The Blight is over, the Archdemon fell, and the Darkspawn was defeated. Depending on how the first game ended, there were a number of different ways the above statement could have unfolded, but the outcome was inevitable. So is the tale of Dragon Age: Origins, BioWare's fantastic RPG from 2009 that introduced players to the kingdom of Ferelden, the developer's own take on typical high fantasy settings. Since then, they've introduced a number of different missions with downloadable content, though, for the most part, they've all fallen flat. Despite hooking players completely, the overpriced episodes were often too short, and lacking in all of the areas that made Dragon Age such a hit. Now, they've taken a step in a different direction, with Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening, the first true expansion, which moves the series forward a few years to show the aftermath of the Archdemon's defeat.
According to legends, the Darkspawn should retreat into obscurity once the Archlord is slain. In past Blights, this has been the case, and there's no reason to think that the mindless beasts would continue to fight after their lord ceases to communicate to them. This, however, is not the case, and they've continued assaults, lead by a new breed of speaking Darkspawn. There are even rumors of skirmishes between them, hinting at possible factions in the otherwise mindless peons. As expected, this troubling news becomes something that the hero (be it an imported character from the original or a new Grey Warden entirely) needs to address, while attempting to rebuild the Grey Wardens. Recruiting a new party is important, as a majority of the characters from the original have moved on with their lives after helping defeat the Archdemon. In fact, with the exception of Oghren, none of the main party members return to the group, and only a handful appear as NPCs throughout the game.
The story, on the whole, isn't as epic as the tale the original told. That's to be expected, as it's an expansion, not a sequel. Throwing in a second Blight wouldn't really make sense, and having a new Archlord rise would be lazy. While it doesn't try to outperform the original, it tells a good story, and what it does best is prove that the "expansion" format is much more accepting of the Dragon Age gameplay style than DLC was. BioWare needs time to develop characters, and two hour quests aren't all that interesting when the backbone of the game is in epic storytelling and decision-based plotlines. The combat, while incredibly fun for RPG fans, isn't strong enough to rest on, and such was the issue with the previous DLC. Awakening, on the other hand, is an epic story, clocking in at over 20 hours and giving players an entirely new game to toy with. While the new characters might not be nearly as interesting as the cast of the original game, they're still fairly well-developed, and become worthy companions before too long.
The new levels earned, skills unlocked, and items gained feel like they would have fit perfectly following the original game. Origins ended when it did for a reason, and extending that game for any longer would have been a detriment to it. Awakening adds on another long campaign that flows perfectly from the original without cheapening the experience, which is something that might not have seemed possible when the credits on the original rolled. The addition of Runecrafting, too, fits in perfectly with the rest of Dragon Age, fleshing out the crafting experience and lessening the reliance on other NPCs. Nothing feels tacked on, nothing feels misplaced. Most of the glitches and errors from the first game have been fixed in the expansion, and while there are still some random problems from time to time (my character imported nude, for some reason), it still feels like a more polished product.
Many will walk away from Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening with a definite feeling of familiarity. Nothing is strikingly different, and nothing is really any better. It's just more, and for some, that's more than enough. It's an expansion in the truest sense of the word, literally expanding on the experience of the first game without stepping on any toes and cheapening what the first accomplished. On top of that, it's bulkier than the average expansion pack, and while shorter than the original Dragon Age, it's still much longer than many full-priced titles. If the downloadable content released after launch was an example of how BioWare shouldn't handle the series in between retail releases, Awakening is a shining example of how to do it right, and one that will hopefully be continued in the future.