Inside Pulse 12

Review: Dragon Age: Origins Awakening (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Dragon Age: Origins Awakening
Genre: RPG
Developer: Bioware
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: 03/16/10

So, back in November, Bioware and Electronic Arts released Dragon Age: Origins to much critical acclaim. It received all sorts of year-end awards in 2009, including RPG of the Year and Story of the Year from Diehard GameFAN, and has sold millions of copies and impressed a whole lot of people. So it’s no surprise that Bioware, who made their start on the PC platform, would try to further expand on the game in the same way one would a PC property: with an expansion pack. Dubbed Dragon Age: Origins Awakening, the expansion pack deals with the aftermath of the events of the prior game while allowing you to start fresh or bring your old character into a new game, complete with a new cast of characters and a few visits from some old friends. As a stand-alone expansion pack, Dragon Age: Origins Awakening allows you to jump in whether you have the original game available or not, meaning that fans of the original game can continue from where they left off without the game disc handy and new players can jump in if they wish without having to play the prior game. The question is, however, how well does it carry on from Dragon Age: Origins, and more importantly, is the expansion pack worth the asking price?

Dragon Age: Origins Awakening starts off shortly after the fall of the Archdemon in the prior game. Whoever is presently the ruling body of Ferelden has decreed that the Grey Wardens now have control of the land of Amaranthine, formerly the land of Arl Howe. You take on the role of the new Arl, the Grey Warden commander of Ferelden, which allows you to either import your character from Dragon Age: Origins or create a new character, who starts off at a higher than normal starting level. Upon arriving at your new home, known as Vigil’s Keep, you find the place overrun with Darkspawn who are apparently being led into battle by a talking, somewhat sentient Darkspawn commander. This simple but confusing event spirals into a massive locale-spanning adventure as you attempt to discover what is now driving the Darkspawn into battle with the death of the Archdemon, while recruiting a new group of allies to assist you in this task. Dragon Age: Origins Awakening assumes the player has a certain amount of familiarity with the events of the previous game, as one would expect, and the writing quality is on par with the prior game, but the execution works and doesn’t work on different levels. The characters in your group have a bit more depth to them in a lot of respects and with a smaller cast the dialogue writing and character interactions feel a bit more natural and less spread thin. However, the plot itself doesn’t come together as well as it did in the prior game, presumably due to the condensed nature of the expansion pack, the game doesn’t really reference the events of the prior game as well as something like Mass Effect 2 does, and most of the characters seem like the same characters Bioware always makes. Yes, Justice is an interesting character, but Anders is Alistair with magic spells and Nathaniel is Morrigan with boy parts and more open hatred. All told, while the plot and writing are still good, they’re not as good as they could have been.

Dragon Age: Origins Awakening is still a mighty fine looking game, as its predecessor was last year. The character models are well designed and animated, and the various battles you face throughout the course of the game are lively and exciting, as before. The little details in animation and design return here as well, and the game feels as special and interesting as a result as it did before. There’s also a liberal use of lighting and special effects, thanks to the various and sundry spells you’ll find yourself casting and affected by, and between the obvious impressive spell effects and the little touches, like how a flaming sword casts light against nearby walls, the effects are overall fantastic to see. The environments are as well designed as they were in the previous offering, though they’re not quite as interesting this time around, as they feel like more of the same thing. They’re by no means bad, just not especially inventive or original. There are still some occasional clipping issues and odd menu issues (such as items showing as highlighted when they aren’t) here and there, but as before, these pop up infrequently and don’t ruin the experience in any notable way. The audio in the game is also, once again, fantastic. The music is still the expected rolling orchestral score, but it fits as well here as it did in the prior game and feels as epic and fantastic as ever. The voice acting is also once again outstanding, from the snide tone of Anders to the hate-filled and bitter disdain of Nathaniel and beyond, and the returning voice actors turn in as good a performance as before as well. The sound effects are your expected “metal clashing against metal” and “elemental noises when spells are cast”, as you’d expect, but they’re well done in this case and fit in place perfectly throughout the game.

