I was planning on taking these random thoughts from the video descriptions accompanying the YouTube videos related to my second playthrough of Dragon Age: Origins and edit them into some kind of cohesive text...but, yeah, that's just too much work. Instead I chose to merely put them all together in one blog post, which at least has the benefit of retaining both the brevity of the original text chunks and the immediate and decidedly impressionistic nature of the writing. The unifying theme should still be reasonably clear, however, as my primary concern was to reflect on Origins through the lens of my recent experience with Dragon Age 2.
Part 1, Evil Woman
I have only played through Dragon Age: Origins once, and although that playthrough was at least 60 hours long there's still *a lot* I haven't experienced in this sizeable RPG. A large amount of the unseen content is DLC which was released long after I finished the game - that includes the expansion Awakening as well as Leliana's Song, Witch Hunt and more (yes, I know most of the downloadable stuff wasn't any good) - but even some of the most famous characters of the core game remain relatively unknown to me.
Morrigan is without a doubt the best example of this. She was almost impossible to get along with (without spamming the gift option which is just too cheap) when I played through the game as a good (female) mage, so I left her at the camp after Lothering and simply never used her as a party member again. Since a lot of people seem to think there's something really compelling about this seemingly unpleasant and dogmatic social darwinist (other than the fact that her wardrobe leaves little to the imagination), I've been meaning to return to DA:O to get to know her properly. Too bad I have to roleplay a complete asshole just in order to get her to talk to me without sneering and complaining about my supposed stupidity all the time (ok, she *still* sneers and complains but not quite as much as before)...
Part 2, Corridor Crawler
Replaying Origins after just having finished Dragon Age 2 is an interesting experience. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, one of the most immediately noticeable differences between DA:O and DA2 is the cooldown on the Heal spell, which is actually a lot longer in the second (supposedly less tactical) game than in the first one. Positiong in combat is more important in Origins, but it seems that in this particular RPG series it has always been rather difficult to avoid getting everybody lumped together in the middle of the screen (...which in gameplay terms makes more sense in DA2). Being able to zoom out to a top-down viewpoint and manage party member armor are two really satisfying elements which are only available in DA:O, though, and there's no question that the "Hard" difficulty is more challenging in Origins than in Dragon Age 2.
Part 3, How Not To Be A Hero
You can do some rather despicable things in DA:O which I wasn't quite expecting; such as abandoning the village of Lothering to be massacred by undead creatures. A more enjoyable endeavor is to make poor Isolde more upset than she already is...
Part 4, Descending into Undermountain
It's a truth universally acknowledged that everyone hates the Deep Roads. Indeed, one of the problems with such massive roleplaying games as Dragon Age: Origins is that the dungeons can feel a bit *too* epic at times, and the Orzammar main quest is an excellent example of what happens when poor pacing combined with the sheer size of it all makes the whole experience needlessly drawn-out and tedious. Someone said recently that Dragon Age 2 feels like a mere collection of side quests compared to the grand over-arching storyline of Origins, but one needn't be a complete iPhone gaming nerd to appreciate bite-sized challenges which don't overstay their welcome.
So far during my otherwise enjoyable second playthrough of DA:O I've pretty much become fed up with each main quest quite some time before I finally reached the end of it. The Circle Tower had its confusing maze-like Fade challenge, the Redcliffe story arc lost its focus somewhere in the Ruined Temple (I hate that bridge puzzle, by the way) and now Paragon of Her Kind is bound to slowly wear down my patience with its atmospheric but endlessly repetitive tunnel crawling.
By comparison, Dragon Age 2's own little Deep Roads expedition was a fast and furious dungeon romp which included several rather memorable combat-related set pieces (before unfortunately descending into that awful Rock Wraith battle), and also made sure to reward the player with some interesting plot-related developments. I feel like what DA2 lacked in terms of epic scale and grand design it often made up for by offering the player steady progress at a brisk pace while still offering (on the harder difficulty levels anyway) a variety of combat challenges and just enough story exposition per individual quest to keep things interesting.
And who said Dragon Age: Origins didn't have trash mobs?
