BioWare didn't just launch a single game when it released its RPG epic Dragon Age: Origins last week. It launched a new series, a new RPG system, a new fantasy universe, and a platform for what it hopes will be two years of continuous downloadable content. That content will either be created by the mod community using the game's tool set, or crafted by BioWare's own developers in what must be the most ambitious plans yet for DLC support of a single game.
You can find our reviews of the game itself on PC and console elsewhere. Below, we take a look at the first two major DLC packs for Dragon Age, available for all formats at the game's launch: The Stone Prisoner and Warden's Keep. Anyone buying a legitimate, first-hand copy of Dragon Age will be able to download The Stone Prisoner for free, while purchasers of the digital version of the Collector's Edition also get Warden's Keep. Both, however, do have price points, and both serve as an interesting indication of where BioWare intends to take this endless RPG over the next two years.
It's appropriate that each of the two downloadable adventures begins with a tip-off from a merchant. In the case of Warden's Keep, one Levi Dryden shows up in your camp before you buy the pack; accept his invitation to adventure, and you'll be taken straight to the game's (or console network's) marketplace to buy it for 560 points (of either the BioWare or Microsoft variety), $7, or a little under Ł5. You won't get to access Levi's own in-game wares until you've finished this short dungeon romp. It's a good joke, but is it at our expense?
Levi's grandmother was a great Grey Warden captain who lost the titular Keep at Soldier's Peak in a dispute with a tyrant King many years previously, muddying his family's reputation. He wants you to go to the crumbling and haunted castle to clear her name, reclaiming it from undead Wardens and demons in the process. Once you're there, ghostly apparitions reveal the events of three decades ago and put the infestation of monsters in context.
What follows is akin to one of Dragon Age's campaign quests in miniature, and a considerable cut above the game's afterthought side-questing. The location, though small, is as handsome and atmospheric as any in the game proper, and there's a neat storyline that fills in a relatively interesting corner of the Dragon Age's voluminous lore and even offers multiple outcomes via a few of the trademark grey-area moral choices.
When I say miniature, though, I really do mean miniature. Having just a handful of rooms of monsters and, depending on your choices, between two and four boss battles, Warden's Keep is over in well under an hour. While it's great to enjoy the best of Dragon Age's combat and storytelling in more compact form, it's an unsatisfying meal for the money. But here's the thing with Dragon Age DLC - you get dessert.
In both these packs, the quest is only half the attraction. The other half is composed of rewards that will offer a lasting impact on your game. In the case of Warden's Keep, you unlock the location as a new base with two merchants - neither offering much of interest, it must be said - and party inventory storage. Considering the limited inventory you can carry around with you, the latter's hugely useful, but it does feel like a feature that should have been included in the basic game. Depending on who you decide to kill, you also get some vary tasty loot, for Warriors and Blood Mages especially; and, by drinking a potion in the Keep, a couple of darkly powerful new abilities.