As Dragon Age: Origins Awakening is an expansion pack, it can be expected to play like its predecessor, so if you’ve played that, you can skip the next few paragraphs. You can move with the left stick, and the right stick turns the camera as needed. The A button works as your all-purpose interaction button, allowing you to use environmental objects, talk to people, open doors and so on, and the bumpers allow you to switch between characters in your party as needed, in case you need to use the rogue to pick a lock, for instance. The D-pad can be used to change whatever thing you’re targeting in the environment, in case you’re targeting an NPC and want to target the sign to the right of him but don’t want to move to do so. The left trigger brings up a radial menu, which allows you to choose and set skills for your chosen character, use items, specify commands for your party and so on, which basically allows it to act as a hotkey menu of sorts. You can pretty much pick up the basics of the gameplay within an hour or so of play, and moving through towns, dungeons and other locales is simple enough that even the most inexperienced of RPG players should have it down in no time.

You’ll spend a fair amount of your exploration time talking to various characters, most of which is done from a simple series of choices that appear as a dialogue event finishes. Your responses can be noble, deceitful, serious, or sarcastic, among other things, depending on your own personal desires at the moment. No answers are “wrong” in the strictest sense, though certain answers may not achieve the desired results and other answers may outright shut you out from completing various quests. Further, any answer you provide may possibly put a character in your party off, as they might feel your answer was too opportunistic or too charitable or what have you, which can damage your relations with that party member. You can improve their opinions by answering in ways they would deem favorable, or by giving them gifts to improve their opinion of you if you don’t feel like appeasing them with your behavior. As you progress through the game, your party members will change their opinion of you, either for better or worse, which can open up romantic interests and quests if you play your cards right. You can review your party member’s opinions of you, the quests you’ve acquired, and your inventory and equipment from the various menus you can access at a press of the Back button. These menus will allow you to keep track of what needs doing, where you need to go, and what documents you’ve found throughout your travels, and you can also manage your inventory and equipment from here. In the beginning you’ll probably spend a decent amount of time poking around in these menus to look at new gear and drop worthless items to free up space, but as you acquire larger backpacks for more item storage and settle into the weapons and armor you’ll be using for your late game run, you’ll spend less time managing your inventory and more time managing your final quests.

Of course, sooner or later you’ll have to jump into combat with opposing forces, and fortunately, Dragon Age: Origins Awakening makes this quite easy to learn as well. Whenever you encounter hostiles, your characters will draw their weaponry and prepare to attack. You will attack whatever enemy you have highlighted by pressing the A button, which will make your character auto-attack the enemy until they’re dead. You can also hotkey up to five special abilities (as well as your healing items) to the other three face buttons, either by pressing them alone or while holding the R trigger. You can also select or hotkey skills from the left trigger radial menu, so you can change your skills on the fly as needed, in case certain skills would be more or less useful at the moment. You can switch between any character in your party at any time with the bumpers, allowing you to control whichever character you wish to set up interesting combat tactics, like having the tank draw an enemy’s ire while your rogue slips in behind a foe for a sneak attack. Your allies can also be programmed with a series of combat tactics, which you can increase as you level the characters up, allowing you to set them with various conditional modifiers to dictate their behavior in battle. You can, for example, set Morrigan to heal allies when they drop below a certain health level, target nearby enemies with area of effect spells, cast debilitating spells under various conditions, and so on, depending on what you feel you’ll need as the case dictates. These combat tactics can be changed between a custom set or various default sets, allowing you to change party behavior on the fly, depending on what you need at the moment.

