Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening is the timely expansion to BioWare's 2009 hit tactical RPG Dragon Age: Origins. Released only 4 months after Origins, having been in development at the same time as the original game, Awakening provides an all new add-on campaign module with a new story, plus new companions, enemies, items and abilities. While not quite up to the same quality standard and value as the original game, Awakening does provide some solid adventuring for those looking to continue their adventures in Ferelden.
The story takes place some months after the events of the original game. The player assumes the role of a Grey Warden commander tasked with rebuilding the depleted ranks of the Wardens, and taking charge of a massive stronghold in the outlying regions of the kingdom, which is under threat by a new faction of Darkspawn. Players can either import a high level character from the original game to take the role of the commander (even though it may not make complete sense for them to take that role, depending on how events in Origins were resolved), or start a new Warden character at level 18. If importing, certain parts of the new story may reference decisions made in the first game, though the new story is largely self-contained, and not excessively concerned with continuity.
The new commander must manage and upgrade his stronghold, travel the land to recruit new Wardens, and make a variety of decisions (or non-decisions as the case may be...does anyone really think it might not be a good idea to pay for the higher quality walls in the face of the advancing Darkspawn horde?) that may have a bearing on events in the end game. Long time players of BioWare-developed games like Baldur's Gate 2 or Mass Effect 2, or the extended family of BioWare games like Neverwinter Nights 2, may find this premise unmistakably, perhaps painfully, familiar by now. If BioWare has a fault as a developer it is that they tend to be slaves to formula and their bag of tricks can seem a bit shallow at times. This is a shame really, as they’re one of the few RPG developers who have built enough of a name to take some risks with original material and still sell games based on reputation alone.
Where BioWare shines though, as always, is in the production polish of their stories, dialogue and characters, and this holds true in Awakening as well. While one can’t escape the impression that the characters in Awakening are B-listers who didn't quite make the cut for Origins, they are still excellently voiced and decently written, though not quite to the standard of the original game, or of the recent Mass Effect 2.
The story isn't necessarily concerned with continuing the events from the original game, though it will do a decent job of this if you choose to use an imported character. The events of Awakening are largely self-contained, with a few references to the original story, and a few welcome cameos by characters from the first game. The lore is expanded with a deeper look into the nature of the Darkspawn, the marauding evil zombie-demon race, constructed of withered flesh and malice, who existed in the first game solely for the sake of giving the the good guys a zombie-demon race constructed of withered flesh and malice to hack into explosions of gore.
The game is rich with humor, much of which is courtesy of the only returning playable NPC, Oghren the dwarf, and a pair of “fabulous” blacksmiths from the original game. Milking stereotypes for cheap laughs in not exactly highbrow humor, but there are undeniable yuks to be had. Besides, Oghren is completely different from the same drunken, lecherous, axe-wielding dwarf stereotype with a quasi-Scottish accent we've seen for years...his accent isn't remotely Scottish.
Dragon Age: Origins-Awakening is rated Mature (17+) for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Language, Partial Nudity, and Sexual Content
Gameplay - 80 / 100
Dragon Age: Origins on the PC featured a robust tactical combat system, allowing players to pause the action at any point to issue orders to the group, take direct control of any party member, or customize automated behavior with a wide variety of preset A.I. Commands. This system is intact for Awakening, and much of the joy of the game derives from maneuvering the party around the battlefield, launching devastating magic spells while taking care not to incinerate your own team members, and moving opportunistic rogues into position for lethal sneak attacks.
In addition, the new campaign contains a few new high level abilities and specializations for every class. Some classes and character types made out well with the new abilities (for instance Archers received a much needed boost in power.) The new additions for other character types, however, sometimes feel a bit redundant. There are only so many ways you can repackage knockdown abilities or multiple melee attack combos. For the most part, the new abilities and specializations only supplement or enrich those from Origins. Those players looking for a fundamentally different class gameplay experience will probably not find it in Awakening.
All the new abilities do, however, tend to clog the already congested single hotkey bar, a pet peeve of players of the original game that remains unchanged. Luckily, Awakening introduces unlimited respecs for any character in the party for a nominal fee. For better or for worse, players are now able to more efficiently optimize characters in light of the new options, and remove older abilities that might now be deadweight. There are always drawbacks to open respecs, like the loss of a feeling of commitment to identity to a character concept, but given the new skills, which an imported character couldn't have planned for, it seems necessary. This also means that players can now choose to take companions with them based more on their personality, rather than what skills they bring to the table, and ignore the others. If Oghren works better for you as a sword and board defender than an axe wielding beserker, you can simply remake him as such and be entertained by his humorous exchanges with other teammates all game long.
The decisions behind other abilities, however, are somewhat baffling. The Runecrafting skill is particularly confusing. Dragon Age players will remember that runes in Origins were upgrades that could be slotted into some weapons in original game. High level runes were sold in very limited quantities in stores, for a significant but reasonable price, and found rarely as loot drops. In Awakening, they are never sold, almost never found, and must instead be crafted by a system more convoluted than any other crafting skill in the game, requiring a player to invest in half a dozen “recipes” for a single rune type, craft dozens of lesser runes first, in a menu that is not organized to handle processes of such complexity, for costs that are more than a thousand percent higher than the original game once ingredients and recipes are accounted for.
