Version tested: Xbox 360
It's unfortunate that Witch Hunt, the latest in BioWare's long but less than illustrious DLC campaign for the original Dragon Age, arrives at the same time as Mass Effect 2's wonderful Lair of the Shadow Broker.
Witch Hunt is above average when placed alongside painfully thin predecessors like Return to Ostagar and Darkspawn Chronicles, but when compared to the masterful way that Liara has been folded back into the Mass Effect story, it ultimately serves only to highlight the unfortunate difference in approach that BioWare has taken with DLC for its two blockbusting RPGs.
For one thing, Dragon Age is now actively penalising players for having multiple playthroughs – a staggeringly horrible decision for an RPG. If you've got characters saved for every origin story, plus one for each downloadable chapter, then the game will have started prompting you to delete a character before you can play any new DLC. To clarify – it's not just asking you to clear out some old save files, but to erase every trace of an entire character.
Adding insult to injury, you need to do this even if you plan on playing the DLC with an imported character. So even if you're planning on using an existing character rather than starting another new one, you'll still need to pick one of your current characters to sacrifice. You could, theoretically, work around it by putting your characters on a USB stick, like some digital Noah's Ark, and keep them that way, but why should we have to? It's a terrible idea for a game built around the idea of creating multiple variations of character and class, and along with the way each new downloadable chapter is selected from the menu rather than incorporated into the existing game world, it suggests Dragon Age was poorly designed from the start where DLC is concerned.
That annoyance out of the way, the Witch Hunt tale kicks off with you and your Mabari war hound arriving at Flemeth's hut on the trail of Morrigan. There you meet a Dalish elf called Ariane, who is also seeking the pagan floozy. She believes Morrigan has stolen an ancient book from her tribe, and naturally they want it back.
From there it's off to the Mage's Circle to discover what the book was, and why Morrigan might want it. BioWare deserves some perverse praise, at least, for opting to open an action-RPG chapter by making you look things up in a library. There you learn that Morrigan appears to be interested in the Eluvian mirror from one of the Dalish quests in the main game, an interesting connection but one that soon feels more like an excuse to reuse existing assets than any attempt to sketch a larger story.
Meeting up with Finn, another in Dragon Age's apparently inexhaustible supply of mewling ineffectual males who look exactly like Alistair, you venture into the cellars of the Mage Circle just as you did at the start of the full game. This time you're repairing tears in the Veil rather than clearing out low-level rat enemies, but déjà vu proves impossible to avoid.
And from there it's off to more repeated locations with brief jaunts to Cadash Thaig in the Deep Roads to collect some vaguely explained magic Elven lights, and the Dalish ruins in the forest to grab a shard of the shattered Eluvian mirror. Finally, the obligatory pieces assembled, you arrive at a new map in the Dragonbone Wastes where there's a giant monster crudely inserted into the story because tradition dictates we have a boss battle, whether it makes sense or not.
And then you get to meet Morrigan again. Is the reunion worth the middling effort to get there? Not really. There are numerous possible outcomes, depending on what you did at the end of the full game and what you choose to do now, but answers aren't on the agenda. It's just another arched-eyebrow conversation filled with vague prophecy and evasive foreshadowing, perhaps for Dragon Age 2, perhaps not.
Witch Hunt mimics the structure of a decent Dragon Age quest, and is at least fully voiced, but it fails to make the emotional connections that would make it work. Once again, you're stuck with a party of anonymous new characters rather than the colourful companions you grew to love over 30-plus hours of gaming, and Witch Hunt doesn't even have the good grace to offer a compelling reason why you're suddenly on Morrigan's trail. You just are, because that's what the DLC is about.
As an excuse to spend another mildly diverting evening in Ferelden, Witch Hunt does its job, but it's a functional offering rather than an inspiring one. Hamstrung by the piecemeal nature of Dragon Age DLC, and squandering a lot of the brilliantly constructed narrative from the full game, it's for completists only.
The Golems of Amgarrak, released to almost zero fanfare in August, is even more perfunctory. You're summoned to Orzammar by dwarven warrior Jerrick Dace. His brother has gone missing in the Deep Roads (yep, them again) and he wants the help of the Warden Commander in bringing him back.
It's not entirely clear why you're responding to this request – surely it would have had more narrative urgency if they'd used one of the many dwarf characters already established – but it's little more than a MacGuffin to get you underground for a linear procession of battles.
Where Golems of Amgarrak distinguishes itself is in its ferocity. This is a ludicrously tough quest, though its challenge comes from spamming you with cheap enemies, boosted with artificial resilience. In doing so, it reveals another of Dragon Age's weaknesses, namely the lumpy difficulty settings where Normal is pathetically easy while Hard is a frustrating grind.
Still, you head into the caverns where you suffer through an irritating puzzle section, throwing switches to change the colour of Ilium vapours to allow access to different rooms with more switches, before stumbling into an abrupt and incredibly frustrating boss fight against a refugee from Quake.
It's narratively inert, once again teaming you up with bland new characters you don't care about and then assuming you'll be plodding onwards because that's what you do in games, not because the story has given you any real reason to find out how it ends.
Those in search of a tough brawl might find nourishment in Golems of Amgarrak's slim pickings, but it's ultimately another quest-by-numbers effort that makes it very clear that the Dragon Age team's attention has now fully shifted to the sequel.