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Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening DLC review

The Darkspawn Blight was blotted out at the conclusion of Dragon Age: Origins, thereby ending your Grey Warden’s reason for existing. So what’s left to do? Rebuild and move on, apparently, and those are the dominant themes of Awakening. Many RPGs have been set in worlds under siege by diabolical forces, but few have explored the devastating aftermath of their wars. Awakening offers a pensive extension to the original story and a pithy adventure.

Above: All screens from the PC version

A tale set after the epic climax of Dragon Age risks diminishing that victory, if a graver threat emerged without respite. So Awakening wisely scales down the menace. You’re given the modest goal of re-establishing the Grey Wardens by rebuilding a fortress, conscripting members and protecting nearby settlements, only to discover that remnants of the previously mindless Darkspawn threat have mysteriously evolved intelligence, and now stubbornly refuse to disperse to their subterranean lairs.

Once again, you have to gather together a band to expunge evil, only this time you’ll also have to exercise newfound feudal responsibilities wisely, or your subjects will suffer additional carnage. It’s disappointing that the characters you diligently courted in Dragon Age only have a few cameos (other than Oghren, the Dwarf with carnal cravings, who’s still tagging along like a drunken louse unable to recognise when the party’s over). Your hero’s also doomed to be lovelorn, because you can’t romance any new companions. As if anyone would remain faithful to Leliana.

Also absent are any promotional magic items and gear acquired from previous DLC; that equipment is annoyingly stripped from imported characters, and there’s no chance to purchase replacements for several hours, so plan ahead, or you’ll be stuck with crappy accoutrements.

Echoing the original game, there are three primary locations that can be tackled in any order, and each hosts a potential companion. Character arcs are abbreviated and less dramatic than those of your original followers, but the five new companions are serviceable alternatives, including a metrosexual mage apostate and a benevolent spirit forced to roleplay a zombie.

Characters can now level into their mid-30s and there’s lots of new crunchy content, as each class gets two new specialisations, and existing talent and spell lines are expanded. The additions are sufficiently potent to turn characters into one-man armies. Rogues in particular are significantly upgraded. Specialty class talents such as Strength of Stone enable them to avoid damage completely, while Flicker backstabs an entire room of enemies. There are so many abilities that many seem superfluous, but since it’s now possible to respec, just experiment.

The increased power level of your antagonists is justified about as plausibly as possible to keep fights challenging without feeling absurdly artificial. The original game’s battles almost universally felt like scripted set-pieces that a dungeon master had laboured for days to plan. In Awakening, battles often feel more generic and less designed, as if you’d stumbled across a bunch of randomly arranged dudes bearing battleaxes. But important confrontations are still memorable tactical challenges.

That observation effectively sums up Awakening: its story, combat, choices, characters and dialogue are all almost as good as in the original campaign, but sometimes less successful emulations that lack depth. At about 23 hours long, it’s a substantial expansion - though for $40, it’s considerably less adventure-per-dollar than you got in the main game. Even if it doesn’t radically improve or evolve the original game like Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer or Baldur’s Gate II: Throne of Bhaal, it’s still an excellent adventure module that recaptures most of the parent game’s strengths.

Mar 16, 2010