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The rare expansion that is better than the original game
on 28 July 2013
Several months have passed since the last surviving Grey Wardens in Ferelden defeated the Blight, ended the Ferelden civil war and restored peace to the lands. The hero of that war has found a new job as commander of Vigil's Keep, from where he (or she) will rule over the province of Amaranthine and try to replenish the ranks of the Grey Wardens. However, when Vigil's Keep falls under attack from the supposedly-vanquished darkspawn before she (or he) even arrives, it becomes clear that Ferelden is in danger once again.
Awakening is the expansion pack to Dragon Age: Origins, adding a chunky new storyline (weighing in at around 20-odd hours), numerous new locations and five new companion characters to the mix, as well as a number of modest improvements to the game engine and a plethora of new spells and skills. The default review for expansion packs is, "If you liked the original, you'll love this," and whilst that's true for Awakening it is also true that it may appeal to you even if you disliked the original.
Awakening is a tighter, marginally better-written and characterised and considerably better-paced game than Dragon Age: Origins itself. It often took a conscious effort of will to force myself to load up Origins during the interminable midgame, whilst I tore through Awakening in a couple of days or so. The storyline is more interesting, since rather being another epic battle against the vast forces of evil, it instead explores the aftermath of such a conflict and also delves back into the reasons for it. Looking back, there's rather a lot that Dragon Age: Origins left unexplained about the Blights and why they happen, and Awakening is happy to fill it in, adding depth and understanding to the first game whilst also improving on it.
Some will bemoan the lack of Dragon Age: Origins's cast of characters, though I found them mostly an uninteresting bunch. I did find it odd that arguably the least interesting, Oghren, is the only playable character to continue into this game. Other than that, the characters in Awakening are improvements. Justice, a spirit of law and order forced into the body of a dead human, feels like a character imported from Planescape: Torment with his moody musings on ideology and its rigidity providing some (moderately) intellectual food for thought. Anders, a persecuted and highly sarcastic mage, adds some colour and humour to the game. Nathaniel, the son of your enemy Rendon Howe from the first game, is an interesting addition as he starts out hating you and only over the course of many hours of adventuring learns the truth about his father and how he can escape his father's legacy to become his own man. Standard fare, perhaps, but well-handled.
Where Awakening scores its biggest points is in turning the darkspawn from a raging morass of fanatical monsters into more of a civilisation with different factions and leaders. The threat of one such hostile faction is kept front-and-centre in the game, with side-quests presented firmly as sidelines and not confusing matters. Dragon Age was rather unconvincing in how the darkspawn were a raging menace for the first 10 hours of the game and then put on hold for the next 40-odd hours whilst you dealt with Loghain and then suddenly the darkspawn were back as the main bad guys for the endgame, but Awakening maintains focus throughout. Awakening also abandons the somewhat cheesy 'campfire' mechanic from the first game to give you a permanent base of operations, Vigil's Keep. In between quests it's a good idea to repair to the Keep to offload loot and talk to the keep's inhabitants, who keep up a steady stream of news and provide new quests, and equipment to help in your adventure. You also have the ability to upgrade the Keep by repairing its walls, bringing in new merchants and reinforcing its soldiery. It's another nod for this franchise towards the excellent Baldur's Gate II (though you only have the choice of one base of operations) and this one works a lot better, especially when the endgame asks some really hard moral questions of the player.
On the downside, some of the UI oddities of Dragon Age: Origins remain intact. Characters knocked back from melee by spells or attacks will just stand there a few feet away from the fight until you order them directly back into it. The camera controls remain as mixed a bag as in the original game. Sometimes quests will be rendered un-completable without warning: for example, having recruited a new follower I was directed to return to Vigil's Keep to induct them into the ranks of the Grey Wardens. Yet upon returning to the Keep, whenever I talked to the seneschal to start the procedure, instead he'd demand an answer about an unrelated story event. Replying yes would instigate the end of the whole game, making it impossible to formally induct the new follower into the ranks.
Still, these problems aside Awakening achieves a lot of the promise left unfulfilled by Dragon Age: Origins and works as both an effective epilogue to that game and a bridge to the controversial Dragon Age II.
Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening (****½) is a significant improvement over the base game in terms of writing, structure and characters.