Unlike the previous Dragon Age downloadable content and the sizeable Awakening expansion, Darkspawn Chronicles neither fits into nor builds on what has gone before. "Our goal with each DLC is to do something different," Bartel says. And different it is: Darkspawn Chronicles takes place in an alternative universe in which your player character fell at the first hurdle, dying during the blood-drinking joining ritual, leaving Alistair to become Ferelden's only surviving Grey Warden.
This DLC, available on the Xbox 360 (400 Microsoft points) and PC (400 BioWare points) on May 18 and on PSN "shortly thereafter" for £3.99, plays from within either Dragon Age: Origins or Awakening. To those who completed the main game, the setting will be familiar. This downloadable episode encompasses the finale of Origins--the siege of capital city Denerim and a slightly abridged storming of Fort Drakon within--but this time played from the other side.
You play a darkspawn general, a hurlock vanguard, described by Bartel as "a new type of darkspawn given a measure of free will by the archdemon." It's the archdemon--that is, the dragon that leads the darkspawn horde--that telepathically issues your orders to take the city. Your party comprises various disposable thralls: darkspawn units recruited on the battlefield with your vanguard's instant recruitment ability. Blight wolves, hurlocks, genlocks, and ogres are up for grabs, as well as stealthy shrieks and fireball-hurling emissaries. It's the same four-character party setup as previously, but rather than swapping out one member for a more useful unit, you execute the unfortunate conscript.
These are, explains Bartel, not the talking, fully sentient darkspawn introduced in Awakening, but the orc-like creatures of the game proper. Generally, role-playing elements are stripped down in favour of a brisk, combat-based experience. Dialogue menus, for instance, just "didn't make sense" given your grunting, brutish cohorts, says Bartel.
Starting out at the gates of Denerim, you work your way through the city, battering down Denerim's defenders and picking up promising recruits (and dispatching unwanted ones) as you go. We acquired a hulking ogre early on--a useful unit, capable of all the same abilities it had in Dragon Age: Origins, including a powerful charge and that familiar rock-hurling, mass-knockback attack. So we lumbered around as the ogre, demolishing barricades and clearing a path for Team Darkspawn. Familiar characters crop up in the city districts, with qunari warrior Sten defending the market district with a band of mercenaries and Oghren the dwarf leading an army of drunks out of the tavern. (The golem Shale is the one party character that doesn't appear in this DLC, says Bartel.)
In the Alienage, the city's elven slums, we led the charge to "crush the spirit of the elves" by torching the tree at its centre. The tree succumbed to an emissary's fireball, as did the elven rogue Zevran shortly after. It's a shame most former party characters expire unceremoniously, with nary a cutscene to mark their passing, especially given that Bartel says BioWare intended to "tug the heartstrings" by making you slaughter your former allies and love interests.
As we ransacked the Alienage, we got into character and raised our party members' approval ratings by executing some frightened, unarmed elves. In Darkspawn Chronicles, loyalty equates to fear and respect rather than affection and is generally awarded for being brutal--though, curiously, gift giving still works. A nice bottle of wine and a war trophy get you some grunting approval and a loyalty boost. Much like in the game proper, greater loyalty inspires extra abilities in your party members.
There is some limited gear customisation according to class, with looted weapons and shields equippable on your vanguard, though nothing can be equipped, for example, on the ogre and shriek. Crafting (potions and traps) is also available to your vanguard character. But given the relative shortness of the DLC--expect it to last as long as it took you to complete the Denerim finale in the original game, says Bartel--levelling your main character is not a focus.
On reaching Fort Drakon, you chase Alistair and a party of familiar faces through the gates of Fort Drakon and on to a final battle. In this parallel Dragon Age universe, Alistair has somehow become Warden King without your help. In fact, the Darkspawn Chronicles' alternative canon is all determined, according to Bartel, by "the choices a tormented Alistair would have made in your absence." Much of this alternative history, but for a devastating final cutscene, is left for the game's codex entries to relate.
Completing this DLC gets you Blightblood, a powerful darkspawn sword that is added to your inventory in both Origins and Awakening. This is the only place at which Darkspawn Chronicles connects with the game proper--otherwise, it's entirely stand-alone.
As a concept for downloadable content, alternative history (not to mention the early death of your player character) is a curious choice for Dragon Age: Origins. Bartel describes it as a kind of experimental DLC, inviting players to explore a darker, what-if side of the Dragon Age story. If that sounds right up your alley, or if you're one of the BioWare fans Bartel says just hankered to play as the bad guys, check out Darkspawn Chronicles on May 18.