Part 5, Eventful Horizons
I had somehow forgotten (or perhaps repressed) the point at which the Orzammar main quest suddenly turns into some kind of Dead Space-esque horror fest. While more than a little bit jarring, the whole infestation thing fits rather nicely as a conclusion to that claustrophobic theme of descending ever further into the long-forgotten thaigs.
During my first playthrough, I remember being pretty much exhausted by the absurdly lengthy Paragon of Her Kind quest, and the only thing I cared about at this point was whether the Broodmother would turn out to be the last boss before finally returning to the surface or not. Needless to say, I wasn't too happy to meet Branka and her Golems...
Part 6, Shalemate
Ok, so I may not exactly be the sharpest tool in the shed, but despite knowing from my first playthrough what exact manner of creatures would be protecting the boss in at the end of the Deep Roads dungeon I figured it could be a good idea to bring Shale along this time around. He's tough enough to endure a long hard fight against other golems...right?
Shale's defection once I chose the "evil" option (i.e. to keep the Anvil and fight Caridin) should not have come as a total surprise, but it did. Remembering just how difficult I had initially found the Branka fight on Normal during my first playthrough, I thought it was going to be really challenging to survive Caridin on Hard with only three party members. Turns out it was quite easy with the use of Cone of Cold, 20-30 Health Poultices, some patience and a lot of Oghren's Mighty Blows. Too bad I wasn't allowed to turn the drunken dwarf into a replacement Stone Warrior afterwards...
Part 7, Leader of the Pack
By far the most interesting and unexpected story-related choice I have been able to make so far during this second playthrough of DA:O has been to side with the werewolves and slaughter the Dalish elves during the Nature of the Beast main quest. I actually had no idea you could even do that, and had for some reason assumed that the only alternative solution was to simply kill off all the werewolves without bothering to investigate Zathrian's involvement in their curse. Unlike most of the other "evil" things I've done during this playthrough, being able to kill off those annoying self-righteous treehuggers was satisfying, indeed...
Part 8, In Vino Veritas
Since I reduced Shale to a pile of rocks I have had to bring Oghren into my active party. During my first playthrough I barely even talked to the drunken dwarf, but now I think I'm slowly warming to that old blockheaded berserker. Asschabs!
On a more philosophical note, what is more worrying; that Oghren can't correctly determine the gender of my character - or that a reckless alchoholic is wearing my expensive Blood Dragon armor?
Part 9, A Game of Thrones
I don't care one bit about the overarching, supposedly "epic" storyline of Dragon Age: Origins. As far as I'm concerned, the writers at Bioware would have shown more maturity - not to mention realism about the average player's attention span - had they not bothered to come up with such a needlessly convoluted, comically lore-obsessed justification for what's basically a standard orcs-and-dragons plot device. Blights and Darkspawns might fit nicely in a second-rate sword & sorcery novel, but engaging in both the actual combat-related gameplay as well as the dialogue-oriented character development of DA:O are far more compelling activities than having to wade through endless Codex entries and tedious story exposition concerning such highly conventional fantasy material.
However, there's one very specific point at which the otherwise long-winded storytelling in Dragon Age: Origins gets spectacularly good, and that is the Landsmeet. When the nobility has finally gathered to vote on Loghain's rule, this hitherto predictable high fantasy story of a brave Warden uniting the lands against an evil usurper suddenly takes a sharply political turn, and ends up being a fascinating, messy and painful event in which none of the various possible outcomes can be characterized as unequivocally "good" or "evil". There's a price to be paid for every choice, and some actors will inevitably gain in power at the expense of others in this emotionally fraught zero-sum game of morally ambiguous political intrigue. This is easily the best combination of solid writing and complex choice-related gameplay Bioware has ever produced, and as far as I'm concerned it constitutes the game's "real" ending; with which a tediously outdrawn dragon fight cannot even begin to compete.
Incidentally, the full extent to which the player is able to influence the end result of the Landsmeet actually wasn't known to me until fairly recently, when I heard that it is possible to spare Loghain's life, recruit him as a Gray Warden and even have poor Alistair executed(!). Needless to say, that is the deliciously ironic outcome I ended up chosing for this particular playthrough...
