Peeling back the wrapper on Origins expansion, Awakening

Dragon Age: Origins expansion “Awakening” is a throwback to the way PC studios used to do downloadable content, appropriate given BioWare’s history. It’s not bite-sized. Adding new characters, a new world, new loot, new quests, new enemies, new skills, and even a different way to shape the hero, users are in for a full experience.

I talked to the game’s online producer Fernando Melo via the Internet’s magicks to peel back Awakening’s wrapper and see what it had to offer. He wasn’t quiet.

The battle against the Blight still rages in “Awakening”. It’s a hard pill to swallow considering the destruction of the Archdemon at the end of the game, but the expansion introduces a new villain, The Architect, a Darkspawn without a rotted pre-frontal cortex. It can reason. It can talk.  And it seems like the pull of the Archdemon means nothing to it.

As intriguing as it is to know that the Darkspawn have yet to retreat to the Deep Roads, pushing them down isn’t the DLC’s main goal: restoring the decimated Gray Warden order is.

Players will begin the content as the new Gray Warden Commander, either as the character they used to the game’s conclusion, or as a brand new Orlesian Warden.

Don’t expect an Origin Story, Melo revealed to me in our interview.  Think about the Orlesian Warden as a fresh start.

“The Orlesian Warden opening is a great way for us to allow you to start Awakening from a completely clean slate,” Melo said. “It is not an Origin Story in the same way as we did in Origins where you have an hour or two of playable intro, but rather it serves to bring a fresh perspective to what has been happening in Ferelden with the Blight, as covered in Origins, and the game world really reacts to this. “

Five new party members are joining the Warden Commander on his task, each of which are being promised to be as compelling as the original crew was.

“The new party members are all richly detailed, just as with Origins. Each adds an interesting flavor to the party, and I personally think the writers did an even better job with some of the inter-party banter — there are some fantastic lines and situations you come across.”

Melo compares the Warden Commander to Duncan, the bearded narrator of Origins, as well as the previous leader of the order. Like him, users will be putting recruits through the rigors of the Joining process.

“As the Warden Commander, it is your duty to rebuild the Order. As such you’ll be taking on a similar role to that of Duncan, your mentor in Origins, of recruiting followers and putting them through the joining if you believe them to be suitable as a Grey Warden.”

These new Wardens will face brighter Darkspawn and twists or tweaks on familiar enemies. In the announcement, Electronic Arts named the Inferno Golem and the Spectral Dragon.

Specific information on these monstrosities are planned to be revealed later, so when I asked about the new villains Melo evaded and spoke to connections to David Gaider’s “The Calling,” his second novel based in the Origins universe.

“There are all new creatures and enemies which we will reveal in a lot more detail as we get closer to launch. You’ll encounter some new Darkspawn, including the Architect — a character that first appeared in David Gaider’s DA book “The Calling,” as well as one other character mentioned in the book. 

“Similar to the first novel, there are no spoilers in the book, but it does provide some interesting insight as to what motivates these characters.”

Stronger enemies require more from the user, and the level cap is being raised as a result. “Awakening is a massive expansion where we will be raising the level cap,” Melo said.  “To support this you’ll gain access to new skills as well as entire new chains of talents, spells and specializations — which we’ll reveal more of soon enough.” At the time we spoke, the Origins team planned to have it hit as high as 35. At the very least, it’ll be in the mid-30s — it all depends on internal balancing.

Warriors can’t rain magic shards down on Darkspawn, so there’s a conceptual hitch with the new specializations being offered. To circumvent possible frustration, the team is introducing a re-spec option exclusive to the content, a feature the team “really wanted to make available for Awakening players.,” explained Melo.

“Most of the new abilities have pre-requisites of some sort, and we didn’t want players who continued from Origins to have inadvertently painted themselves into a situation where they were cut off from a cool specialization or spell/talent chain that they may want to try out for their character build.”

Re-spec’ing sounds tacky, but its being included in a familiar way: “This mechanic works similarly to that of a tome that grants a spell or talent point,” Melo pointed out. 

“There is a book in ‘Awakening’ that you can purchase that allows the re-spec. Once the book is used it triggers the level-up notification.  When you enter the level-up screen all of your points spent so far on attributes, skills, talents, spells, and specializations are unspent and you can now allocate those as you see fit.

“Your base class, origin and of course your race and gender all remain as is. The re-spec is only available in Awakening.”

Like some expansions of yore, Awakening begins at the conclusion of the narrative’s chronological endpoint — the new party members, items, enemies, abilities, and re-spec options are contained within the expansion. And while that’s disappointing on the surface, keep in mind that “Awakening” is a journey unto itself.

“Much like Origins, Awakening has a lot of possible paths and replayability — especially when you consider whether you import what you did in Origins vs. starting fresh as the Orlesian Warden Commander, the party member combinations, exploring the new specializations, etc,” Melo told me.

“However, for a single play-through someone sticking to the main story arc I would expect to fall in around 12-15 hours depending on their play style.  A completionist that enjoys solving every quest along the way will easily exceed 20 hours of the same level of richly detailed experience they got in Origins.”

Awakening sounds like a great package, one that should titillate beyond the minor satisfaction of gaining new loot, rolling with a stone warrior, or exploring the hallowed halls of a legendary fortress. Melo is excited to hear what the response to what the team is putting together.

“I can’t wait to hear what players think about the new plot, as well as the new areas, monsters and party members. I think the team has done an incredible job with the amount of detail and the plot in ‘Awakening.’ 

But realistically, I think we’ll get a lot of ‘more of this please!’”

Dragon Age: Origins — Awakening hits March 16th for the PS3, Xbox 360, and PC. It will be available at retail and digitally for $39.99.

Brad BradNicholson