Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening Preview
It's only been about four months since BioWare released their fantasy RPG Dragon Age: Origins, and now they're gearing up to release a full expansion pack. Some have seen the short timeframe and were rightly skeptical, wondering if this is just a slightly-expanded DLC pack on a disc with a $40 price tag.
But it's not. While the classically defined "expansion pack", something we don't see too much of anymore with the advent of DLC, is usually less than $40, at the very least it usually is an entirely new story or campaign that's about half the size of the original game. And from what I've seen and played, it looks like it will meet the originality requirement - it's the time that I'm left wondering about.
Awakening takes you north of the original game's Ferelden nation to Amaranthine to take on a new set of darkspawn. With the Archdemon dead, it was expected that the Blight would end and most of the darkspawn would filter back to where they came from, back underground and into the Deep Roads. But they haven't; in fact, they're now setting traps and moving strategically, even without an Archdemon, and there are rumors of a darkspawn "general" that is sentient and is commanding its troops intelligently. You'll play as either your Grey Warden from the original game or as a new Warden from Orlais to take on the new threat.
So you'll always come in as the new commander of the Grey Wardens, you'll see a somewhat different game as a new character versus an imported one. And if you didn't complete Origins, you can still import into Awakening at any time - although it will plug in some bits for the ending of the original game just for the purposes of starting the campaign. The saves are kept separately and you can still go back and finish Origins whenever you want, even after starting the expansion, but it will be right from when you exported your Origins character - you can't go back in time to non-expansion content with the Awakening version of your character.
Of course, your character will go through some changes in the expansion. There's a full range of new loot, spells, skills, and specializations, the level cap has increased to 35, and there will be new "epic" versions of abilities. Players will also be able to customize runes and also now add them to armor, allowing for much more customization than before. The developers didn't go into much detail and I didn't get time to start writing down names of all the new stuff, but it seems reasonable to believe that BioWare won't disappoint here.
I did go hands on and met an interesting new mage named Anders that had a bit of the smart mouth that we saw out of Alistair, but he seemed a little less of a generic wisecracking good guy and more of an actually evil guy with a very sarcastic mean streak. I was reminded a bit of Edwin from Baldur's Gate 2.
As other characters go, many of the people you either talked with or fought alongside will be back in Awakening, but only Oghren will come back as a real party member; the rest of the group is made up of new characters. You'll deal with some of the original game's party members in other capacities, much like we did with Liara or Wrex in Mass Effect 2, and many of the choices you had made, both big and small, will affect how those and other characters treat you. Of course, if you make a new character as an Orlesian Warden then you'll see something much different. In fact, you'll also get an entirely different attitude from some people, as it wasn't that long since Orlais had half of Ferelden in chains.
The skepticism over whether Dragon Age can have a full-featured expansion so early after Origins was released is justified, but what people may not understand is that most of the content for the original game was complete months before the release date - the tech guys put together the 360 port while the developers stayed on task building Awakening content. So when you look at it that way, this expansion has already had almost a year's worth of development.
I asked about the sluggish performance and other issues that plagued the 360 edition of Origins, and was told that a title update is coming out around the time of Awakening's release that will address these problems. And along with some more balance fixes, these updates will be pushed out to all Dragon Age players, not just those who buy the expansion.
While my hands-on time showed me some new characters, I fought against plain ol' darkspawn in a very familiar castle-type setting. I didn't get to see how big the new land was or really get a feel of how long the game will be. Considering how some people plowed through Origins in 20 hours or less while others took 80+ hours, BioWare seemed reluctant to put an hour count on Awakening, but I was assured that it lasts longer than most full-priced single player games do. If you are one of those types that defines a game's value in hours of playtime per dollar spent, Awakening is not likely to satisfy you quite like Dragon Age did, but it should still be a hell of a lot of fun with more of what made the first game so engrossing. The release date is this coming Tuesday, March 16, for PC, PS3, and Xbox 360.