-romance with any of the new characters. Granted, there were no smoking hotties like Morrigan or Leliana this time. Matter of fact, Velanna’s facial tattoos made me think she had a soul patch for a little while. But it’s kind of a BioWare staple at this point that you get to shag your coworkers, and I missed it. Speaking of shagging, I was also disappointed that we didn’t get to hear anything further about Morrigan in the expansion, especially since I went the “freaky god-baby” route at the end of the campaign. At least give me an address to send you the child support gold. That’s my freaky god-baby too!
BioWare’s policy on in-game nudity continues to confound me. In the first Mass Effect game, characters got naked, but it was always shot in such a way that you couldn’t see the really interesting parts. In Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2, the sex gets more explicit except everybody wears underwear. And apparently a monster with bare breasts is just fine (NOT SAFE FOR WORK. OR SANITY). This expansion continues the trend with another boob-monster, this one appearing much less awful than the standard Broodmother. So basically, they’ve determined that in our weird Puritanical society, it’s okay to show boobs as long as there are killer tentacles nearby. Network television may never be the same.
The main plot intrigued me, and was an interesting place to take things. The whole “intelligent darkspawn” concept initially had me bummed in the same way that giving the Borg a queen in Star Trek: First Contact did. There’s just something viscerally terrifying about a horde of monsters that will never stop coming no matter what, and it doesn’t matter which one you kill. Giving them a figurehead, however, frequently finds stories using this character as an easy way out to defeat the unstoppable. In Awakening, however, I’m pleased to say that this plot was handled very well, and there were a few extra twists in at the end that I thought were really cool. Really, the only really weird issue I had with the main plot was that any time someone mentioned The Architect, I would think of that guy from The Matrix: Reloaded in the Colonel Sanders outfit.
I only have one other complaint with Dragon Age: Awakening, and it came right at the end. As in Mass Effect 2, the choices you make at the end of the game might result in several of your party members becoming living-impaired. This happened to me. Actually, I screwed up bad enough that everybody but my current party of 4 bit it. It even talks about these characters dying in their entries in the Codex. Imagine my surprise, then, when I finished the game and the epilogue told me what each of my teammates did after the adventure had concluded. (And no, it did not say things like, “Ohgren took a nice dirt nap. Forever.”) Once again, usually I can just roll my eyes and chalk it up to an oversight. But this is a BioWare game, where they stress the importance of all these big decisions you’re making. The gravity of these decisions doesn’t mean squat without consequences. This means I don’t know whether or not the game considers them dead, which means I don’t know what the end result with be in Dragon Age 2 (if they go the Mass Effect route of having your actions in previous games affect the current one).
Overall, though the continuity problems at the beginning and end were pretty jarring, I really enjoyed this expansion. It’s a little steep at 3200 Microsoft Points ($40), but unlike Return To Ostagar, I think you get a reasonable amount of bang for your buck. If you’ve beaten Dragon Age: Origins, go get this.