Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening Hands-On8 Mar 2010
Claiming that something is “more of the same” is usually, at best, a way of damning with faint praise. If that phrase sums up your judgment then you’re implying that while there might be new stuff it doesn’t make a major difference and that the experience is, in many ways, the same.From what I’ve seen, Awakening – the first expansion for Dragon Age: Origins – is more of the same, but I mean that in the best way possible: for starters, it’s all happily familiar. If you choose not to import your character from the end of Origins, you jump right into the character creation screen to generate the Grey Warden commander sent from Orlais to take control of rebuilding the Fereldan Wardens, with the only difference being you start at level 18 and so have a wide selection of powers to choose from.Those powers have been expanded upon significantly, though. Each class has new skill trees and new specialisations, with some tremendously fun stuff in there for characters that approach the new level cap. While my character is, was, and always will be a mage, rogues and warriors appear to get the coolest stuff, and it’ll hopefully expand their utility somewhat. One high level Rogue ability appears to grant them the ability to “flicker” behind every opponent in range, backstabbing them all. I’m sure I’ve seen a Warrior ranged attack akin to a shockwave, too, although that might’ve been a pretty visual effect. Ahem. These aren’t the sort of things you’ll be able to access immediately, though; your third specialisation is unlocked at level 22 and the other tree abilities seemed to be level restricted to 22, 24, 26, and 28.The expansion itself opens with an assault on the Wardens’ new stronghold of Vigil’s Keep in the new region of Amaranthine. With your character a little late to the party, it’s up to you to fight off the strangely organised Darkspawn and find out why they didn’t leave after the end of the first game, why the Wardens didn’t sense their approach, why there was a talking Darkspawn in the keep, and what the mysterious Architect is really after.From what I’ve seen, Vigil’s Keep is the single biggest difference between Awakening and vanilla Dragon Age, and it really is a huge one. Once you fend off the Darkspawn in the initial attack you’re granted control of it and, indeed, the title of Arl, essentially making you the ruler of Amaranthine. In a fashion inspired by the class keeps from Baldur’s Gate II, all the problems of both Vigil’s Keep and the region on the whole become yours. With the increase in Darkspawn attacks, will you send soldiers to defend the city, or spread them out throughout the countryside to keep the farmers alive? Will you focus on expanding trade to maintain and build up the region? Can you spare the manpower to guard ore deposits so that your soldiers’ weapons and armour are improved, or will you have them defend a quarry so that Vigil’s Keep’s walls can be reinforced? I have absolutely no idea how these decisions will turn out, but every time I wandered back to the Keep there was something new going on and a new decision to make. Then there’s the more personal threat of traitors and conspiracies against your power, which will need to be deftly handled.Which leaves us with the meat of the game, and that’s exactly what you’d expect. It’s still gorgeous and the area design I’ve seen is utterly sterling work with plenty of interesting stuff going on. Combat is as intensely tactical as ever, and there’s still a muted sense of terror every time the game autosaves because something big and nasty – and potentially brand new – will be around the corner. The new characters I saw in my all-too-brief time with the game are individual, witty, and entertaining. In short? It’s still Dragon Age, and that’s a perfect reason to be excited.More of the same, with a few little tweaks and additions? Yes, please, BioWare.