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 £5. 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.
Warden's Keep is an encouraging start for Dragon Age DLC in quality terms - but not quantity. The quest is very short for something that costs more than a video rental, and the rewards feel a little tight-fisted. If you're going to buy it, don't wait until you've finished the main campaign - with both these packs, the earlier you play them, the longer you'll be able to enjoy their fruits.
The Stone Prisoner
Let's ignore for a moment the fact that most players will get it for free, and take The Stone Prisoner's list price of 1200 BioWare or Microsoft Points (around $15, €15, £10) as a sign of which way we can expect the wind to blow. At more than double the cost of Warden's Keep for a quest which won't take much if any more time to complete, it seems extortionate. But that would be to misunderstand what BioWare is doing with DLC, and how amazingly well-integrated this pack is with the game as a whole.
A merchant offers you the control rod for a rogue golem, which is to be found in a new village location, over-run with Darkspawn. The golem, Shale, stands statue-still in the middle of the village, and you'll need to unravel a short mystery, and free the surviving villagers from Darkspawn, to gain "control" of him. It's less satisfying than Warden's Keep in story terms, but a little more varied to play - there's a tile-puzzle to solve before you can battle (or choose to free) the solitary boss and claim your loot. Once again, the location and scripting are stronger than anything you'll find in Dragon Age's side-quests.
The difference lies in the unlock reward: Shale himself. Anyone who's played Dragon Age for a reasonable length of time will know that companion characters are the most compelling content outside of the game's main quest line (some might even say including it). Like the others, Shale has reams of well-voiced dialogue in the form of conversations, interjections and banter with the other companions. Being a surprisingly arch and sarcastic golem, Shale's humorous edge does something to leaven Dragon Age's stuffy tone.
He also has an approval rating to play around with, a personal quest that dovetails with the larger plot, his own item customisation system with the attendant loot drops added across the game, and a unique set of golem abilities with tremendous utility. His auras can switch him at will, in the midst of battle, from a tank to a melee warrior, a ranged attacker or an immobile buff machine, a sort of living totem. Extremely useful on the field and quite amusing off it, and bringing a lot more content to the game than just his origin adventure, Shale's a worthy addition.
The question isn't so much whether he's worth the (still rather steep) asking price that most won't have to pay, as whether BioWare will be able to repeat this trick. Shale was made alongside the rest of Dragon Age's companions - will it be possible to retrofit further characters so deep into the storyline, with their own opinions and comments on it, their own personal investment in events? It seems unlikely, but it's not impossible. As a statement of intent - to create DLC that can meaningfully enrich the entire game you buy it for - The Stone Prisoner is exciting.