Each character in your party, including your character, has statistics that reflect their job class, race and experience level, as well as various special abilities they can learn as they grow. Dragon Age: Origins Awakening offers three races (human, elf and dwarf), each with their own positives and negatives, and three basic job types (warrior, mage and rogue), each with their own specializations. You can choose two specializations for each job class, depending on what you learn throughout the game, and each specialization offers additional boosts to stats and abilities. You can specialize your Warrior as a Templar Champion, or your Rogue as a Bard Assassin, and so on, depending on what you feel would be the best fit for your party at the time. Each character that joins the cause comes equipped with one specialization up-front and can learn an additional one, again, depending on what you feel compliments them and the party, and your options for such specializations are fairly wide open. Characters also receive attribute upgrades, which can be devoted to strength (for melee damage), dexterity (for dodging, hitting and ranged damage), Willpower (stamina and magic point capacity), Magic (magic damage and healing effectiveness), Cunning (improves coercion and skill learning) and Constitution (improves health and physical resistance), as needed. You can also improve their skills, which can allow them to manufacture healing items and poisons, improve combat and thievery abilities, learn how to coerce others, and other useful talents, depending on what you think is best. Finally, characters can learn Talents and Spells, depending on their class, which allow them special damaging attacks, buffs, debilitating abilities and other useful things, depending on the character class of the character.

And that addresses the things that are the same. Still with me? Okay, let’s talk about what’s been changed.

In Dragon Age: Origins, you had a home camp you could rest at any time you weren’t in a zone, which allowed you to equip your party, chat with characters, and so on. Dragon Age: Origins Awakening removes this, allowing you to perform most of these tasks at Vigil’s Keep when needed, which is good in the sense that you can still do these things, but bad in the sense that you’ll have to wait until you can return to the location to do so. You’re also given a storage box from the start, which stays in Vigil’s Keep as well, as apparently Bioware realized that people were not very thrilled about NOT having such a thing, so bravo for that. You can no longer simply walk up to a character and talk to them when they’re in your party if you want to have a conversation with the character; instead, the game gives you various points in a map where you can initiate a conversation with a character who’s in your party, which removes the ability to randomly converse but adds a sense of purpose to conversations that the prior game lacked. The game also features several new abilities and specializations to dabble in, and since most of the game takes place beyond Level 20, this means you’ll actually have new abilities to play with instead of being in a position where you’re dumping points into something just to do it. Aside from the above and the added content, the game is functionally identical to its predecessor in most all respects, but these additions are interesting enough to make the expansion worth playing.

If you blow through the game’s main storyline missions, you can pretty much complete the game in around fifteen to twenty hours, though exploring all of the various subquests (and there are a lot) will tack on another five to ten hours on top of that. Since you can basically start the expansion with a brand new character at around Level 20, this also allows you to really get into the meat of the end-game skills without having to spend multiple hours leveling up a new character, in case you want to just goof around with a high level character. As this is an expansion pack of an existing game, and is thus meant to be adding value to the original product instead of being a stand-alone product itself, it cannot be considered to be “full of replay value” in the strictest sense, but it’s a fairly in-depth expansion pack, all in all, and if you had a good amount of fun with the original game it’s generally a pretty worthwhile investment.

Insofar as the bad goes, well, the bad parts of Dragon Age: Origins are pretty much here as well, so let’s address them first. The game still feels a bit reminiscent of Knights of the Old Republic mechanically, and while, again, this isn’t detrimental, it’s not going to impress someone who’s played that and is looking for deviation. The game still isn’t always bright about targeting the enemy or environmental object you want targeted at the moment, and you’ll occasionally spend your time fiddling with the D-pad to target what you actually want, which can be mildly annoying and makes the game feel like it’d be a better PC game at times, but not so much at others. On the plus side, the fact that there’s a storage box included alleviates that complaint, thankfully. Dragon Age: Origins Awakening also has its own set of flaws, which, while also not ruinous, are annoying in some respects. For one, NONE of the DLC content save for, I’m told, Return to Ostagar, is compatible with this expansion. Note that I say “I’m told” because I didn’t actually download Return to Ostagar, but I DID download all of the other DLC, so I was really pissed off when I started off COMPLETELY NAKED because all of my gear was from DLC add-ons. To say this was irritating for the first two hours of gameplay would be an understatement. Beyond that, the expansion simply doesn’t feel as developed as the core game, and while this isn’t a problem for ten dollar downloads, for forty dollars one expects a bit more. The game works, certainly, but it isn’t nearly as deep as the core game and most of the cast from the original are relegated to two minute cameos, if they even show up at all, save for Oghren, which is disappointing. I understand that Zevran was an optional character and that including him if the player never met him is silly, but Mass Effect 2 included a decent amount of stuff just like that, including a decent-sized cameo from Wrex, a character in a very similar position. Basically, the game just doesn’t feel like it’s up to Bioware’s normal level of work.