Since Dragon Age is a single player game where developers have absolute control over economy and pacing, and the unfortunate money and time sinks found in MMOs aren't necessary, the reason for the increased frustration of the Runecrafting system over every other crafting skill in the game is unclear. On the plus side, runes can now be slotted into many armors as well as weapons, so if you feel like braving the frustrations of the Runecrafting system, you will now have more opportunities for gear customization, though they are in no way necessary to excel at the game.
Of course, some of the flaws of Dragon Age Origins are intact here as well. Level-scaled content, designed to make sure battles in the game never get too challenging or too easy for the broader audience being targeted, still has the effect of making encounters in the game feel somewhat homogenous. Other RPGs (indeed, other BioWare RPGs ) have done a better job of giving players a sense of freedom in the order they pursue content, while still letting players blunder off the beaten path into extremely challenging areas so they can experience the satisfaction of overcoming them with their wits, or the satisfaction of revisiting a couple levels later with their newly found +5 Sword of Fiery Ownage. Aside from a few dragons here and there, neither Dragon Age game is particularly good at this.
On top of this, the content in Awakening doesn't always seem like it was designed to present a challenge for its high level heroes who are bristling with powers, epic stats, and high level gear. Veterans of Origins who import a character who was handling battles with little difficulty by the end of that game, equipped with high end gear, should be able to pick right up where they left off, even on higher difficulty settings. If not, it wont be long before they are powerful enough to shrug off most of the game's enemies with little trouble. Characters level quickly in Awakening, and gold and powerful items are abundant. Most encounters, however, are populated by the same minion-level enemies as in the first game that can no longer pose much threat to a high level character. The result is that the tactical aspects of combat suffer, as parties can often simply storm through encounters with simple auto-attacks rather than targeted abilities, and combat seems less appealing overall than it was in Origins. Players looking for a truly “epic level” experience for high end characters may end up somewhat disappointed.
Graphics - 82 / 100
When Dragon Age Origins was released, it sported slightly dated looking graphics with somewhat mundane design. Awakening uses the same assets from Origins, and is essentially identical. The difference is, in the time between the two games, BioWare fans were treated to Mass Effect 2, which was generally great looking in both technical and artistic regard, so heading back to Ferelden again can be a bit of a system shock. As with Origins, the graphics are perfectly suitable when zoomed out for top-down action. The game can look a little rough when zoomed in for cut scenes or dialogue.
Sound - 97 / 100
As mentioned before, BioWare's strength has always been the polish they put into characters and their spoken dialogue. While the characters in Awakening are not quite up to the same standard as in Origins, the spoken dialogue is generally top notch and well acted. If Awakening has a strength over Origins, it is the sheer number of humorous exchanges in the game, many of which centered around fan favorite Oghren.
Awakening uses the same musical score from Origins. With the exception of the lovely opening and closing credits music, the score in the game is of high quality, but not particularly memorable.
Value - 65 / 100
On the surface, Dragon Age: Origins-Awakening seems like it might suffer from a bit of a perceived value issue. The game is billed as an “expansion pack,” yet it does nothing to “expand” the original campaign of Origins, where the vast majority of Dragon Age's playable content is located. The new skills, abilities, items and specializations can only be accessed in Awakening's comparatively short campaign. Awakening's campaign content clocks in at roughly 15-20 hours, depending on how thoroughly a player explores the game's side quests, compared to the upwards of 80 hours of potential playable content in Dragon Age: Origins, and yet the price tag of Awakening is almost that of the original game ( MSRP of $39.99 vs $49.99 ). This may not be entirely fair, as the length of Awakening's campaign is nearly that of some other single player RPGs, but fair or not, comparisons to Origins superb value are going to be unavoidable. Sometimes past excellence can be a difficult standard to live up to.
Awakening is also, unfortunately, subject to a number of minor bugs. As of this writing, much progress has been made addressing many of the issues with which Origins was released, but both games still suffer from some abilities that don't work as intended. Additionally, during an initial play-through of Awakening, a certain story sequence caused the irretrievable loss of all the main character's equipment, requiring the reloading of a much earlier game save in order to avoid.
Lasting Appeal - 87 / 100
Like the original game, Dragon Age: Origins-Awakening provides a good deal of replay value. Exploring different character classes, and how different decisions, both in the original game and in Awakenings itself, affect the way the story in the new campaign unfolds, will provide ample material for subsequent play-throughs. However, the shorter campaign, easily available respecs which allow players to effortlessly explore every potential combination of abilities in a single game, and relatively low-challenge level of the game, will all serve to provide less re-playability than Origins.
Pros and Cons
- Import function allows players to continue the adventure of their character from Dragon Age:Origins
- A good amount of new abilities and specializations
- An abundance of Oghren
- Comparatively short, self-contained story adds nothing in terms of content or abilities to original Dragon Age campaign
- Overly familiar story premise.
- Somewhat questionable “bang for buck” relative to original game
- Minor bugs
Dragon Age: Origins was an overall great game experience, and anything that provides more Dragon Age is generally going to be a good thing. Players attached to their characters will be happy at the opportunity to continue their adventures. Dragon Age: Origins-Awakening provides another quality RPG adventure with trademark BioWare production value for those players, though the events may seem a bit anticlimactic compared to the grandeur of the original campaign. Value-minded players may wish to wait for the expansion to come down in price, or be bundled with other content. Fans who can't get enough Dragon Age, though, will be happy to jump at the chance to strap on their armor once again.