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The $5-15 adventure modules for Dragon Age: Origins are side adventures that add about an hour of gameplay apiece. BioWare's vision for Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening was much more ambitious, though. It's a $40 expansion pack that continues the main campaign from Origins. While it's certainly larger and a better bargain than the modules, it doesn't avoid the main problem with downloadable content: more isn't always better.
Awakening is set some time after the end of Origins. Your character (imported from Origins or new) travels to the region of Amaranthine to assume command of the Grey Wardens' fortress there. The Darkspawn, the monstrous horde that you faced in Origins, are causing problems once again. You're tasked with investigating and stopping the new threat while also ruling over Amaranthine.
You discover early on that the Darkspawn have developed the ability to speak since you last encountered them. This addresses one of the most problematic parts of Origins story: it's tough to make an antagonist compelling if you never get to speak with them. Mindless monsters just don't have much personality. Thing is, the new talking Darkspawn don't show much personality, either. The only foot soldiers who can speak are the lieutenants, who tell you (in their best orc voice) that the Mother told them to kill you - cue battle. Eventually you do meet this Mother (as well as another leader) and the peek at the Darkspawn society and its command structure are interesting but it's too little, too late. The bulk of the campaign is spent traveling from one end of Amaranthine to the next, wiping out packs of mindless beasts.
The enemies stay about the same and so do your friends. Only one NPC companion returns from Origins (Oghren, the token drunk dwarf) but the new recruits fall into the familiar roles: Anders is a cocky mage, Velanna's a nature-loving elf, and so on. The only companion that really stands out is Justice, a spirit trapped in a human body. He's the most interesting character in the expansion and one of the few bright spots in the story. I suspect he'll end up in Dragon Age 2 as well.
Maybe the reason I like the Awakening cast less than Origins's is because I didn't get a proper chance to know them. Origins allowed you to sit in camp and talk with party members at length. In Awakening, however, most conversations take place in the field. When you walk past a statue of a religious figure, your companion chats with you about it. This means that the characters you get to know more are the ones you actually use in your active party. I suppose that's "realistic" but it ignores the fact that you don't choose party members based on your interest in their character. You choose them because they fit your strategy preferences. If you play a Rogue who specialized in ranged weapons, you probably won't take Nathaniel because he's got the same skillset. BioWare will argue that seeding the character dialogue opportunities throughout the world like Easter Eggs makes the conversations more "active." Players had full control in Origins over how much they talked to their party members in camp, though, so the risk of getting bored by this dialogue was low. The environmental triggers just seem like an attempt to disguise the fact that your companions have less to say.
The main character's personal story doesn't advance much. If you chose a "Human Noble" origin for your character, it adds an interesting dimension to your dialogue with one of the companions but otherwise, your origin stories are a non-factor. Your choices from the Origins campaign have very little weight here. The person you chose to become ruler of Ferelden will make a cursory appearance in the beginning, if only to confirm that you imported the right save file. Your romance from Origins isn't continued and no new love interests await you. By the end of Awakening, you're pretty much the same guy/girl you were at the start.
While you're supposed to be the ruler of Vigil's Keep, you never feel like you're in charge. It's a Captain Kirk situation: you pop into headquarters occasionally but spend most of your time running around on adventures. Your leadership amounts to a few fetch quests - the guards want new equipment so if you happen to find any iron ore (or whatever), bring it to the armorer. You're asked to make a few seemingly big decisions, such as ruling on disputes between subjects, but there are no obvious consequences from these choices. While letting the player run his own keep is a good idea - it was executed really well in Neverwinter Nights 2 - not enough time is devoted to it here to make it feel like anything more than a collection of subquests.
Awakening's plot is structured like Origins's: you're given a small number of large missions you can accomplish in any order you choose and once they're done, you can begin endgame. Here, you're investigating a series of darkspawn-related incidents in Amaranthine. One of my main criticisms of Origins in my review last fall was that the locations were boring. Unfortunately the expansion pack continues the trend. You'll visit (in no particular order) a forest, a hillside, a swamp, a mine, and a dwarven fortress. The dwarven fortress has a bit of character but ultimately, you're in the same environments that you saw in the base game.
Most of the enemies you face in these locales are largely the same, too. There's a few new critters seeded within the ranks but they're dressed up versions of the old ones. The talking Darkspawn lieutenants, for example, look like Skeletor but fight exactly the same as rank-and-file Darkspawn. The armored ogres are a bit tougher than the unarmored ones but they have similar attacks. The only foe that really throws a curve ball at you is the Queen of the Black Marsh, a spectral dragon. Like an MMO boss encounter, the (optional) fight against the Queen has different phases so it requires more thought than the standard tank-and-spank encounters. For the rest of Awakening, though, you'll get by using the same tactics that you used in Origins.
In fact, you'll do more than "get by" - you'll pretty much wipe the floor with every enemy you encounter. The level cap's been upped to 35 and there's plenty of new talents/spells for you to learn and equipment to acquire. The game throws a whole lot of money at you, too, so you'll never be short on consumables to turn to the tide. Your party gets much stronger but the enemies just don't keep pace. I remember a lot of lost battles and close calls in Origins but in Awakening, I had maybe four characters die in the entire campaign.
About eight years ago, BioWare released an expansion pack for Baldur's Gate II called Throne of Bhaal. Like Awakening, it was a high-level adventure but the difference was that Bhaal made you feel high-level. It wasn't just a simple matter of giving you more hit points or a slightly shinier weapon. The game made you believe your character was one of the most powerful beings in existence and was fighting against foes who were just as formidable. In many ways, Awakening just fails to do this. If you simply want more Dragon Age, these extra 15 hours of gameplay might sate you. If you were expecting this expansion pack to take the franchise to new heights, though, you're going to be disappointed.
Players: 1 Player
Platform(s): Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3, PC
Publisher: Electronic Arts