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Review: Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening

Players may have defeated the archdemon in Dragon Age: Origins, but that doesn't mean the story is over. Now it's time to deal with the fallout from all that's happened. The Awakening expansion takes place sometime after the Origins campaign, and the player is promoted to the status of a Warden Commander. With the new title comes bigger responsibilities, as they're tasked with rebuilding the Grey Warden numbers while playing the role of an Arl, in charge of the land of Amaranthine and the well being of its peasants and nobles. At the same time, there's a rising threat that involves a new breed of smarter darkspawn. No one said that being a Warden Commander was going to be easy, but overwhelming tasks are happen to be the ones they're best suited for.

Check out all Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening downloads

In Awakening, players have the choice to import their characters from the Origins campaign or start a whole new one as an Orlesian Grey Warden. Coming from Orlais doesn't offer any special bonuses, characters simply treat you as the new person instead of the Hero of Ferelden. Importing characters have clear advantages which include carrying over whatever money the character happens to have, which is a tremendously useful head-start. Players can't import anything that's not equipped or in the character's personal inventory, so it's worthwhile to sell off as much as possible before carrying it in. We were extremely disappointed to discover that, except for Return to Ostagar, Awakening is not compatible with any of the special items that come with the Origins DLC expansions. This includes the blood powers and items from Warden's Keep (the powers are listed but cannot be activated) and the Blood Dragon armor. If a character has a DLC item equipped, it's automatically stripped upon import without warning, and players are left to discover their characters unarmed and naked fighting through the first parts of the game. Of course, the items in Awakening surpass almost anything from the Origins campaign, and there is a user created mod that allows players to import their items, but it's a shame that BioWare didn't choose to allow players to naturally outgrow their gear.

Other major changes include a level cap increase to 35, new skill branches, and additional specializations for each class. Additionally, there are new talents to make stronger warriors and mages with bigger health and mana pools, but the Rune Crafting system turned out to be one of our favorites. Creating powerful runes takes a great deal of money, but they can be slotted into armor and weapons, often making up for any weaknesses the character might have. The new talents and skills are incredibly powerful and provide the much needed edge against the new breed of darkspawn. However, even though the enemies start off challenging, they don't scale according to the player's level. So at a certain point, combat starts getting pretty easy with the exception of boss encounters. If the player actually reaches level 35, even some of boss fights go by quickly.

The story ties into some of the decisions made in the Origins campaign, but for the most part, players will be starting completely fresh. There's a brand new cast of characters to work with, so players that have favorites from the Origins campaign might be disappointed to find that none of them (except for Oghren) continue the adventure with you. Not even the dog returns. A few characters make cameo appearances, and you might get a quest out of the conversation, but that's about it. Generally speaking, the new characters are well rounded and diverse, with two representatives of each class. Awakening also includes the ability to respec any of the characters using an item that sells for a relatively small fee, so players can distribute skill points, experiment with different abilities, and assemble the perfect adventure party. Like in the first game, players can strengthen their relationship with the characters by making different moral and conversation choices, in most cases, leading to a character driven quest. Making nice is generally more difficult this time around because it's hard to judge what the characters want. There are points where you think you're complimenting a character or enjoying some camaraderie, but they end up taking insult. In at least one instance, a decision made us lose favor with a character that wasn't even in our party. Combined with some of the AI's strange, sometimes frustrating behavior (like running straight into a death cloud after we instructed them to go elsewhere), we started to wonder if it was really worth gaining their approval.

Although the plot of Awakening is generally very good, some of the major plot points seem recycled from the first campaign. Players have the option to adopt and reform an assassin who tries to kill them. Beyond that, there's a greater assassination plot against the hero. There's an apostate mage... two of them, in fact. One is from the woods and is uncomfortable in social situations. There's also an obligatory section where players are thrown into a dungeon and have to make their escape, grabbing armor and weapons as they go. However, getting the gear back from the enemies wearing it proves more challenging and entertaining this time around. While some of the plot points seem very familiar, the story is told well enough that we could easily forgive the general sense of deja vu. Plus, there are plenty of new and interesting areas to explore, including a section where the player is transported to a town trapped in the Fade.

What we noticed is that the expansion doesn't offer as much of an individualized experience as the Origins campaign. It's probably too much to expect individualized introduction sequences like in Origins, but there isn't as much emphasis on the character's unique identity either. Now and again, an NPC tosses out comment about how a player is an elf or mage, but there are few opportunities to follow-up on these in dialogue. As a mage, we couldn't tell Anders (a rogue mage) that we gave the Circle of Magi greater self policing powers, away from the Templar. One of the bigger oversights we noticed was how a group of Templar had no qualms about attacking our human noble character, who was essentially their king. In a different quest, we would have liked to give a piece of our mind to a woman who was cheating on her recently deceased Grey Warden husband, but conversation options strangely came up short. Points where we felt truly engaged with the story is when the dialogue tied into the character's background, like as human noble dealing with Nathaniel Howe, whose father betrayed and killed your family. We also enjoyed some of the moral choice sequences, where the player needs to make decisions as the head of the land to keep the peace. These decisions determine how things play out later on.

All this builds up to an amazing finale sequence that makes up for almost everything we complained about. Without giving too much away, players are presented with some tough moral choices, pitting their duties as Grey Wardens against their role as leader of Amaranthine. The end boss (or bosses, as the case may be) is very challenging and requires quite a bit of skill and character management to overcome. We enjoyed seeing our decisions culminate into an epilogue, although we were once given a conclusion to a quest we didn't discover. Although we're a little disappointed that there isn't more content connecting Awakening to decisions made in the Origins campaign, the new content more than makes up for it. It's definitely an experience fans shouldn't miss out on.

Final Verdict


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