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Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening is the first expansion pack for Dragon Age: Origins, which was released by BioWare in November of last year. I didn't review Origins, but I liked it pretty well -- quirks and all -- and so I was looking forward to Awakening. However, Awakening is mostly a (more of the same) expansion pack for a game that didn't really need more of the same, and it feels like a project that got pushed out the door too soon, without enough thought and care and planning going into it first. Of course, I tend to be a tough critic, so keep reading to see if you agree or not.
Awakening takes place not long after the conclusion of Origins. You play a Grey Warden again (either importing your character from Origins or creating a new Warden from Orlais), and you're tasked with taking over the command of Vigil's Keep, the new Grey Warden fortress in Amaranthine. However, no sooner do you get there than the darkspawn attack, and you learn that not only did the darkspawn carefully plan the ambush, but one of them even spoke and gave orders! You then spend the remainder of the 15-20 hour campaign figuring out what's going on, and putting a stop to it.
Unfortunately, while there isn't anything explicitly wrong with the campaign, it's not exactly novel or captivating. Consider the battles. There are a few tough boss fights to get through, and BioWare introduced a new swarming insect-like creature called a (childer,) but otherwise you spend most of the campaign facing hurlocks, genlocks, emissaries, shrieks, and ogres -- plus the occasional dragon -- all creatures that you've seen before, and in excess. It's not much fun entering a dungeon and seeing the same old things over and over again.
Or consider Vigil's Keep. You have to manage the keep, which involves things like deciding where your soldiers should patrol and defusing peasant unrest, and you also have to look for resources so you can equip your soldiers and fund upgrades. There isn't anything wrong with this in concept, but I can't imagine anybody reaching this part of the campaign and not thinking, (Oh, jeez, here we go again.) Or maybe I just played Neverwinter Nights 2 too much.
Or consider the campaign structure. After learning about the new darkspawn threat, you decide that to investigate it, you should go to three major (but unrelated) areas and solve the major quest associated with each. Well, that's the same basic format as in Origins, Mass Effect, and Neverwinter Nights -- and probably some other BioWare games that have slipped my mind. In my Mass Effect 2 review I complained about BioWare following a formula when they shoehorned romances into the game, and this is just another example. At some point BioWare needs to break the mold and throw away the pieces.
On a more positive note, while the Awakening campaign felt a little familiar, it has roughly the same quality as the Origins campaign. The areas that you visit look pretty good (the visuals are the most distinctive part of the expansion pack), you meet six companions (including a repeat performance from Oghren) who are surprisingly well developed given the short amount of time you spend with them, and the campaign itself is well written and well acted (well, mostly; I wouldn't mind not seeing any more of Master Wade). BioWare also created over 450 new pieces of equipment (including stamina potions) to give you plenty of things to look for.
Besides the new campaign, BioWare also added in some other new features, mostly to support the increase of the level cap from 25 to 35. There are six new specializations (two for each class), three new skills (including (skills) to improve health and mana/stamina), 48 new talents, and two new tiers for equipment and runes. That means there are lots of new ways to customize and equip your characters, which is always a good thing. But sadly, these additions only work in Awakening; you can't use them in Origins.
Probably the most interesting addition is the runecrafting skill. As its name implies, this skill allows you to craft runes, which you can then insert into melee weapons and (new in Awakening) armor. All of the weapon runes from Origins are craftable, and BioWare also created several armor runes (including (immunity) runes to improve resistances and (barrier) runes to increase armor), plus a few new weapon runes (including the (intensifying) rune, which increases your crit chance).
Sadly, Awakening comes with more than a few bugs. The 1.03 patch required for the expansion pack breaks stealing. I had to use Windows 2000 compatibility mode to get the expansion pack to install. Almost all of the items and talents from the DLCs do not carry over if you import a character. Some imported tattoos cause the words (legacy tattoo asset do not use) to appear on a character's forehead. And at one point in the campaign you get captured and your equipment gets confiscated, but sometimes the sequence breaks and you don't get your equipment back. I'd surmise that none of these bugs are major, and BioWare will probably fix them, but then they haven't bothered to fix some of the minor problems from Origins (like set bonuses not being shown), so who knows?
Overall, I was underwhelmed by Awakening. The expansion pack is competently made, and it might provide you with 15-20 hours of entertainment, but as I played it I kept feeling like I was getting Origins leftovers. Now, I enjoy leftovers from time to time, but I'm not really a fan of paying $40 for them, especially when they could have used a few more minutes in the microwave. So buyer beware. If more of the same sounds good to you, then you'll probably like Awakening. But if you were hoping for something new and unique, then not so much.