“The currency of war is life. We pay the cost and hope in the end it was worth it.”
Just what kind of expansion pack does Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening want to be? On one hand, it’s available as quick-and-easy downloadable content, takes places in a subsection of Ferelden, and reuses practically all of the gameplay from the original title. On the other hand, it tries to be a bona-fide sequel, available as a stand-alone $40 game at retail that takes place in a self-contained universe, has five new characters and only one recurring party member from the original title, plus it is substantially larger than Return to Ostagar, The Stone Prisoner, and Warden’s Keep combined. But in its quest to negotiate a middle ground between a lengthy side mission and a full-on sequel, it hits and misses.
[image1]To draw an analogy to its forefather, Dungeons & Dragons, Awakening is the equivalent of an epic-level campaign meant to carry the character from common hero, about level 20 by the end of the main adventure in Origins, to indisputable legend, hopefully reaching Awakening’s level cap of level 35 by the end of the game. Luckily, you don’t need to own Origins to play Awakening, with new characters starting at level 18, though the advantage of importing a high-level, loot-laden character from the original is obvious. You can even import a “Dead Warden” which partially rewrites the ending of Origins to explain the survival of your character in the final battle (the official online FAQ for Awakening states that “if a player doesn’t have a problem hand-waiving the story in this regard – neither do we”).
With the archdemon dragon slain and the Blight averted in the finale of Origins, many expected the darkspawn to return to the bowels of the earth. But as you, the new Warden-Commander and arling of Amarathine, approach the region’s renowned stronghold known as Vigil’s Keep, you understand the assumption to be wrong. They not only continue to ravage the countryside with well-armed forces, but are also intelligent enough to strategize and form battle tactics, and some can even speak fluently in the native tongue (a Ferelden English immersion program?). Since their strength in numbers has always been tempered by their stupidity, this is hardly a stroke of good fortune.
Slaying waves upon waves of darkspawn, however, is only half of your responsibilities. With the land of Amaranthine given to the Grey Wardens as a base of operations within the kingdom of Ferelden, it is your charge to bolster the defenses of Vigil’s Keep, rally the nobles behind your cause, protect the common man, and act as judge over civil cases. In fact, if you wish to recruit more Dark Wardens into your party through the Joining ritual, you may have to invoke the Dark Warden’s right of conscription and pardon past transgressions. Let's just say that if the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then you might as well get used to the scenery.
[image2]Only one character from Origins returns as a party member, with a few past characters making quick cameos, so the rest of your squad will need to be filled from a roster of up to five new characters. All of them have unique personalities and provide a fair cross-section of Fereldan demographics (if objective practices in racial studies actually matter in make-believe worlds). But unlike the 50+-hour adventure of the main game, Awakening can be finished in roughly 20 hours, and that’s including all the side quests. That’s not a lot of time to care about your new companions, and so the ending seems to happen just when you're starting to like them.
Moreover, the personal quests for each party member are either too brief or nonexistent, and you can't romance anyone. Also, the relationship meter tends to be glitchy or underworked. Just by giving a gift or choosing the right dialogue choices, you can boost your relationship with two party members by the full +100 points. And for some reason, the returning character’s relationship meter resets to zero. (I thought our friendship meant something!) And what happened to the apparently loyal dog?
As a matter of fact, the real trouble starts at the beginning, when you realize what didn’t transfer from the original title: All items not in your character’s inventory and all items from downloadable content, except for Return to Ostagar, disappear. That includes all runes, weapons, and items carried by other party members or stored in your personal storage chest from Warden’s Keep.
[image3]You could spend hours going through the ending of Origins again, sorting and organizing all of your items accordingly, but BioWare could have made an easy fix – just take all items not carried by your character and place it in the personal storage chest at Vigil’s Keep (yeah, there's one there too). Though you will receive high-tiered weapons and armor within the first hour of Awakening, the lost runes and the extra money you could have received by selling old items off are hard pills to swallow, especially with the new runecrafting skill and the exorbitant price tags that come with two new higher tiers of equipment.
All of these complaints might make Awakening sound like an unpolished mess – the game froze on me once and some dialogue sequences don’t make the proper adjustments if you happen to do some quests out of order. But it does retain much of what made Origins great: interesting dialogue options, witty banter, well-imagined enemies and bosses, and a combat system that caters to both real-time and turn-based players. It also adds plenty of skills, talents, and class specializations deserving of high-level status, along with the purchasable Manual of Focus that allows you to reallocate any character’s leveling points.
For a sequel that is about half of the original title, Awakening would have been more comfortably priced at $30; either that, or be given another year in production to expand into a full-fledged sequel. This isn’t to say it is rushed, but more that it is unpolished and unsure – too long for an epilogue, too short for a stand-alone title. Still, an enjoyable romp with an intriguing story can be found somewhere between the two, and you won’t have to be wide awake to see it.