Dragon Age: More of the Same
I finally finished Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening (How awful is that title by the way?), the expansion to last year’s RPG hit. When I pre-ordered it, I didn’t expect much more than an additional 15 hours or so of Dragon Age – and that’s pretty much what the expansion provided. I still took quite a while to play through it, simply because it didn’t captivate me as much as the original did. Odd, isn’t it? Especially considering that the original kept me interested for three full play-throughs. Here are a couple of reasons as to why Awakening isn’t remotely as good as it could have been.
Bioware RPGs are about the story first and foremost. Therefore, an expansion to such a game must have a good story as well and, maybe even more importantly, integrate well with the game it expands. Awakening’s story takes place not too long after the events of the original game, but hardly refers to any of them. The player character acts as the new commander of the Grey Wardens in an area without access to the old game world. Pretty much the only other connection to the original game’s story is a single returning companion and a couple of cameos by others. Unlike Mass Effect 2, your actions in the original game have virtually no influence over what happens to you in the expansion.
Instead, we get the awesome story of “Your keep is being attacked by evil monsters. Take care of it.” which only later evolves into something slightly more interesting. For the first couple of hours you literally just walk around, do small quests for various parties, and collect party members. Oh, meanwhile you can also do various tasks to improve your keep’s defenses such as improving the walls and equipping your army. Foreshadowing much? I wonder what will happen at the end of the story…
There are interesting parts to the story, but it really has no connection to the original game and doesn’t feel like it will matter in the inevitable second part. The expansion plays as if the guys at Bioware had this nice multi-part story planned out and then decided to add the expansion pack later on, fitting it in in such a way that it doesn’t have to be referenced in the sequel at all.
I loved the characters in DA:O. Morrigan was fantastic, Sten and Shale were incredibly funny, and Leliana was sweet. Oghren was disgusting and lame, but what can you do. Well, guess which of those companions they brought back for the expansion… Yeah. The new additions to your party have the potential to be interesting, but none of them really captivated me. Part of that has to be caused by the very limited conversation options you get. Gone are the rounds around the campfire to talk to each and every party member after an adventure. Instead they will let you know when they have something to say and then only talk to you about that one specific topic. The same goes for most NPCs, all business, no fluff. A lot of people complained about there being to much talking in the original game, but I liked it and hate that it’s gone. I don’t really need two dimensional characters in Dragon Age. If you can’t give me somewhat interesting companions then don’t give me any at all.
In the original game, characters often expressed their like or dislike for your actions – both in words and in numbers that described how much they liked you. The system is still there in Awakening, but party members will only rarely disapprove of anything you do and when they do you usually lose very small amounts of affection when compared to what can be gained from gifts and quests. Gifts were already too strong in the original, but this time around it’s even worse.
Difficulty … or Lack Thereof
I played through the original game on normal difficulty, the second level of four available. It wasn’t terribly hard, but it did require some tactical positioning, use of the pause key to give commands to my party members, and use of consumables. It was fun. Naturally, I started out in Awakening at the same difficulty level expecting a similar challenge – but not so. Everything simply died without protesting much and I didn’t once have to use even the pause key – not even mentioning consumables and things like that. No crowd control was necessary, nor was a tank. I simply ran in with my dual wielding warrior and killed everything in sight. So I dialed it up a notch and set the difficulty to hard. The game got harder, but aside from a couple of mana potions in fights against dragons and against a boss that always drained the mana of my mage, I still didn’t have to use any consumables. I died exactly once, and that was simply because I failed to understand the mechanics of the final boss fight. Everything else still just keeled over and died.
Now, I would have had the opportunity to go up to the nightmare difficulty level which would probably provide me with a fair challenge and I might do so on my next play-through. The thing is though, i’m not that good. If I have to play at nightmare for a decent challenge, what are people to do that already played the original at nightmare difficulty? I simply don’t understand why there would be such a change in actual difficulty of the same difficulty levels – and in the downwards direction to boot.
The expansion isn’t completely “more of the same”, there are some newly added features. Unfortunately, I’m not happy with those either. They added a new profession, rune crafting, as well as the ability to add runes to your armor as well as your weapons. I didn’t craft a single rune, nor did I buy one from an NPC, simply because the game was easy enough as such. I didn’t need runes to succeed. Most of my weapons used the old runes from the original game and the slots in my armor were just kept empty. I’m normally an avid min-maxer, but crafting in the game (just as in the original) is so uninteresting that I just didn’t want to bother with it if I didn’t have to. Both the original and the expansion would have been quite a bit better off by simply not having crafting in the first place. Oh yeah, I never used poisons or bombs either.
Aside from the new profession, all characters got two additional skills they could learn – one a passive increase to health, the other an increase to mana or stamina respectively. Sure these skills are useful and all my characters took them. They are also completely boring. The class-specific skills that were added on the other hand were quite interesting, as were the new specializations available. It is a bit of a shame that you can get pretty much every skill you want throughout the expansion, which makes choice irrelevant – but still, the new skills mixed up the gameplay a bit.
In Awakening you will be able to find some rare materials throughout the game world. Some can be used to improve your keep’s defenses Mass Effect 2 style, which is lame, but some can also be used to craft special items akin to the dragon scale armor in the original game. Unlike that armor, however, the new items require additional ingredients to be found which are as odd as they are rare. In many cases, there is exactly one specimen of that ingredient available in the game world and it seemed to me as if those were only lootable after you got the quest to find them. (I might be wrong on that.) What’s worse, the quest doesn’t mention at all where to find these ingredients or whether you maybe already found them (and have them in your stash or something). In the end this meant that I found all these rare materials but never had a single item crafted from them because I always lacked some obscure one-of piece of loot from somewhere. I find ancient dragon bone and you can’t make anything from it because you are lacking something as mundane as oil? Come on.
The game still becomes unplayable after a while on my machine as loading times increase gradually and the frame rate slows down over time. Bioware have been aware of this issue since launch of the original game but still haven’t fixed it, which is quite disappointing. The game also still sports incredibly dumb AI for your party members, especially where area of effect skills are concerned. I found it odd for a while that my one mage and my archer were dead on the ground after almost every skirmish, no matter how easy the fight, until I realized that they constantly shot each other with area of effect skills when enemies were in sight. The only way I found to fix this behaviour was to forbid them from using these skills at all. Bah. You can also still not stick a party member on a target and have them stay on it – they will switch around willy-nilly whenever they feel like it.
Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening isn’t bad at all. If you enjoyed the original and would like to play more of the same, get Awakening for another 15 hours of solid gameplay. Awakening is OK, just not the usual Bioware quality. Just like the awkward name suggests, Awakening has been tacked onto a complete game to make a bit more money give fans additional enjoyment. I don’t regret buying Awakening, but I really, really hope that the sequel to Origins will give us actual improvements over the original and not follow in the same footsteps as this expansion pack.