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Monday, 29 March 2010

'Dragon Age: Awakening' review: More of the same... in a good way

It has been a while since I last reviewed a game (Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing at the beginning of the month) and I was beginning to think I’d never have time to finish one ever again. However, today I completed Dragon Age: Awakening on 360 after around fifteen hours of gameplay. Awakening is an expansion to last year’s Dragon Age: Origins, an RPG by BioWare (who also made Mass Effect 2 which I reviewed back in February). Last November I played Origins on 360 even though it is (apparently) the worst version of the game (Eurogamer rated the 360 version a ‘6’ and the PC version an ‘8’). This is because my PC is pretty rubbish and wouldn’t have been able to run the game at all. The PS3 version is supposed to be a little better than it’s 360 counterpart (at least graphically) but that version came out about two weeks later and I wanted the game at launch. Anyway, that’s why I’m reviewing the 360 version of this expansion.

Awakening is probably the best console-based expansion I have ever played. Whilst the two downloadable Grand Theft Auto IV “episodes” were of great quality and length, most the downloadable content (DLC) offered on XBLA and PSN has been disappointing so far, with even highly-rated games like Fallout 3 failing to deliver the goods when it comes to expansions. Indeed BioWare themselves have been pretty sloppy with DLC up to now. They only released two (very short and overpriced) expansions to the original Mass Effect and the two previous pieces of DLC released for Dragon Age prior to Awakening (Warden’s Keep and Return to Ostagar) have hardly set the world on fire. But where Awakening is different is that it adds a lot of content: side-quests, items, companions, a whole new map of locations and, most importantly, it offers a continuation of the main Dragon Age story and allows you to up the level of your original character (to level 35 from 20).

As well as providing a lot of new content, Awakening also improves on the basic gameplay of the original. It is less glitchy, it looks a bit better than the original and the difficulty is balanced far better. In Origins I had to turn the diffculty down to “easy” during some boss fights, which otherwise seemed impossible. However, the “normal” setting on Awakening is much more playable whilst still providing a decent challenge. Where the game falls down a little bit is that, although I was continuing my character from Origins, there are precious few references to characters and plot elements from the first game. Awakening (bar a few small exceptions) doesn’t reference decisions the player has made in its predecessor, unlike Mass Effect 2. But this is hardly the point: Awakening is so much better than what we have seen so far from DLC that it is quite exciting and sets the bar considerably higher for future BioWare DLC releases (hopefully a Mass Effect 2 equivalent).

Dragon Age also continues to be the only video game that I have ever come across where social class and personal politics play a part in decision making (at least outside of something like Tropico). Quite often the decisions do seem morally grey compared to a lot of other RPG games and characters who are basically "good guys" are often dimissive of lower class people or of certain races (Elves are almost always considered as a lower caste of slaves, for example). In Origins one of the main things to consider when creating your character is which social class they are from, and this does tend to change how people react to you. I probably shouldn't stress it too much, because this element of the game could stand to be fleshed out a bit more in the future, but it is interesting that Dragon Age covers some of that ground.

Of course, all this extra content comes at a price (literally) and Awakening is £29.99 (at retail on a disc for 360/PC or as a download on 360/PC/PS3), but fans of Origins should not be put off by the price tag: Awakening is the first good piece of DLC BioWare have ever released and it is worth the money. Especially as it sets up ideas and characters which are almost certain to be part of the games sequel next year.

Dragon Age: Awakening is available now and is rated an '18' by the BBFC. Interesting that the BBFC has given Dragon Age a higher age certificate than the ultra-sweary, ultra-violent 'Kick-Ass' (which I reviewed recently on my Film blog).

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