Add-on packs feel like relics from the past now, in our world of DLC and quickly turned around sequels from a second studio. The notion of spending two-thirds of the cost of the first game again to be able to make it bigger, longer, or more involved, seems quaint. But it's one of these olde-worlde notions that lies behind the twelfth window. What might it beeeeeee?
It's... Dragon Age: Awakening! (Be warned, the below contains spoilers for the original Dragon Age.)
John: I really feel like Dragon Age has fallen into that strange crack in the world of gaming where something truly excellent gets looked over because there was too much accurate expectation that it would be great. BioWare make excellent RPGs, and even despite one of the worst promotional campaigns in gaming history, it's no surprise that Dragon Age was an excellent RPG. Mass Effect 2 came out in the same year, and was not only designed to have a broader appeal across multiple genres, but courted more controversy by making large changes since its original. So of course Dragon Age received its backlash, including from major reviews. It was never going to appeal to everyone. But to those who wanted a classic RPG on an epic scale packed with stunning characters and a depth of history and lore to boggle fans of the dustiest of fantasy series, it succeeded astonishingly. And yet fails to have received the place in history I believe it deserves alongside Deux Ex, Planescape: Torment, even Baldur's Gate.
So Awakening, an exceptional continuation of the first game, barely made any noise at all. It came and went without the deserved fuss.
This probably wasn't helped by following on from a barrage of the most abysmal DLC imaginable. The reputation of the game's name had been tarnished by the lazy, boring and tedious mini-stories that had been released, often with disastrous delays and dismissive treatment of a bemused audience. Awakening may easily have been the latest of these to a weary player. But coming in a box, with a heftier pricetag, there were clues this was going to be a bit more.
However, it was with the trepidation I'd learned from slogging through the horrible DLC that I approached. Fortunately, it was almost immediately obvious this was something else. That same feeling of sinking deep into an absorbing world enveloped me, and I smiled. Phew, more Dragon Age.
In whichever way you defeated the Archdemon at the end of DA, the story allows you to pick up while maintaining all the decisions you made. (It doesn't matter who became King, who survived, etc, the continuation respects this and adapts to it.) But the darkspawn, for some reason, haven't retreated to the Deep Roads as they might usually after a Blight. Instead they appear to be better organised, more coordinated, and, er, talking. The game picks up on interesting themes from the original, most frequently focusing on the relationship between the mages and the fundamentalist religious sect, the Chantry. It's an area that allows a great deal of commentary on contemporary religious conflict, and is handled smartly and gently.
While you could easily make the original DA last 100 hours, this is a quarter of the length. Which would still be four times the length of the average AAA release. It's still an enormous game. And to make sure it's an entertaining time, you're given a new party, and so many new skills and abilities to learn that fit in so perfectly. Best of all, you get Anders, an apostate wizard. And yes, sure, he's a direct replacement for Alistair's splendid sarcasm, but it's a role that needs filling, and one that's a pleasure to see filled by someone with no good intentions at all.
Honestly, I think this game deserves a place in this calendar for one reason alone: Ser Pounce-a-lot. The interaction between the miserable arsehole Anders and the kitten is such a delight.
The big weakness is its tendency to have quest series go nowhere. Side-quests, while a lot of fun to complete, don't seem to have endings. It throws you out of the world, and feels almost humiliating. "Ha ha, you allowed yourself to believe in this little story. But it was just some mechanics, and you reached the end."
But most of all, this is a more complex, more refined version of what was one of the greatest games ever made. It should have been championed loudly by the universe. I shouldn't be the only person writing an entry for it here. But Dragon Age is - for whatever reason - stuck in that crack between too popular for its own good, and too old-school to be heralded as a new innovation. I don't know. It just seems to me that a game of the standards of Awakening shouldn't be something that most people probably forgot was released this year at all.