Some days, you just can't get rid of a monster invasion. In Dragon Age: Origins, your character tried to do just that by joining the Grey Wardens, an ancient society dedicated to hunting down the monstrous darkspawn, a race of murderous subterranean creatures with a mysterious resemblance to the uruk-hai of the Lord of the Rings motion pictures. And hunt the darkspawn you did, eventually confronting the hordes and ending their invasion, known as the Blight. Or, so you thought.
In Awakening, the first expansion for Dragon Age, you'll play as the leader of the Grey Wardens in pursuit of a new enemy, a mysterious darkspawn general who can think, talk, and raise armies of new darkspawn, who appear to be breeding underground. Interestingly, you can import your character directly from Dragon Age and be the hero that game made you--the uniter of the scattered Wardens and enemy of the Blight. Or, you can start a new game with an entirely new character, a Grey Warden emissary from a neighboring country that was once at war with Ferelden, in which case you'll be met with suspicion and distrust even as you try to save the land.
BioWare suggests that Awakening isn't about one new whiz-bang feature that totally changes the gameplay, but rather it's about offering more of what fans seem to care about most--a deep story with memorable characters and real consequences for the choices you make. The expansion is being developed by the same team of writers, designers, and artists who created the original game, but it will offer plenty of new stuff to play with, including six new characters to join your party, new elite character classes, tons of new high-level skills, an expanded level cap up to level 35, and more than 500 new items, including new, higher tiers of weapons and armor for your adventuring party.
We recently had an opportunity to play through two different areas of the game and get a peek at what's in store. The first area put us in the boots of a warrior Warden hero allied with two of the expansion's new characters, both spirit healer mages: Velanna, a sharp-tongued elf, and Anders, a human wizard with a smart mouth not unlike that of Origins' Alastair. Our party began its journey into the ruins of a captured city, which had been fully assimilated by a new brood of darkspawn to the extent that even the walls and floors were covered with pulsating pink flesh.
After hacking our way through several alpha genlocks and hurlocks, we managed to rescue Sigurd, a bitter dwarf burglar who had been part of a previous war party sent to curtail the darkspawn threat. Apparently, her comrades were overwhelmed and she fled. As the only survivor, she was captured and was in the process of being dragged away--as she suggested, perhaps as part of a sinister plot to seize women to breed more darkspawn--when we cut down her captors. Despite her earlier act of cowardice, she was eager to join our party and seek revenge. We were given the chance to change our party by adding her, but we declined in favor of using both mages to blast our foes to bits, and we descended further into the city. A dying dwarf warned us about the "children," one of the expansion's new types of enemy--slimy creatures that spawn from darkspawn brood mothers--though sadly we weren't able to tangle with them, since we had another engagement with the Queen of the Blackmarsh.
The queen, as it turns out, doesn't hold a court. She's an ancient spectral dragon who can be summoned only by reassembling the fragments of a shattered dragon's skull in the midst of a dank, forbidding swamp blocked off by a tear in the Fade--a barrier created by the netherworld from which all magic originates. Once we clicked on the skull to reassemble it, the tear disappeared and we were free to enter the Queen's court, a small, flat clearing paved with a circular panel of stones. The queen herself swooped down on our party of a warrior and two spirit healers, along with Sigurd. Like with the dragon battles of Origins (and other previous BioWare games), special preparation and strategy will clearly be needed to conquer the queen.
Among other things, the queen can knock back one or more of your party with a sweep of her wings and take one of your comrades out of play by clutching her victim with her talons before tossing her victim aside. Interestingly, when she takes enough damage (whether that be from repeated backstabs, whatever feeble melee attacks you can deliver from the front, or all those magic spells she keeps resisting), she'll change forms to a giant sizzling orb of spirit energy locked into the center of the stone circle, while a group of electrified wisps spawn at the edges of the circle and drift inward toward the queen, presumably to recharge her energy. We managed to have our party chop down most of these wisp creatures, but the last one met with the queen in orb form. The orb then faded away and the queen made her triumphant reentrance from the sky, just in time to utterly crush our exhausted party, though to be fair, this was the first time we'd ever fought that battle, and we're assured by the BioWare team that this sort of thing happens to Dragon Age players all the time and doesn't make us any less of a video game player.
In any case, it's clear that Awakening will have a great deal to offer for Dragon Age fans. The expansion will be available in March both as a retail in-box product and as downloadable content.