Part 10, The Enemy Within
Having Loghain in my party is both ironic and weird, but also very interesting. Making him a recruitable character at all is by far the most drastic way in which Bioware communicates that this character is one of very few video game antagonists who are actually three-dimensional enough to make some admissions about the errors of their own judgement, adapt to changing circumstances on the ground and start playing a more constructive part in the overall storyline. Indeed, everything that makes the Landsmeet-related choices of Dragon Age's last act so compelling hinges on Loghain being a much more complex and ambiguous character than his clear narrative function earlier in the game would seem to imply.
Part 11, The Dark Respawn
One of the reasons why I bothered playing through the entirety of Dragon Age: Origins again was so that I could import a fresh endgame save into the sizeable expansion pack Awakening, which I haven't played at all until now.
Starting Awakening for the first time after having finished DA2 adds some poignancy to the experience given that we now know that BioWare is taking the series in is different direction; and that this expansion in all likelihood is the last we will ever see of the distinctly Origins-like Dragon Age gameplay. Also, I want to know if there was ever a point in the timeline of this game world at which the apostate Anders was *not* an extremely annoying character...
Part 12, Friends with Benefits
Awakening begins with a bang. The opening section is a finely tuned combination of combat and exploration set in atmospheric new environments where interesting characters are constantly introduced (or re-introduced) - all leading up to an intriguing little miniboss fight which neatly sets up the central conflict of the main quest. The lean quest structure actually reminds me a lot more of DA2's economically paced dungeon crawls (which, in this particular context, is a Good Thing) than the frequently ponderous assignments in Origins, and it's sure going to be interesting to see where Awakening goes from here...
Part 13, Dead Man Walking
Part 14, Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow
Also, summarily executing potential allies simply feels good when you're trying to roleplay as an evil character...
Part 15, Death By Metal
For better or worse, combat in Awakening is basically Origins cranked up all the way to eleven. Levels 20-30 give the player access to a whole slew of new and potentially devastating talents, and the addition of stamina potions means that fighters can keep dishing out copious amounts of damage even through prolonged battles. The result of all this high-level mayhem is that even on the same difficulty setting used while playing through the main game, the expansion pack is noticeably easier than Origins and only really becomes challenging during the last main quest and in various optional dragon fights. However, despite having much more of a hack'n slash feel to it I found that the gameplay remains fun and addictive throughout the Awakening mini-campaign.
Part 16, Heart of the Swarm
I bought Awakening on a whim one day several months ago when it was featured in a sale on Direct2Drive, and at the time I really didn't know if I'd ever get around to actually playing it. I first finished Origins way back in November 2009, and because that particular playthrough was plagued by frustrating bugs and immersion-breaking glitches I did not exactly feel a strong urge to return to the game anytime soon. Just before Dragon Age 2 came out I did have some vague plans to play through DA:O again but in the end I never bothered with it.
Thus, it was only after having played through the entirety of Origins' controversial sequel that I finally returned to DA:O for an ambitious combined Origins+Awakening+Golems of Amgarrak+Witch Hunt playthrough which by now is surprisingly close to completion. I still have those last two stand-alone DLC packs left to go through, but I'm really glad I took the time to go back to The Big RPG of 2009 to experience the gameplay on the Hard difficulty setting, get to know the characters I never had much time for during my first playthrough and - last but not least - enjoy such a well-rounded high quality expansion pack as Awakening turned out to be.
Part 17, Between a Rock and a Hard Place
The Golems of Amgarrak DLC is nothing special but at least features an interesting and atmospheric little dungeon and also offers some reasonably challenging combat encounters. The Harvester boss at the end was pretty tedious (...then again I think *all* bosses are boring, irrespective of game or genre) but at least I got lucky and the AI glitched out during the second half of the battle so I could just stand still and punch him till he was dead...
Part 18, Witching Hour
The Witch Hunt DLC was regarded as fairly disappointing by many people at the time of its release, but in my opinion it's at least more fun than Return to Ostagar, Warden's Keep and Golems of Amgarrak. Sure, the recycled Origins areas are lazy and like the other DLC packs it's all over in less than two hours (even on Hard), but I thought the two new party members had some pretty funny banter and the story ties to Dragon Age 2 (to the character Merrill in particular) were a bit more interesting than I had expected. The brief dialogue with Morrigan right at the end of the DLC didn't go anywhere at first, but there's an interesting choice right at the end which may have actual relevance in some future Dragon Age game.