The first thing that comes into my mind when seeing the wide range of DLCs studios struggle to come up with is this: “Why the rush?” I have to admit that curiosity sort of killed the cat this time, because Return to Ostagar made me less enthusiastic about additional Dragon Age content. So, when Awakening started to friendly wave to websites on the Internet, I stood back in doubt. I could already visualize the boring and useless fights, the mechanical Darkspawn killing and tons of loot being thrown down my throat.
So I have to thank those who didn’t doubt Dragon Age: Origins Awakening for giving me the nudge and chance to play it. Because, although this expansion pack takes less than a quarter of the time required to complete the original story, it is exactly what his daddy should have been. Awakening is all about less bugs, fairer fights, missions whose briefing deserves to be read and some abilities that are designed to make your life easier. In addition, spanning over 25 hours of gameplay, the game has more to offer than most 50 euro titles on the market (although the price is a bit misleading, since you still require Dragon Age: Origins to play it).
But enough with the acknowledgments. In Awakening, six months have passed since the defeat of the Archdemon and the Darkspawns retreat back beneath the earth. In the same six months, in the real realm, the Mass Effect 2 team was getting ready to go home after the final game launch, when BioWare relocated them to the fantasy department in order to cut costs.
So you shouldn’t be surprised by the fact that in Awakening you can use the main character from the original campaign, or by the fact that NPCs react differently according to the decision you have made before shooing away the Darkspawn. And even if the Origins plot doesn’t have as big an impact upon Awakening as Mass Effect has upon Mass Effect 2, at least historical references are coherent and satisfying.
For example, because I was a female elf, the living proof that Alistair was not gay, I had to bear his royal soap-opera love throughout the whole of Awakening. Talk about bad decisions… And of course, the Mass Effect influences can also be felt at the storytelling level.
The game may be missing the film grain effect that enraged SF fans worldwide, but the battle scenes are definitely much better portrayed than in the original game. They’re more fluid, more alert and realistic and the dialogues themselves now have the same kind of wordplay I have only seen with the space heroes of Mass Effect. Some moments even become picturesque through violence (try visualizing the opening scene of the expansion, where a soldier starts frantically punching a dead Darkspawn).
There’s no place like home
However, let’s not jump to conclusions, but rather return to our plot. Be it savior of the realm of Ferelden or a mere Grey Warden that have just journeyed from Orlais (BioWare has invented a new origin in order to justify your lack of implication in the Blight; in this case, the developers have designed a default outcome of the main story) you will receive your own keep from the king. Vigil’s Keep dominates the land of Amaranthine and you have to make sure that everything is in order.
And, because there’s no place like home, once inside your keep you realize that everyone is dead and that you still have some Darkspawns to chase. Moreover, it seems that your enemies have become semi-intelligent and are now willing to negotiate, communicate or whatever. So yeah, we’re talking about a shift from quantity to quality.
Their mumblings from the main campaign have been substituted by complex plans of raising the different power factions in the world one against another. Yet this sudden burst of intelligence also split the Darkspawn in two: those following the Architect, and the Mother’s children. And that’s really all I can say without spoiling the surprise of the Blight.
Too bad Awakening is not too talkative on this subject either, because the game unfolds as if the players already know who the Architect and his six-booby enemy are. Actually, these enigmatic figures are very well portrayed in one of the novels that relates to the series (The Calling), so I suggest you start reading if you want this expansion pack to seem less absurd.
At their base though, things are clear without a lecture: you have to put the Keep back on its feet and eradicate the Darkspawn. You achieve this not only through recruiting new Grey Wardens, but also by checking the defense of the keep or shopping for the local blacksmith. You’ll even get to attend boring court meetings, where you’ll have to give the verdict on absurd peon trials. Moreover, to calm the spirits throughout the realm, you’ll have to guard trade routes or even play pranks on rich people, for the sake of orphan kids.
Just mind your decisions, as you’ll constantly have to decide where to station your troops, whether to allow the Black Market to flourish or even whether to save forsaken villages. And you do it all, just like in Origins, through the realm map, which contains only one city (Amaranthine) this time around.