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Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening Review

30 Mar 2010  by
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Dragon Age: Origins (hereafter referred to as Origins, for simplicity’s sake) was one of those games I waxed lyrical about. It happens more regularly than I’d like to admit: cynical, hateful, and spiteful I might be, but when something really good comes along I get the urge to scream and shout about it for weeks on end. Great characters! Great locations! Best BioWare romance system yet! Grey decision making! Proper old-school RPG combat! It was like I was playing an early 90s RPG that I’d somehow missed out on, but with gorgeous, gorgeous 3D environments, a modern interface, and all the recent trappings and updates that BioWare has made its own.Then the DLC packs came out, and they were a bit shit. Generally adding small adventuring areas and some new items, it’s not fair to say that they were bad, but they weren’t worth getting excited about. Or buying, for that matter.Still, we had high hopes, taken even higher when we spoke to BioWare producer Fernando Melo who got us excited about what was new, and I can confirm that Awakening is not one of these DLC packs. Awakening is a full-fledged expansion, and those of you old enough to remember Throne of Bhaal will know that every now and then BioWare releases an expansion that, were it not BioWare, would be marketed and released as a sequel. Awakening is one of these expansions. Awakening is very, very good.Awakening has given BioWare a number of opportunities. First and foremost amongst these is the opportunity to fix problems presented in Dragon Age: Origins, and make no mistake, it had them. If you’re anything like me, your party was composed of a fighter to soak up the damage, a rogue to pick any locked chests, and two mages to abuse the game mechanics in hilarious fashion and brutally murder every opponent in seconds.This is still possible. Mana Clash is still unbelievably powerful, as showcased by my killing an otherwise challenging miniboss in one single cast (the floating damage numbers, I believe, popped up with a frankly ludicrous 2500) and Cone of Cold is equally abusable, but it’s not all about the mages anymore. Ignoring specific numbers for a moment, fixes to fighters and rogues have made them far, far more viable than they were, with new abilities upping utility.Yes, new abilities. As you’ve doubtless heard, each class has new specialisations and new abilities in their base skill tree. These new skills have fairly steep level requirements (yes, levels, rather than Origins’ stat requirements) but work not only to round out the utility of each class, but to make them far, far more effective. Yes, there are some new damaging abilities, but there are some genius additions like Second Wind – restoring a fighter’s stamina instantly – and Time Spiral, which instantly refreshes all of a mage’s cool-downs. The new class specialisations round these out further, with the poster child for the bunch being Guardian for fighters, granting a variety of party-saving abilities. If you want your fighter to act as a tank, give them this and they can buff allied armour and pull enemies towards them. Whether the improved gameplay balance is down to these new abilities or to more careful encounter design I can’t say, but one way or another there are fewer difficulty spikes, with only one or two battles coming anywhere close to the monitor-lobbing, abuse-hurling battles that popped up at least once every few hours in Origins.There are new skills too which, once again, act to round things out. Runecrafting lets you, er, craft runes, which can now be put into armour in addition to weapons. As runes are considerably less common than they once were, and most high-level weapons have slots for this sort of customisation, it’s rather essential and works as a fitting addition to the previous system. The other two new skills – Vitality and Clarity – grant bonuses to health and mana/stamina, respectively, letting you put your skill points to use if you don’t feel as though you need a third character capable of making potions.