Published: 15 December 2014
Dragon Age: Origins: Awakening (shortened in this review to Dragon Age: Awakening for brevity's sake) is a DLC expansion to Dragon Age: Origins including a new epilogue story arc, a series of new characters, and several new locations, as developed by Bioware and published by Electronic Arts. This is essentially what we used to call an expansion pack, and it adds a lot of content indeed in a new chapter to the Dragon Age: Origins storyline - explaining what happened to the protagonist in the aftermath of the Blight, adding some falling action to a story that previously didn't really have any.
Awakening adds a series of new faces, along with some returning ones
Let's face it - the character writing is the strength of the Dragon Age series more than plot or mechanics, so the first concern of people with a Dragon Age game, or expansion as the case is with Awakening, is whether the character writing is any good here. I'm happy to say that for the most part, there isn't much to fear here - most of the characters are pretty strongly-written, and much of the game avoids the approval system feeling like a chore or punishment. Pretty much everyone that plays will have a favourite character, something of a testament to how strong the character writing is, and how upset people got over the fate of one of the characters' treatment in the sequel does speak to how affecting those character are.
The story in Dragon Age: Awakening starts with attempting to rebuild the Grey Wardens which were so decimated in the beginning of the original story of DA:O, and quickly becomes much more, untangling the story of a talking darkspawn. That might sound like a spoiler, but this is something you come across in the first fifteen minutes or so of gameplay. While I will avoid actual spoilers, the narrative woven in Awakening is probably one of the strongest in the Dragon Age series, and I don't just say that to disparage the others (though lets face it - the actual overarching story of Origins is pretty generic). It expands a lot on the existing backstory of the realm quite reasonably, not just wallowing in fanservice but also expanding and developing the world in which Dragon Age is set. That's not to say there weren't a few token references which seemed like little more than fanservice name-dropping.
There's plenty of old faces that are there for more than just fan-service however, and plenty of new ones that are very well-written as well. From the returning belch of Oghren to the new faces of the apostate mage Anders or the dwarf outcast Sigrun, Awakening touts quite the cast of interesting and varied characters and Bioware really shines it's key quality there: quality character acting. Moreover, it manages to do so while staying (mostly) clear of the tropes that it usually relies on, or at the very least varying from them enough to be noteworthy. A personal favourite of mine is Sigrun, a dwarven member of their Legion of Dead you come across relatively early on while investigating a Deep Roads "highway". Quite interesting and eccentric, and the same can be said of many of the characters, with only a couple that really didn't seem that well done.
It makes it a shame that the story is relatively short - one of the bigger issues here is length, as really, you have less than a handful of main story events here, and just a lot of padding in between. Bioware certainly loves to pad things, and Awakening is no different.
Most of the new additions to the game mechanics are small but effective
There's a variety of tweaks to the core gameplay, but they take the form of additions rather than changes per se. For example, warriors now have stamina potions in the same way that mages had the lyrium potions to recover mana, so warriors can use their special abilities much more often, and therefore are much more effective as something more than a tank. The gameplay also opens up by allowing you to pick up two new specialisations per class, each with additional abilities, and also by adding a bunch of new abilities to the existing skill trees, much akin to the epic level ruleset of Dungeons & Dragons.
A lot of people are going to find a very perceptible power creep to the new abilities available in Dragon Age: Awakening, and that's probably going to be a problem to many players. The fights are much more polar now and it's indicative of some poor design in regards to the difficulty curve: most fights become basically a cakewalk, while the difficult fights are fairly hard regardless of difficulty level - though a few specific builds can often faceroll them since they are very much rock-paper-scissors in design and therefore tend to have very specific weaknesses that if you play towards you can easily exploit.
I'm actually not that bothered by it though - the feeling of actually being powerful after having slain an Archdemon, a thing of myth in the realm, is probably a due story element indeed, and it allows the focus to be on the steak rather than the sizzle, which is to say, on the story rather than on the combat, which is essentially game design filler in all but a few scripted instances. I don't really have too much of a problem with a Bioware game putting the focus on the story rather than the combat.
The keep management aspect added to the story and mechanics is mostly tacked on
One of the big missed opportunities amidst that of managing the arling that the player character has been given as a sort of Grey Warden base in Ferelden. There are a variety of aspects to it that are there: supposed matters of justice and treasury and the like, but they never amount to much - usually conversation choices in the grand tradition of Bioware, but those choices have little consequence beyond the occasional
Several bugs remain from the base game
I won't go into length here because the Dragon Age: Origins review hasn't gone anywhere, but one of the big missed opportunities with this expansion pack was to iron out some of the bugs and design flaws from the original game, and while it has tried to do the latter as I described above, most of the bugs, including some progress-impeding game-breaking ones, remain intact.
There IS one thing I want to mention though, although this is going to be a subjective complaint as it is something of a personal bugbear of mine. You may recall my boxout in the Dragon Age: Origins about the obscurement of the visual effects, in particular the spells. This has only gotten worse with Dragon Age: Awakening, and yeah, this is starting to border on pretty piss poor visual design. I lost more fights because I couldn't see what I was doing, more than actual difficulty, more than anything else, to say nothing of the problems all that flashing colour may present to some gamers. That's why I've never quite understood people who argue against accessibility features in games, because more often than not, they simply go hand-in-hand with a good and highly-proficient technical design of a game.