BioWare continues to support Dragon Age: Origins with its latest downloadable content, Darkspawn Chronicles--scheduled for release on Xbox Live and PC on May 18. A PS3 release date has yet to be announced. We chatted with Rob Bartel, lead designer on the Darkspawn Chronicles, to learn more about this new content and what it will be like to take a walk on the dark side of the Dragon Age universe.
GameSpot: We'll admit it--this new DLC certainly took us by surprise. We'd be more inclined to believe you guys were hard at work on a spin-off story about Sandal the dwarven weapon enchanter. How did you come upon the idea to turn around and give players the ability to play as the same reviled enemies that they spent the entire game hunting down?
Rob Bartel: The Dragon Age franchise is complex and multifaceted, and there are a lot of different stories out there that we can tell. We thought that putting the player into the role of a hurlock vanguard and showing the city's capture and fall from that perspective was an interesting thread that players would want to experience.
GS: Perhaps the greatest strength Origins had going for it was a deeply involving story and well-developed characters. How do you do storytelling when your central cast of characters includes the likes of genlocks and ogres?
RB: We're definitely positioning Darkspawn Chronicles as a powerful visceral experience rather than as a moving coming-of-age story about an ogre and his pet blight wolf. The lives of the darkspawn are brutish, cruel, and short, but that's part of what makes them compelling. The archdemon has put you in charge of capturing the city of Denerim and eliminating the threat posed by the Grey Wardens. As a fan of the Dragon Age story, you can't help but feel powerful as your ogre tears through the defenders' barricades. When your emissary sets fire to the great tree in the elven alienage, you can't help but understand the emotional impact that that would have had on that community. When you come to the archdemon's aid in the final hour and drive your blade through the heart of the Warden King, you can't help but realize that you have turned history on its head. So, while there isn't a lot of dialogue and talking heads, the Darkspawn Chronicles is a story of loss and of absence--what would the world have become if your hero had died in the joining?
GS: What are the biggest gameplay differences that players will discover while playing as a darkspawn as opposed to a Grey Warden or elf or what have you?
RB: The biggest difference lies in how the party is formed and dissolved. As a hurlock vanguard, you have the ability to recruit thralls--fellow darkspawn--to your cause at any time. If you spot a powerful emissary casting spells off in the distance, you simply select him and bring him into your party and start issuing commands. It's all very fluid. While he's under your command, you'll begin earning his respect and fear, which will make him braver and more powerful in combat. And then, when he's outlived his usefulness, you simply target him again and a vanguard will walk up and decapitate him in cold blood, clearing up a spot in the party for someone new.
GS: And within the group of darkspawn, how do the different species distinguish themselves from one another? How does an ogre play differently from a shriek besides just being a whole lot more massive?
RB: Ogres are so much fun. There's nothing like picking up Morrigan, or Alistair, in the ogre's big blue fist during the final battle, shaking her around, and then punching the proverbial snot out of her. You have access to all the same abilities that they've used against you as enemies in the original game. Shrieks sneak and overwhelm; ogres hurl rocks and pound the ground to knock everyone down. Blight wolves howl. Emissaries cast their fireballs. Hurlocks and genlocks man the front lines or fire arrows from afar. Everyone has their tactical role. On top of that, we've also added in some puzzle elements to some of the levels where you need to recruit specific types of darkspawn and use their special abilities to meet a particular objective. So yes, there's plenty to distinguish the different types of thralls you can recruit into your party.
GS: This is a return to the smaller-sized DLC that we saw initially before you released the heftier Awakening. Roughly how much content should players expect to find, and should we expect to see any carryover--items, story choices, and so on--from this pack to the main story?
RB: The Darkspawn Chronicles is set in an alternate history where the player hero died in the joining ceremony, never becoming a Grey Warden and never saving the world from the blight. As such, it doesn't make sense to carry over characters and story choices to and from the original game. That said, there are achievements and trophies to unlock, and one of those, once unlocked, will spawn a new sword called Blightblood into your character's inventory in Dragon Age: Origins and Awakening.
GS: Is this alternate-history perspective something that we can expect to see from future BioWare DLC, or is this something that the team regards as more of a fun experiment?
RB: Right now everything's a fun experiment. We're trying a lot of different approaches to downloadable content and getting a lot of experience and insight into what our fans like, what sort of price points they feel comfortable with, what our development costs are, how to leverage downloadable content across different platforms, languages, and regions. It's a little bit of number-crunching, a little bit of magic, and a lot of gut feel. If our fans demonstrate particular support for one type of content over another, however, we'll obviously do our best to provide more of that sort of content in the future.