2009's best RPG gets an expansion, but at what cost? Your answer is determined by how high your expectations are.
Though after finishing the expansion, I think they may have been right.
Awakening was pitched to the fans as being a continuation of the main game, but very little story content is actually "carried over" from Origins into the expansion. Of the two end game characters I ported over into the expansion, neither of them had their romances referenced in the game. Even my female city elf, who heavily romanced (and tried to become queen with) Alistair had no dialog linking her to the king. Even during the brief 2 minute cameo that Alistair made during the game's introductory quest, not a single comment or even a wink was exchanged by the two love birds. My second character, a Human Noble male who romanced Leiliana, never once got to see the woman who was so psychotically obsessed over him in the main game. Though I wasn't exactly pleased to see this at the onset of my expansion journey, I passed it off thinking that the connections to the main story would occur later and that my fears were unfounded.
Unfortunately for me, it only became worse. The overall lack of respect my character was shown by the people of Amaranthine shocked me, since at the end of Origins a surviving Grey Warden is treated like a golden god and had throngs of eager recruits waiting to fall to their knees in front of them. In the expansion you are threatened, disobeyed, laughed at, ridiculed, second-guessed and doubted at every single turn. The people even go so far as to hire assassins to kill you. The one person in the world who saved all of mankind from the blight and you are treated like gutter trash. Not once did I feel like an all powerful Grey Warden Commander who had an army at my beck and call.
Making this worse was the fact that the much hyped "Vigil's Keep" castle-commanding aspect of the game was so phoned in it felt like a bad joke. What I thought would be similar to the much celebrated "Crossroad's Keep" quest in Neverwinter Nights 2 turned out instead to be a very half-hearted attempt at army building. Instead of epically building up your fort, stocking the armory, making gold and training troops, all you have to do is give them 80 gold, a granite deposit, and a couple ores and you "finish" the upgrades to your keep. Essentially, you can earn the achievement for reaching maximum protection of Vigil's Keep in roughly 1 hour of gameplay. Unfortunately, even fully upgraded your keep can, and probably will, fall. That little "surprise" as I went to the last "dungeon" angered me greatly. I see no point in wasting money on your keep if it's going to fall no matter how well you supply it. Further adding insult to injury, you never see any cinemas involving the defense or fall of your castle, so there is a huge disconnect between you and your supposedly impenetrable keep.
Further hindering the Dragon Age experience in this expansion is the overall blandness of the combat. While I love the main game's combat immensely, I found the fights in the expansion to be incredibly easy and underwhelming. The new "Children" monsters that Bioware hyped up as being terribly strong and fearsome are nothing more than low hit-point cattle that, even when fully matured, die from one rogue flurry. Even the battle with the Architect and his grotesque "experiment" at the end were laughably easy and hardly worth mentioning. Between the over-powered new abilities they grant you and the sky-high mountain of sickeningly powerful loot you have thrown at your feet every second it's impossible for anyone to actually die in this game. As a matter of fact, my rogue single handedly killed most of the bosses while my spirit healer/Guardian/champion teammates kept me buffed to near invulnerability. This isn't bragging, but simple truth. The game is, as much as I hate to say it, heavily imbalanced. Obviously, this was done to placate those who complained Dragon Age was much too difficult and that good weapons and armor were hard to come by.
Which is unfortunate for me, because I preferred it that way.
Adding icing to this stale cake of woe would be the lack of stability present in the new patch that was released with this expansion. While Dragon Age always ran great for me (Except for the memory leak that caused loading times to gradually get longer) the expansion was a constant race to see how far I could get before a crash to the desktop would wipe out my progress. Nearly every boss fight had to be done a second time since halfway through I'd get bumped out of the application entirely. There was one point where I had forgotten to save since turning on the game and had a crash during a boss fight, causing me to reload a checkpoint that was 2 hours of "work" behind where I was. Though the game took me a little under 17 hours to complete, you could tack on 4 more hours in lost time due to all of the frequent and unexpected crashes to the desktop.
As if that wasn't enough, many of the game's quests are bugged as well. Apparently, City Elves have a reproducible glitch where their equipment is taken away and never returned. I had thought this was part of the game's plot until I checked the official boards and found a thread confirming it as one of the several scripting bugs present in the expansion. This, like the desktop crashes, forced me to load an hour old save file and go through the same dungeon three more times until the script that spawned the monster carrying my equipment worked as intended. Once again, a few hours lost to bad quality assurance.
Not everything in Awakening is without merit, though the tone of this review probably has you thinking otherwise. For those of you who wanted more combat and less of a story, Awakening delivers a much less "wordier" adventure than the main game did. Fights are spaced very closely and most of them throw very large numbers of opponents at you in a short time, which is great if you're like me and considered the strategic combat to be Dragon Age's most impressive feature. Though the high level equipment and new abilities make most of these fights about as challenging as killing a wolf in the Kocari Wilds, I found new abilities like "Flicker" and "Heart seeker" especially amusing, especially since the latter of the two did in upwards of 600 damage to most enemies. Over-powered, but still quite fun to exploit.
Awakening's only true bright spot would be the new characters you can recruit. Nathaniel, the son of one of the first game's most hated NPCs, is easily the best developed character in the series so far. His backstory, his advancement, his rationale for joining you and especially his ending, if he makes it out of the keep alive, are the brightest moments in the expansion. I found myself sympathizing with him and growing to like him more than anyone in the entire series so far. Though Anders and Sigrun were also interesting in their own right, my heart went out to Nathaniel and I hope he makes it back as a playable character in a future Dragon Age title.
So what's the verdict on the expansion to my favorite game of 2009?
Sadly, it isn't something I'd recommend to those who aren't diehard Dragon Age fans. With the frequent crashes to desktop, lack of any real connection to the main game, "Monty Haul" loot distribution, lack of challenging combat, lack of proper respect shown to your hero and the laughably lackluster keep-building mini quest it's hard to warrant buying this expansion unless you're as "into" the lore of the world as I am. If you've read both of David Gaider's books, frequently visit the Dragon Age wiki and spend your time reading fanfics based on the game then chances are you'll buy this title no matter how bad others may make it seem. While the game isn't a complete wash-out, it does have a strong feeling of having been rushed to market. With only a small percentage of the DLC carrying over and so many opportunities for a clever connection to the previous game having been completely and totally missed in dialog, I got the impression that this game went from design stage to gold master about 6 months earlier than it should have.
As I stated in my Mass Effect 2 review, there were two different teams at Bioware...one that only worked on Mass Effect 2 and one that only worked on Dragon Age. From what I've seen so far, it seems the guys working on Commander Shephard's ship are a bit more skilled than those serving the Grey Wardens.