Let's remove any confusion from the start. Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening is not another piece of crappy DLC following the dismal inclusions we've seen since the BioWare RPG's release last November. This expansion is 25 hours of full-scale new content, essentially an entire new game, that picks up the story however you may have left it. It has a new setting, a (mostly) new crew of companions, new abilities, skills, spells and talents, and most importantly, a re-imagined approach that's appropriate to a shorter format while still achieving the necessary sense of scale.
You've finished Dragon Age, right? By necessity, this review has to mention the events at the end of that game, so consider yourself spoiler-warned. That said, we can all rest easy because the Archdemon has been defeated, the Blight quashed, and now all citizens of Ferelden live in happy bliss, singing songs of praise to the mighty Grey Warden [your name here] who saved the day. Except, of course, that's not the case at all. It's never that easy.
There are a number of ways you could have chosen to end Dragon Age. The consequences of these can be dramatic enough that you might not even have a character to import into the start of Awakenings. My character, Simon, survived, and so I pick things up with the level 21 Grey Warden being attacked on his way to Warden stronghold Vigil's Keep to take up his post as Commander. Attacked by darkspawn.
That's strange, given that I spent 100 hours playing the main game to put an end to the darkspawn attacks. The reason for this enemy's return is, in fact, the crux of the story, but it doesn't stop it being just a touch galling - as if your enormous efforts have been undermined. Shake that off, and things pick up quickly. Something very strange is going on with the darkspawn. Not only are they not retreating into the Deep Roads, but some of them are speaking. Their attacks seem more coordinated, more deliberate. And most oddly of all, there are hints at two separate factions.
As you might expect from an RPG expansion, a slew of new abilities have been added in and a lot more levels to climb through. There's no scrimping here at all. After you've recovered Vigil's Keep from the invading darkspawn, it's time to regroup (literally, gathering a new team of companions) and prepare for a new battle. To do this you'll find that each class now has two new specialisations available, and a third specialisation slot to stick one of them (or another older one) into once you reach level 22. There's also a third row of four class-specific talents available from the start.
These come with four new abilities each, and none feel tacked on at all. In fact, a few are clearly there to address issues that arose in the original game. For instance, you may choose to develop Battlemage skills if you want your mage to live through melee encounters. A rogue specialising in Shadow will be far more effective at staying hidden, using decoys, or performing elaborate backstab manoeuvres. Warriors are given a brush with magic via the Spirit Warrior path, or more complex team buffing as a Guardian.
On top of this, every other ability set has another row of four tip-top new talents. As a heavy-weapon warrior, I was very grateful for a new selection of really meaty two-handed attacks. Combined with the warrior's new Second Wind talent, allowing an instant top-up to the stamina bar, this made for much more involved battles.