I loved Dragon Age: Origins, so when I had the opportunity to jump back into Bioware's gritty, dark fantasy world, I was definitely not going to pass it up. Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening marks the first full-fledged expansion to the game, and while we've seen the world expand a little bit via some downloadable content, this is a much larger affair for fans to check out. With that said, I was mildly disappointed that Awakening didn't do a great deal to expand the world in terms of gameplay, and while I was excited to see where my Grey Warden had ended up after the Blight, I would have loved to see the introduction of a few more new mechanics.
The story picks up directly after the events of the end of the core game of Dragon Age: Origins, so depending on the path you chose at the end, you'll start off with a couple of options. One choice is to continue the tale of your Grey Warden from the original game, but if you ended your tale minus a hero or two, then you're given the option to craft a new hero. Either way, you're still going to be the head of all the Grey Wardens and serve as a protector of the realm. As such, you're tasked with rebuilding your society via a base of operations known simply as the Vigil. It's the land that you inherited from the dastardly Arl Howe of the original game, and it's currently in a bit of a bind.
While you're exploring the story line of Awakening, rebuilding the Vigil becomes a major mechanic, and it's certainly the newest gameplay aspect that's introduced in this expansion. The Vigil isn't just a base of operations; it's also nested above an outpouring of Darkspawn enemies, so you'll need to fend off invaders. To do so, you must improve its overall structure, whether that comes from pouring money into building new walls, improving trade routes throughout the surrounding area, or hiring the random characters you'll encounter to bolster your forces at home. It's a neat mechanic, and it's definitely better than the mostly static camp-based setting that served as your home base for the majority of the original game.
Beyond the Vigil upkeep, there's not a whole lot of new stuff to talk about in Awakening. The story focuses on splinter groups of Darkspawn that have become a little more aware since the destruction of the Blight. They're being controlled by intelligent members of the undead who are striking out against outlying towns in the kingdom and being a general nuisance. In the meantime, you must bolster the ranks of the Grey Wardens, and the party that accompanies you throughout this adventure will later be inducted into the ranks of the Grey Wardens, so these aren't tertiary characters who aren't affiliated with the longstanding order. You will see some familiar faces, but I was happy to see that most of your controllable party is made up of new additions. I would have loved to have the option to carry over characters from the original game instead of being stuck with the game-selected people, but that's a minor complaint, and I understand the need to introduce new characters for the sake of the story.
Of course, Awakening expands on leveling and skills, but I didn't find too many substantial changes. You still have your basic classes — mages, rogues, warriors, etc. — with subsets that allow for different roles like healers, rangers, tanks and Templars. If you weren't satisfied with your class selections in the previous game, then you might be better off with choosing a new character, as the majority of your choices from the previous game will carry over, and I didn't see an option to re-spec my stats or choices (unless I missed it in the game menus). I was pretty happy with my warrior from the original title, though, so it was fun to expand upon him ever so slightly.
Like the differences between the PC and console versions of Origins, Awakening is a little more hack-and-slash than the strategy-focused efforts of the PC title. You can still bring up a wheel during combat to select attacks and spells, or you can simply rely on the quick-mapped icons that can be assigned to three of your face buttons, with two sets to choose from. Just like the original game, I never had many issues with the controller setup. For the more talent-heavy classes, like mages, I can see how it can get a little unwieldy to constantly switch through your talent wheel to find the appropriate spell for each instance. However, if you have a rough idea of what to expect going into your fights, then you'll be able to quickly map spells and be adequately prepared. Either way, the normal level of difficulty doesn't tax you that much to begin with, so you'll only run into some frustration if you opt for the hard difficulty level.
There doesn't seem to be any significant changes to much of the game; even the AI of your character party reacts and performs just like it did in the first game. They'll generally auto-attack whatever you're attacking, but depending on how many tactic slots you've opened up, you can specify how they'll react within different parameters. This is great for setting up healers — or rogues to backstab and perform much-needed critical attacks — so it's worth checking out. Once again, the normal difficulty level isn't so taxing that you need to get endlessly wrapped up in the system's nuances, so if you just want to play your role and let the AI do the heavy lifting, that's definitely an option.
When it comes to changes, or the lack thereof, it can also be applied to the game's visuals and overall design. It wouldn't be a great idea to overhaul it at this point, but if you're expecting things to be spruced up greatly between Origins and Awakening, then prepare to be disappointed. It's pretty obvious that they're working on identical engines, so small annoyances are still present, such as floating shields on the backs of your characters, characters clipping or interacting with the environment in odd ways, and some general animation quibbles. In my 10 hours with the main game, it doesn't seem to have any major bugs, so that's nice to see. On the audio side of things, the voice acting is still top-notch, and there are plenty of new faces here that are just as well done as anything we saw in the main game. The level of excellence in Awakening is just as evident as it was the first time out, and I'm glad that the game didn't get a downgraded treatment since it's "just" an expansion and not a full sequel.
If you've been dying to jump back into the world of Dragon Age, well, chances are that you've already played or are currently playing the expansion Awakening. It's a solid follow-up to the first adventure, and it contains enough new abilities, content, items, plot and spells that it's definitely worth a look for any fan of the original title. Of course, as an expansion, Awakening also requires that you own, or at least have a save file, of the original game for this disc to work, so anyone who hasn't played the game is going to be left in the dark until he picks up both. If you were disappointed in the first entry, there's nothing here that'll make you fall in love with the game, so if you weren't a fan to begin with, then you'll probably want to pass on this one. For the rest of us, I really enjoyed Awakening and look forward to seeing more from this particular game world in the near future.
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