If you enjoyed Dragon Age: Origins, Awakening is a good expansion that adds plenty of worthwhile content you’ll enjoy, but if you’re looking for more than just “more Dragon Age“ it might not be for you. The story, while not as good as that of its predecessor, is still pretty solid overall, and the character development and writing is about as good as ever. The visual and aural presentation is still spiffy in nearly every respect, and both really bring the game to life. The game is as easy to learn and fun to play as before, and there are even more ways to develop and grow your characters, making the character development trees more in-depth than they had been, which is great. There are a good amount of quests to complete, items to find, skills and specializations to learn and events to see that you’ll almost definitely miss a few things the first time through the game, and while there’s not as much as content as there was in Dragon Age: Origins, with the ability to develop a completely different character every time you play and the high starting level you’re given, there are still plenty of reasons to come back. The game still feels a little bit similar to Knights of the Old Republic in design, and it still feels like compromises were made to make the game accessible to both PC and console gamers without really trying to tailor the experience to each type of gamer. The fact that almost all of the DLC from Dragon Age: Origins is incompatible with this expansion is annoying as well, especially if you end up starting off in your underpants with no weapons, and the expansion just doesn’t feel developed enough to be worth your money unless you loved the original game and want more. If you can overlook these flaws, Dragon Age: Origins Awakening is a good expansion pack to a great game that you’ll have fun with, but unless you’re really wanting to jump right back into the game world, this may not be enough for everyone.

The Scores:
Story: GOOD
Graphics: CLASSIC
Sound: UNPARALLELED
Control/Gameplay: CLASSIC
Replayability: GOOD
Balance: CLASSIC
Originality: MEDIOCRE
Addictiveness: GREAT
Appeal: CLASSIC
Miscellaneous: MEDIOCRE

FINAL SCORE: GREAT GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Dragon Age: Origins Awakening is a solid expansion of the original game that should make fans of the game happy, as it adds plenty of content to an already solid game, but it doesn’t impress as well as its predecessor on a few levels. The story, while not as good as that of the original game, is solid enough to be interesting, the graphics are as beautiful and well detailed as ever, and the audio is still excellent and very fitting. The gameplay is as easy to learn as before and offers more depth and variety than its predecessor, which should please fans, and between the large amount of choices for how to level and develop characters and the added gear options, you’ll still be able to spend a good amount of time outfitting and developing party members. The expansion is fairly lengthy, and while it’s not as involved as its predecessor, there’s a decent amount to do with it, along with the ability to start off as a brand new high-level character or import your existing character from Dragon Age: Origins. The game still feels a bit too much like Knights of the Old Republic at times, and still feels like it was designed to offer a compromise, control-wise, for PC and console play that doesn’t quite seem like it would be pleasing for either. It’s also unfortunate that the expansion pack is only compatible with one of the multiple expansion packs released for the main game, as it can lead to players missing awesome gear they loved for no reason, which is quite shocking when it happens as you start the game. Overall, Dragon Age: Origins Awakening is a solid expansion pack for a great game, and while it’s not as impressive as its predecessor, fans should still find it to be a worthwhile acquisition, if nothing else.