They say you can't go home again, but whoever coined that old adage apparently wasn't talking about the realm of Ferelden. Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening returns you to this familiar and fair fantasy world, where degenerate demons called darkspawn have ravaged the land. The forces of evil may still lurk, but fans of 2009's wonderful Dragon Age will settle easily into the game's first full expansion pack, which harbors few surprises but delivers all the loot-happy adventuring that they'd expect. Awakening is not as exceptional as the main game; its story and characters make little impression, which is a disappointment compared to Dragon Age's splendid yarn. But in spite of some story frustrations and scattered bugs, Awakening is more of a terrific thing. It isn't a groundbreaking expansion, but it's an entertaining one that reminds us that if it isn't broken, there's no need to fix it.
You begin Awakening by selecting a character, either by importing one from Dragon Age: Origins or by creating a new one, who will start at level 18. Whichever route you choose, you're immediately dropped outside the fortress of Warden's Keep, where darkspawn continue their assault in spite of the Grey Wardens' earlier triumphs. It's clear from the beginning, however, that these foes are not the usual expendable masses. You hear tales of a darkspawn that speaks, and soon thereafter you meet this growling beast. As the keep's commander, it's up to you to venture into the surrounding environs, searching for clues that may help you identify and stave off the forces behind the new threat.
This is a straightforward fable much like the original, though it does provide a few memorable threads. A damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't decision toward the end of the game is possibly the finest of these, and your choice has major effects on how your adventure plays out. Tension between siblings and a journey into the realm of spirits known as The Fade serve up some additional highlights. Yet in spite of a few quality moments, the story isn't as interesting as you'd expect. One of Dragon Age: Origins' most shocking moments illustrated the sacrifice Grey Wardens must be willing to make to join the order, and it underlined just how determined and self-possessed its members must be. In Awakening, the ritual is treated so casually that the Grey Wardens--and the Joining--no longer retain their edge. The story treats The Right of Conscription with a maddening degree of carelessness; what was once serious has become almost flippant.
Luckily, your old ale-swilling pal Oghren will be there to remind you of the good old days. While you run into a couple of friends from your previous quests, the dwarf Oghren is the only party member from Dragon Age to cross over into Awakening. He's as funny as he ever was and a never-ending source of comic relief. His belching, cussing, womanizing ways always make for entertaining stories during your travels, and he's a great foil for Anders, a sarcastic mage who joins your party early on. You'll add four others to your party, including a warrior named Justice who proves that looks really can be deceiving, and a Dalish elf called Valenna who regrets the loss of her people's ancient myths and legends. Oghren is practically a legend, or at least he's one in his own mind, but none of your new cohorts are as unforgettable as old friends like Dragon Age's Alistair and Morrigan, let alone Oghren. There are no romances to undertake, and while giving gifts to your party members will lead to new dialogue options and other surprises, you aren't likely to get too caught up in their personal tales. So classic characters they aren't, but they are still appealing, in part due to the uniformly excellent voice acting that brings them to life.
What hasn't changed is the fantastic combat that made Dragon Age so much fun. It remains the same as you remember, letting you switch among party members at will, customize automated behaviors for those controlled by the AI, and switch from a third-person view to a more tactical overhead position at will. Battles are a total blast: colorful, intense, and occasionally challenging. Most basic conflicts aren't likely to give you much trouble, but several encounters will have you pausing to micromanage party members. One of them is an intense battle against several small dragons who have a good eye for seeking out your mages; another is the final boss fight, which is just as challenging as Dragon Age's last boss, but a lot more enjoyable. Some new enemies help liven up Awakening's standard battles, including heavily armored ogres and foes called the children, who have a nasty habit of taking your party members temporarily out of commission by leaping onto them. And of course, there are hordes of darkspawn to take aim at, along with familiar foes like desire demons and the like.
Luckily, you get new goodies to use along the way, including new types of weapon coatings and traps, along with stamina draughts to help refresh your warriors and rogues. More importantly, you get fun new spells and talents to tinker with, as well as two new specializations for each class. These elements don't have a dramatic effect on gameplay, but they don't need to; they're simply logical additions to the talent and spell trees that go along with the increase in level cap. But the new spells and talents are ever so fun to unleash, from the keeper's One With Nature defensive field to the spirit warrior's Fade Burst. There are also three new skills: runecrafting, vitality, and clarity. Runecrafting is the only active skill, letting you piece components together to make runes you can slot into your weapons and armor. Vitality and clarity are passive bonuses to health and stamina, respectively--an unimaginative addition but welcome all the same. These additions lead to greater combat flexibility and give you more flashy abilities to look forward to as you rise in levels.
Compared to the original Dragon Age: Origins, Awakening doesn't offer the same kind of outstanding value--$40 for under 20 hours of questing, as opposed to the 50-plus hours of the $50 main game. Yet the length is nothing to sneeze at, particularly when the questing is this involving. Your objectives are typical role-playing tropes--fetch a plant, kill some demons, seek out the apostate mages--but good quest writing gives them context, and improved art design makes some of the environments fun to explore. Awakening still looks like a typical fantasy game, and the forests and underground corridors look much the same as before. But a few of the new areas clearly received some artistic attention. A creepy marsh is one such location; an abandoned dwarven stronghold is another. Even a late-game trek down a series of winding stairways is a nice change of pace for the series and adds a welcome bit of environmental variety. Unfortunately, a few bugs let the visuals down here and there. We had a character's arm get stuck in an odd position and remain there for hours; at another point, initiating a conversation with a non-player character spawned a doppelganger that clipped in and out of its twin's body as it moved. These and other quirks might be small distractions, but they're common enough to be notable.
Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening doesn't reach the high standards set by its illustrious precursor, but it's still a great game on its own terms. The combat and questing are as fun as they ever were and will keep you involved up until the very end, in spite of the uneven quality of the story and the characters that fill it. Oghren once said, "Misery, vomit, and malt liquor. Ah, reminds me of home." You know you've missed such delights too, and now's the time to head back.