Dragon Age Origins is easily one of my favorite games of the last few years and I think that I love it for exactly the same reason that many other gamers can't stand it -- it's big, it's heavy on story, and it's unashamedly nerdy. So when the chance came to dive back into Ferelden with the Awakening expansion, it was a done deal for me. As long as BioWare didn't rock the boat too much, I was pretty much guaranteed to enjoy it. I'm happy to say that Awakening delivers more of the same stuff we loved the first time around. It has fun combat, a good story and great sense that your choices actually matter. There were a few features that just weren't as well developed as we'd hoped but once we dug into the content, we found it easy to forgive these faults.
The story is filled with dozens of incredibly weighty decisions that can have significant and sometimes surprising effects on the outcome. I'm kind of in a Catch-22 here with regard to discussing the plot. So much of what makes the story interesting are the unforeseen developments and elaborate setups, but I can't talk specifically about how cool they are without spoiling them. At the risk of talking in annoying generalities, let me just say that the situations in the game often ask more of you than you can give, so even your best decisions will leave weak spots in your plan and unhappiness among your followers. Throughout it all you never lose the sense that you're setting things up for the big showdown. And the showdown in this expansion is ridiculously epic.
In terms of actual content, you'll be in some very familiar territory. The game takes place near Amaranthine and the Warden's new headquarters at Vigil's Keep. The darkspawn are still threatening the region, so it's up to the Warden to protect the people of Amaranthine, not only from the remnants of the Blight, but also from their own petty rivalries. This means acquiring upgrades for the keep, negotiating the political nuances of the major families, battling malevolent spirits in the wilderness, delving into deep dungeons to reclaim lost treasures, and determining which of your companions might like a new scarf. All the expected humor and incidental character details are present as well.
It's all handled beautifully here with a great sense of urgency and no shortage of interesting content. Though the main quest could probably be completed in a few days of focused play, exploring all the side quests and gathering up all the codex entries could take twice that time. Honestly, the side quests are so rich in story and rewards that skipping them not only makes the game less interesting, but also more difficult as well.
Awakening comes with a number of new options for your character. You can (and should) import your character from Origins, but you can also start as a brand new Orlesian Warden who has their own unique story elements. We're still a bit confused about the transfer of party gear and DLC content into Awakening but you do get to keep a fair bit of your loot from the original game as you move to your new post at Vigil's Keep.
New specializations and a new layer of abilities give your character room to grow beyond the limits of the original game. For the most part, I really like the new additions, and it gives you some nice options to spend your points on as you climb towards level 30. The vitality and clarity skills are particularly nice options for players who need a little more health or mana and have already maxed out the skills they want to use. The new rune-crafting skill is particularly useful for players who really want to customize their equipment, but I can't for the life of me understand why the rune-crafting vendor is located in a place where you can't directly use your companions. Having to move back and forth as you buy and create stuff is a real pain for players who want to dig into the cool new system.
The new companions you find will help you explore all the new character options available to you and it's nice that the game starts you off with a warrior, a mage and a rogue, so you're not left deficient in any one area. While they all have well-developed commentaries and backgrounds, I really liked the character of the first rogue you meet in the expansion. His resonance with the events of Dragon Age: Origins is particularly moving. By far, my favorite character is the strange warrior you bring back from the Blackmarsh. I admit I never really took to Shale the way some other fans did, but this new companion has an even more unique origin that gives him a very intriguing perspective. Once the consequences of his appearance started to come up, he became even more interesting. I only wish that the game had included some sort of romance options to go along with the new companion quests.
So where does Awakening miss out? Well, a couple of places come to mind. First, after the wealth of story connections between Mass Effect 1 and 2, Awakening doesn't really feel quite as connected to your choices in Origins. Did you side with the Templars over the Circle? What happened during the Landsmeet? Did you get it on with Leliana? None of it ties together quite as strongly as I expected it to in Awakening. Even if you finished the original game with no expectation that your character could continue on in the expansion, you're brought back into the story with a strange sleight of hand. There's an equally strange hocus-pocus act with the character refocus option, which lets you rebuild your character from scratch. For a game that builds so much substance into your decisions and growth, having clumsy systems that let you erase the past is a real mood killer.
On that same topic, it's a bit of a shame that so few of your companions have returned for Awakening, even in cameos. Effective though he was, the one returning companion was one of the least likeable characters in the original game. After investing so much time and attention on the equipment and abilities and tactics of your former party, it's unfortunate that so little was carried over to the expansion. On the other hand, I appreciate the opportunity to get to know these different characters and the tactical rewards make it worth resisting the urge to use the refocus manuals to rebuild your old characters in these new bodies.
There are other things I don't particularly care for here, but those are much more subjective. Multi-breasted demons and confusing fire puzzles may be mandatory elements in most fantasy titles but, for me at least, they seemed to go against the creativeness displayed in the rest of the game. Of course, one man's archetype is merely another man's cliché, so there are bound to be some gamers that are less accepting than I am of hard-drinking dwarves and mentally unbalanced mages.
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