The archdemon is slain and the blight is ended. However, Ferelden's freedom from evil was not without high cost, and the people are in need yet again. In Bioware's expansion, Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening, a new unknown evil threatens. The Grey Wardens must be rebuilt, and Vigil's Keep needs bolstering - tasks which the player is placed in charge of, as the commander of the Grey Wardens. How they find the means, and who is enlisted is entirely open, but there are a few familiar faces and sights in this expansion pack. Bearing this in mind, does the game succeed in feeling like a continuation of the story, or does it just feel like an unnecessary outing?
How Dragon Age: Origins ended will impact the first few scenes and a few conversations down the road, but ultimately beyond the carry-over levels and inventory from the original game there are no repercussions based on previous actions. As Commander of the Grey Wardens the player's character is now a living legend, regardless of how good, bad, or understated they were previously. Interactions with prior party members are also very limited, with the exception of Oghren, further emphasising the lack of a tie-in, from the perspective of characters, between the two games.
It's not overly bad though, as the new recruitable characters are much stronger in the department of humour and story progression. Witty party banter has certainly not been left out and players can expect to hear a lot of it when they're dealing with an apostate mage, a deadly assassin, or an ironic dalish excommunicated 'keeper in training' with a furious temper. There's a lack of depth when it comes to companion quests though, as they are short and infrequent. Gaining their favour is done fairly easily with choice words and gifts. Bonus stats and abilities are again granted as they were previously in proportion to the strength of the relationship with companion.
The main story holds a lot of momentum, and it progresses much more quickly, with shorter, but numerous events and quests. Never is the player stuck frustrated solving the dreary mystery of the fade, or traversing an unfathomably huge underground deep road. The amount of time each area and quest takes to complete feels much more natural, which is refreshing, although it's not as easy to say the same about exploration.
Dungeons and quest zones have more enemies as well as more interesting things to find and look at, yet somehow exploration is still limited by the same linearity, as opposed to a sandbox area. While most of the time the linear feel isn't too bad, beware of frustratingly small rooms where party members may jam the limited viewing plane if they're not left sentry outside. Also these small rooms sometimes require a tactical character and camera swivelling so that chests or items may be targeted simply because otherwise they can't be seen.
While the new quests are more enjoyable players should be weary of logic bombs that occur after completing them. Some quests being completed will prevent players from being able to complete other quests. For example, completing a certain quest will prohibit players from completing a quest for a companion, because the NPC needed will no longer spawn. These are simply bugs and there are no quests available to neutralize the situation - it can make things quite frustrating.
The movement of characters, how the party works and the HUD are all unchanged, and for the most part are very comfortable to use - just as they were before. However with the addition of many new spells, and quick-use items, the HUD does start to feel a bit inadequate. It can be equated to trying desperately to find that something that's packed at the bottom of a suitcase. More spell hotkeys would be nice, but with controller limitations, such a problem can only really be avoided by playing the PC version.
Many new items have been added to the game, which makes playing it much smoother and more enjoyable. With the addition of stamina draughts, rogue and warrior classes will no longer be stuck auto-attacking after heavy assault, and the new ranks of lyrium potions and health poultices keep mages firing off spells, and the party healed in emergencies. Armour is also notably more useful with more desirable stats, and better set bonuses.
Rather than introducing new classes, BioWare have decided to work with what's already available. New spells, skills (clarity, vitality, runecrafting), and specializations (Shadow, Legionnaire Scout, Keeper, etc) have been added which means that levelling is something to look forward to. At level 22 each character will gain a new specialization point. Expect higher damage and healing output from the party, as well as efficiency. If players don't like the way they've set up a character's build, never fear. A clever item called 'manual of focus' has been added that allows players to re-spec any character in their party.
Much is to be said about the improved graphics and detail in the environments. The game simply looks, and sounds better. Dungeons are also more decorated, and details are more intricate. The motif definitely is more dark and sinister. Monsters are significantly more unique to look at than the previous darkspawn, which resembled Lord of the Rings orcs. Most importantly all armour and weapons look awesome, and clip much better than in the original. Sadly there are still many graphical glitches, despite the new awesome artwork. There can also be some minor screen tearing, but is only really noticeable in a few cut scenes. Like the original, the voice acting is equally stellar.
Overall Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening delivers an efficient storyline and new quests which were built to deliver more fun, lots of laughs and even a few surprises. However it feels quite disconnected from the original and Ferelden just isn't the same - it could be from a completely different continent instead of the Kingdom the Awakening took place. Perhaps this could have been avoided by having more NPCs or party members from the previous game making appearances, or more choices for players to alter the path of the new story. Ultimately though, for Dragon Age enthusiasts, Awakening is a must have and packs a lot of gameplay value for a low ticket price.