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Dragon Age Origins: Awakening Preview

Nick_Tan By:
PUBLISHER Electronic Arts 
M Contains Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Language, Partial Nudity, Sexual Content

What do these ratings mean?

Don’t let sleeping darkspawn lie.

Lead Designer of Dragon Age Origins: Awakening Ferret Baudoin, enthusiastically giddy, smiled after every one of my questions. Applying the wisdom learned from creating the original title, the tips and tricks that only come from experience, he and his team had been crafting this expansion for nearly a year, and this marked one of the first times they were finally able to talk about it. Though disappointed that he couldn’t divulge the details on the embargo list, he was as psyched as the most avid fan of Dragon Age: Origins can ever be.

click to enlargeAs he should be, because Awakening promises to deliver everything that made Origins so invitingly fantastical: the pause-able four-man real-time combat system, the light-hearted banter and witty comebacks, the triumphant orchestral soundtrack, and the Tolkien-inspired story-world of Ferelden. Though this $40  expansion, which can be purchased at retail or as downloadable content, might be interpreted by the cynical as a quick and lucrative cash-grab, it looks more like the brilliant sequel that Origins deserves (and at less than full retail price).

If you’re still left unconvinced, let me shed light on its most attractive feature: the ability to re-spec. In the original title, new party members come with pre-assigned, fixed builds and any mistake in the leveling of your party is permanent. Now, for an “affordable” price from a merchant, you can wipe characters clean and reallocate those precious points from abilities you don’t need anymore to those that are more useful, or more interesting for you curious types. Everything from attribute points, to talents and specializations, can be customized as you see fit. (I asked Mr. Baudoin to release a re-spec function as DLC for the original game – for it will sell – and he said if that happens, it will be called something on the lines of “Nick Tan’s Respec DLC”. He better not hold up on me!)

Functioning as both a mini-sequel and an epilogue, the story begins not so long after the ending scenes of the original that saw the dragon archdemon slain atop its lofty tower. Within several months after The Blight ended, before it truly began, peace has returned to Ferelden, your hero (assuming survival) still fights on as The Hero of the Blight, much of your party has left to rebuild or resolve personal affairs, and the darkspawn has returned back to the dark tunnels of the Dwarven underground. Or so all of Ferelden thought.

click to enlargeSeveral pockets of darkspawn resistance have lingered without the presence of an archdemon. The new hordes have been giving even the Dwarven squadron The Legion of the Dead trouble – they're much deadlier and somehow tactically intelligent. Rumors have it that they have been corralled together by a darkspawn general who can actually talk and reason, certainly someone who you need to investigate as the new “Duncan” and Commander of the Grey Wardens.

A new character, not imported from the original game, will still fill the role of the Commander, but will be a transferred Grey Warden presiding from Orleis, the country that Ferelden fought against for their freedom only one generation ago. So expect some attempts at convincing the Ferelden arlings to swear fealty to the anti-darkspawn cause to simmer with bad blood before they even start. New players to the universe will be foreigners, both in-game and (uh) out-game.

No origin story will be given in the same sense as those in the original game, but the history of a new character will be told through the reactions of the Ferelden people and your new party members. I won’t reveal who those party members are, though some have already been officially revealed, but expect plenty of cameos and one character who can return as a teammate. (My bet is on the dog.)

click to enlargeLuckily, if you need to prove yourself in battle, your character will begin from Level 18 (imported characters lower than that will be brought to Level 18 as well), along with matching weapons and armor if necessary. To complement the increased level cap from Level 25 to 35, over 50 new talents and skills have been added, with Level 20-minimum talents like Time Spiral, Elemental Chaos, and Massacre as well as skills like Runecrafting, Vitality, and Clarity.

Also included are unique weapons in new tiers with extraordinary magical properties which can be found in the deepest corners of Ferelden and from completing quests in the new city of Amaranthine. It should also be noted that Awakening truly has a stand-alone universe – still within Ferelden but without many, or perhaps all, of the townships and cities from the original game. A single journey through these unknown parts shouldn’t be as lengthy as one in the original game, but all of the content will be fresh.

No word has been given on some of Awakening’s juicier details: which party members are romanceable, what graphical improvements will be made to the console versions, how Ferelden and its people will change depending on your decisions in the original game, and to whom you can enlist the Grey Wardens through the dangerous and deadly Joining Ritual. Whether the subtitle “Awakening” refers to your newfound destiny as the leader of the Grey Wardens or to the new evil that threatens the land - or both - also remains to be seen. Either way, be prepared to rise to the challenge when Awakening arrives on March 16, 2010.

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