In the run up to Dragon Age: Origins' 2009 release, developer BioWare banged on about it being a platform from which new content would be unleashed upon the gaming world. So far, BioWare's efforts haven't exactly set the world of Ferelden on fire. Return to Ostagar rehashed already explored areas. Warden's Keep was threadbare. Only The Stone Prisoner was genuinely worth a look. Now, with Awakening, Dragon Age's first standalone expansion, has BioWare finally got it right?
We're still trying to work out what we want from downloadable content, aren't we? DLC is good, it seems, if it's good value. So, we find ourselves wondering: is Awakening, which you can download or go old school and buy from a shop (unless you own a PS3, in which case you can only download), worth £30 (or £20 on PC)?
Absolutely. Awakening is packed to bursting with content. At 25 or so hours, the campaign, set after the events of Origins, gives you more "bang for your buck" than most full-priced games. It raises the level cap, opens up an entirely new area of Ferelden to explore, adds 56 new talents and spells, three new skill chains, more than 500 new items, two new tiers of weapons and armour, several new types of runes, five new party members, and a partridge in a pear tree (that last one is a lie).
Awakening, then, is undoubtedly good value. So, it's good, then, right? Well, like a tortuous break up, it's more complicated than that. Awakening is more of the same. It does nothing to right any of Origins' wrongs, nor does it seek to improve upon what worked. In some areas, it's even slightly worse.
You begin either as an imported character from Origins, which retains his or her background story and gear (sans, annoyingly, any loot gathered from the previous DLC), or as a new Grey Warden from Orlais, sent to rebuild the Grey Wardens in Ferelden. Either way, you're a big cheese - at least level 18 - so when you rock up to Vigil's Keep in Amaranthine, the new land mass set to the northeast of the previous game area, there's a lot to sort out. Like a darkspawn attack.
That's right, the darkspawn are back. The Blight was defeated, but stragglers remain, and they're setting up shop in the northeast, terrorising everyone and anyone silly enough to invade their personal space. But this time something's different. This time, the darkspawn are capable of more than the mindless slaughtering of farmers and townsfolk. This time, they're talking to each other, guided by a new, mysterious being called The Architect who likes philosophical discussion and post-modernist debate (that last bit's another lie). As the new warden-commander of Ferelden, the responsibility falls to you to clear the darkspawn out, and unravel the mystery behind these new intelligent beasties.
It's not long before a few party members present themselves. Anders, an apostate mage with a quick wit and a keen eye for trouble, joins the club, as does Oghren, the loutish dwarf from Origins. Both help you take your first tentative steps as ruler of all things Amaranthine. After an hour or two, Awakening apes Origins' structure by setting out a three-pronged main quest that can be tackled in any order you wish. You go to three areas - each distinct - fight a bit, make some difficult decisions, then gain a new party member. There's loads of fun to be had meeting the new help, so we won't tell you who they are, but know that they're all pretty cool, interesting, and useful in a scrap. One's very, very sexy. Another is an emo with a chip on his shoulder. The last one's just... confused. BioWare has always had a knack for drumming up memorable party members, and it's done it again here.
But, you can't have sex with them - a juvenile criticism, perhaps, but important to note. Dragon Age's relationship system is great, and in many ways more sophisticated than Mass Effect's Paragon/Renegade karma system. As before, your party members act as a mirror that reflects your moral compass. Your decisions, good or bad, affect the relationships you have with the guys and gals of your crew. A decision to kill first, ask questions later, may impress Oghren, but it'll probably piss someone else off. Completing quests for the Chantry - Ferelden's resident religious group - may reward you with loads of cash, but Anders, who hates the Circle of Magi with a passion, won't be happy. In Origins, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to please sultry shapeshifter Morrigan so that I could get my leg over. In Awakening, there are no romance options, so I just don't care as much.
But the new characters do a good job of filling the void left by the mysterious disappearance of your old team, and are just as messed up in the head. As you'd expect, there are plenty of twists and turns in the story, with the odd moral conundrum to itch your beard to (the game's ending asks you to make a particularly difficult decision). It's all classic BioWare: the big quests can usually be resolved in a number of ways, and the consequences are varied. But the quests themselves don't have the same pizazz as they did in Origins. There's the odd highlight - like taking on two terrifying dragons in a crypt, and dishing out justice in a court of law - but on the whole Awakening lacks something. The characters aren't quite as memorable, the story isn't quite as compelling, and the dungeon crawling isn't quite as imaginative. Awakening feels like Origin's younger, slightly less impressive brother. They're both born of the same mother, but one isn't quite as developed as the other.
The opportunity to experience the aftermath of war is a rare one in video game land, so Awakening's main theme, 'what happened next?', is a welcome one. But don't expect blooming flowers and laughing children. Amaranthine is as gritty and brutal as Origins-era Ferelden. People live in squalor. Blood soaks your face. Nobody smiles. Depressing, huh? Of course it is. This is Dragon Age after all. But I know what'll draw a smile from your pursed lips: new spells! All the new skills, specialisations, talents, items, and spells Awakening enters into the fray are welcome, and at best, spectacular. Runecrafting allows you to fashion your own weapon and armour-boosting runes. The new Mage Keeper specialisation is an interesting one; it grants powers associated with control over the roots of the earth. Some of the new tier eight and nine gear is great, too, with stats that make your eyes water. There are loads of new toys to play with, all befitting a post level 20 bad ass with a whopping great big sword.
Still, there's a feeling that an opportunity has been missed here. As an expansion released some time after Origins, we had hoped Awakening would address some of Dragon Age's problems. It doesn't. The game, functionally, works and plays exactly the same. It's still much better on the PC, where you can zoom out and fine tune your battle strategy with the mouse and keyboard. The graphics, as they did in Origins, at times look half a generation behind Mass Effect 2. And the archaic PC RPG design remains untouched.
Which is why Awakening isn't an expansion that'll convince Dragon Age sceptics to dip their toes in BioWare's fantasy universe. If Dragon Age didn't float your boat, neither will Awakening. Dragon Age enthusiasts, however, should consider it an essential purchase. It offers more of the same - no bad thing - in a great value package. With it, BioWare is honouring its commitment to its fans and making good on its pre-launch promise of treating Dragon Age as a platform. Just don't expect an evolution.