{PAGE TITLE=Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening Review}It’s all comfortable and well-implemented; the new systems click into place on the back of the old ones, fix problems that they had, and provide enough to aim for that progression feels exciting. Good as it is, this wouldn’t be enough to make Awakening a must-have without adding more to everything else that made Origins great – the setting, the story, the characters.As you’d expect, BioWare has done sterling work here. The plot opens a short while after the end of Origins, with the darkspawn gone and peace and prosperity returned to Fereldan – er, no, wait. Sorry. The darkspawn are still running around, despite the events at the close of Origins, and the game opens with your player character (either your Origins character imported into Awakening, or a new Grey Warden from Orlais) travelling to the new Warden fortress of Vigil’s Keep to take charge of Fereldan’s Grey Wardens and work out why the hell the darkspawn haven’t retreated back into the Deep Roads. Even this doesn’t go according to plan, however: your warm welcome is put off a little by a massive darkspawn assault on the keep, which leaves the defences in tatters. Not only do you need to work out why the darkspawn are still around and why some of them are talking, you need to rebuild both Vigil’s Keep and the Fereldan Grey Wardens, and rule over the Amaranthine, the new game region which you’re in charge of. Your work, as they say, is cut out for you.One thing the Origins DLC lacked – which Origins itself did extremely well – was meaningful choice, and Vigil Keep is a significant element of Awakening getting this right. You’ve still got all sorts of horrific decisions to make during the game proper, but being in charge of a region adds a new level to it, particularly when that region is being ripped apart by darkspawn. Which areas do your limited numbers of soldiers protect? Can you afford to spend money and manpower on reinforcing Vigil Keep’s walls, or should those resources be put to better use? It’s up to you, and if you were the sort of Origins player who sat at a single decision point agonising over the ramifications, this is where you’ll be spending a lot of time. As you’d expect, the biggest choices are saved for near the end, but there are some whoppers long before then.Areas in which you’ll be cutting up darkspawn fare equally well. Without wishing to spoil anything, depth is given to the Deep Roads (no pun intended) in a tighter, more focused way than Origins managed, but it’s the Blackmarsh – a dark swamp straight out of Grimm’s fairy tales – that really shines. Except it doesn’t because it’s a pit of unremitting horror and despair, but you know what I mean. The quests taking place there add plenty to the dark world of Dragon Age and show a side of the world that was never really touched on in Origins. The only real issue with these areas – particularly those underground, or in big structures – are that the overhead tactical camera often has issues, requiring you to rotate it constantly or swap back into the third-person view to work out what’s going on. While it might seem a bit petty to complain about this in a game that you can pause at any time, it happens far too often to be ignored.The new characters touch on the unexplored side of the world, too: while Origins’ characters often fitted into a stereotype of sorts – albeit, usually, with a twist or two once you got to know them – BioWare has run a little more freely with Awakening, giving us a few party members you certainly won’t be expecting. Again, I’m keeping my mouth shut for fear of spoiling anything, but there are some interesting conflicts and while most players will doubtless recruit everyone regardless of their character’s morality, I suspect a few players who like to stray towards extreme good or extreme evil will have some tough decisions to make.In everything that really matters Awakening is a triumph, and where it fails, it’s usually because of necessity. If your character didn’t happen to survive Origins, you can import them anyway, which – to me – undermines the decisions of the original game, a little. The fact that the darkspawn are still roaming free at this stage does similar: if this is happening, then was all the effort of Origins for nothing? Considering the number of people who didn’t survive Origins and may want to import their characters, and the problem of actually ending Origins, though, it’s hard to complain too loudly.The biggest disappointment, though, is in some of the questlines. There are plenty that show some fantastic promise and then fall apart, like the early quest to root out and destroy a conspiracy among the nobles aimed at your new rule. What could have been a wonderful subplot involving some well-defined characters, manipulation, interrogation, cunning counterplots, and dealing with potential conspirators one-on-one actually involves a few short decisions and then a mass fight in a field. Too many questlines work like this, with huge potential cut short either by lack of time or lack of ambition.On the whole, though, these are minor points, and Awakening really is a fantastic experience. After the by-the-numbers DLC, Awakening reminds us why Dragon Age was such a fantastic world to visit and such a fantastic game to play. Problems are fixed, the lore is expanded upon, and we’re given an opportunity to visit a new area of Fereldan, make more difficult moral decisions, and get into tactical combat with more gigantic monsters. Awakening is exactly what it should have been.

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