BioWare are by far one of my favourite developers of the past decade; their track record of great RPGs is untarnished, and I can’t help but feel excited whenever I hear they’re releasing a new IP or a sequel. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect 1 & 2, Neverwinter Nights; all gold. Whilst I tend to appreciate the more sci-fi offerings from them, I tend to shy away a little more when they venture into the realm of fantasy, such as with Neverwinter Nights and the more recent Dragon Age Origins; this is simply because the genre has never appealed to me as a whole, whether it’s in literature or film, but since it’s BioWare, I cast doubt aside and took the plunge, and they did not disappoint.
In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, Dragon Age: Origins was released all the way back in November 2009, when Barack Obama was still president of the United States, the Twilight series was catching the attention of millions of teenage girls interested in destructive relationships, and global warming threatened to destroy the world. Of course now, Wesley Snipes is president, the cast and creators of Twilight were destroyed in the great sensible people uprising in January ’10, and global warming turned out to be an ill-timed April fool’s joke by Al Gore. Dragon Age: Origins followed the last two Grey Wardens in the land of Ferelden, an order dedicated to the eradication of the imaginitively named Darkspawn, led by the Archdemon; a colossal dragon creature brought to life with the soul of an old god.
Now first let me say, I loved Dragon Age: Origins, the story and characters were both incredibly well crafted, and the world they inhabited was lovingly crafted with a rich heritage behind it. Combat and character development was very well-balanced and fun, it looked fantastic and the score was suitably epic. Every member of your party had a great personality and interacted wonderfully with one another, and in time you grew an affinity with them. The game lasted me a good 90-hours, and in that time I managed to do nearly everything, and when I reached that all too familiar point in a BioWare game where I realise the end is nigh, I didn’t want it to end, but luckily there was so much unfinished I could delay the inevitable (and to me, that’s the sign of a great game).
Now before DLC was commonplace, developers released expansion packs to increase or revive a past title. Dragon Age has had three DLC quests since release (two of which were on the day of release, and one even gave you another party member, and that was the free one!), whilst these were great in their own right, they were ultimately incredibly short, lasting about an hour or so, and sometimes had some very underwhelming rewards (I’m looking at you, Return to Ostagar. King Maric’s blade sucked!), but Awakenings is an old-school expansion pack, in the truest sense of the word.
Awakenings takes place after the defeat of the Archdemon, and your character from the first game is now the commander of the Grey Wardens (or, you can start a new character who’s from Orlais, but your decisions from the Origins doesn’t translate into Awakenings). Commonly, after the defeat of an Archdemon, the Darkspawn retreat into hiding, usually for over a century, but Darkspawn attacks occur on villages, which brings the Wardens to question whether the threat has gone.
With Awakenings, your original cast of characters do not join you this time around (apart from Oghren, the loveable drunken warrior Dwarf). You come across four new characters, each with their own past and personalities (although it could be said Anders is basically the mage version of Alistair, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as he was a great character). At first you feel a little postpartum being surrounded by the new characters, but once you get to know them, the old group are soon forgotten. The level cap in Awakenings has been risen from 25 to 35, and a huge amount of new abilities have been added, along with two new specializations for each class. These new options were very welcome, and well thought out. My first playthrough was as a Mage, and I found the new abilities to be very useful, especially when combined with my original specialization of Arcane Warrior (which is basically a mage who can hold a sword and wear armour), by the time I reached the final boss, it felt like my party was unstoppable, and with BioWare’s level based challenge curve, it made combat very fun and varied.
Of course, being an expansion, the graphics remain the same as Origins, which were great to begin with. The environments share the same textures and colour palettes as Origins too, but are nicely varied; the City of Amarantine is reminiscent of Denerim in the first game, and the Blackmarsh has a nice creepy, supernatural feel to it. You do run into some old enemies, of course the Darkspawn still remain, but you encounter some more vicious variations, including an Armored Ogre, which honestly nearly made me crap my pants, remembering my first encounter with an ogre in Origins.
The story as expected expands upon the tale from Origins, making the land of Ferelden a more colourful and interesting place. It gives you the feeling that you’re actually ‘revisiting’ the game since you already have knowledge of the history of the land. The expansion lasted me a good 25 hours, which if you think about it, for an expansion that’s impressive; most full retail games don’t even last that long, and if you’ve read my previous features, you’ll know I like a good lengthy game.
The expansion isn’t perfect though. As I said, there’s very little new in terms of presentation, like in two of the areas you visit in side quests, they’re marked as different areas, but they’re the exact same map, which to me seems just lazy. There are a couple of issues with sound, like mis-loading voice tracks, and some skipping in the music, which normally wouldn’t bother me, but when you’re pulled into this whole world where atmosphere is so important, it can somewhat detract from the experience. Also, there are a couple of broken quests, which for a completist like me really irked me, and a couple of other bugs (which I won’t say, as they’re plot related and I don’t want to spoil it).
Overall though, it’s great to see BioWare so dedicated to the Dragon Age franchise. It was my favourite game of last year, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store next. It’s also really cool to see a classic expansion pack being released, as opposed to heaps of hour-long DLC packages, which don’t really contribute to the story. BioWare are really dedicated to their gamers, and Awakenings is a great example of their continuing efforts.