Last year's Dragon Age: Origins told an epic fantasy tale of a world torn apart by both a monstrous invasion and a traitor's civil war. As a Grey Warden, your character defeated the threat of the evil darkspawn--the ugly monsters from the depths of Earth that threatened to overrun the kingdom--and reunited the shattered country. However, in Awakening, you find that the darkspawn threat hasn't ended--there are rumors of a darkspawn general who thinks, speaks, and organizes his forces into an army while spawning a whole new battalion of enemies. Lead designer Ferret Baudoin explains what to expect.
GameSpot: We understand that the expansion isn't being built around one whiz-bang new feature, but rather on giving players more of what they want--story, interesting characters, and decisions with consequences. Why go in this direction?
Ferret Baudoin: Awakening is a true expansion pack, not a sequel. Expansion packs seem rarer than they were in yesteryear. Awakening harkens back to some of the expansions we did in the past, like Hordes of the Underdark for Neverwinter Nights or Throne of Bhaal for Baldur's Gate II.
We started work on the expansion pack during the latter part of Origins' development. The Awakening team is full of Origins veterans. We [combined] all our knowledge of how to make our engine really shine while creating an exciting new story and a host of memorable new characters.
You definitely nailed some of the key things we focused on, though--story, characters, consequence. It was a great experience for the writers, especially, because there were so many more stories we wanted to tell.
GS: We also understand that there will be all-new high-level skills and advanced professions in the expansion. Give us an overview of them.
FB: Absolutely. Awakening takes place after the events of Dragon Age: Origins, and the expansion pack allows you to import your hero from the first game. This means that returning characters are already high level--so we focused our new abilities on exciting high-level talents and spells. New characters created for Awakening start off at level 18 so they'll be able to pick up the great new content quickly.
Each fighting style has a new chain of four abilities. For example, the archery chain starts with "accuracy"--a modal ability that you turn on (and should leave on) that gives you a great damage boost based on your dexterity and also adds to other ranged attack stats. It culminates with "rain of arrows," which lets you shower a large area with a gazillion deadly missiles. Good stuff!
Rogues and warriors get a new chain of abilities added to them, and mages get two chains. These chains include abilities like "peon's plight," which lets your warrior outright kill one non-lieutenant enemy in one powerful swipe, which is very useful and can turn the tides of battle in your favor.
We also have two new specializations for each class and three new skills. If all of this sounds like a lot...it is! We have close to 70 new spells, abilities, and skills available to your party.
GS: What do these new skills and professions add to the game? Were there some gaps or interesting opportunities in the original Dragon Age that these high-level classes and abilities fill in?
FB: In Origins, mages were very potent forces on the battlefield. Many folks found that a three-mage party was one of the most powerful combinations out there. So while mages certainly have been given some neat new spells, we spent extra time on rogues and warriors to make them more valuable additions to your party.
It's really paid off. Archers have received a significant boost to their damage-dealing capabilities. Dual-wielding rogues are simply murderous when their weapons are fully slotted with runes (especially if a friendly mage adds a "flame weapons" spell to the mix). And a fully decked-out warrior can wade into the thick of any fray and hold the line until the party annihilates the opposition.
The result is better balance between the classes and their roles. A lot more party combinations are fun and entertaining.
GS: What about the new characters who will join your party? Do they fill in any particular gaps that the team noticed from the first game? How will the new high-level abilities give players more flexibility out of a four-character party?
FB: One of the features we've added in Awakening is the ability to "re-spec" your character--and your companions, as well. Anders, for example, starts as a spirit healer with a great collection of utility spells to help out. He has also picked up a bit of rune crafting during his misadventures. But the nice thing is that you can re-spec him to be whatever you want him to be.
So if you enjoy a particular companion's company, you can always kit that character out to be an ideal companion for your adventures. And since the classes are more balanced, you can bring your favorites alongside you and not have to worry so much about your party's class composition. Parties with three rogues, three fighters, or three mages all work (as do any other combination).
GS: We understand there will be hundreds of new items and new item tiers. What are they and how will they work?
FB: Since you're facing greater threats, the rewards have been beefed up, as well. There are two new advanced tiers for all weapons and armors available with higher base stats, rune slots, and exciting new item properties, as well. We've spent a lot of time placing loot in chests, on monsters, and in stores for people who live for the next item upgrade. In addition, Master Wade is back from Origins, and this time he has a whole new set of exciting new items he can craft for you--if you can bring him the "essential" materials he demands.
GS: We know that the expansion will challenge players with new foes like the Children, which are part of the new brood of darkspawn. Tell us about some of these foes and the new threats they offer.
FB: The Children are one of the creepiest monsters in Dragon Age. The artists really outdid themselves. In their larval stage, they aren't especially deadly--unless they swarm. When that happens, they have a penchant for overwhelming party members and feeding on them unless they are bashed off or killed.
If one of the Children eats enough, it can evolve. They'll eat anything--you, Velanna, other darkspawn. So things can get scary fast, and it can become a race to kill them before you're surrounded by increasingly dangerous foes.
In their final phase, the Children are especially brutal with quick strikes, area-based attacks, and worse. When one of the Children pop out of hiding, it can really make you jump in your seat. They're trouble.
GS: Tell us about the new direction of the story. The original Dragon Age was about sacrifice, betrayal, and standing in the face of overwhelming odds. What are the main themes of Awakening? How will the expansion explore these themes?
FB: Overwhelming odds are still a theme in Awakening. But a new theme that has been added is "heavy is the head that wears the crown." As the Grey Warden commander of Ferelden, you are tasked with recruiting more Wardens and subjecting them to the Joining. And as players saw in Origins, the Joining doesn't always end well...
If that wasn't enough responsibility, you are the ruler of the lands of Amaranthine. Your word is law. This is made especially interesting if you start a new character because that new character will actually be from the neighboring kingdom of Orlais, which had previously invaded and ruled Ferelden for generations with tyrannical excess. Orlais had only recently been overthrown after a bloody war, so obviously your subjects won't be happy about your new character's nationality.
In Awakening, you're faced with many difficult choices, often with no clear "right" answers. Plus, the darkspawn are evolving now--they think, they talk, they strategize. It can make their actions far more villainous, and defeating them becomes that much trickier. Put it all together and you have an exciting new chapter in the Dragon Age universe.
GS: Finally, is there anything else you'd like to add about Awakening?
FB: March 16 can't come soon enough. The team is eager to share our new story and give our fans a chance to come back to Ferelden. We've missed you.
GS: Thanks, Ferret.