Bioware’s latest blockbuster RPG Dragon Age: Origins synthesizes the deep gameplay and character interaction of their venerable Baldur’s Gate games with a decidedly modern approach to downloadable content (DLC). In their latest DLC offering, Dragon Age: Origins – Darkspawn Chronicles, players get to experience events from the point of view of the series’ bad guys — the Darkspawn. So is it good to be bad, at least for a little while?
The answer is a yes, but a decidedly lukewarm one. While this little add-on is initially fun — who wouldn’t enjoy a gleeful romp through the blood of innocents for a change of pace? — I began to miss many of the things about the original DA:O that made the game so exciting.
You begin the story as a Hurlock Vanguard, one of the warrior-class Darkspawn that you killed by the hundreds if you’ve already played through the original game and its previous downloadable content. You have a unique “Enthrall” ability that lets you bring other Darkspawn into your party, up to and including shrieks and even the fearsomely huge ogres that plagued your characters in the main game.
However, your Darkspawn companions are essentially disposable; they don’t talk with you or have back-stories, let alone romance options (then again, I’m not sure that ogre-on-Hurlock romance is anything I need to see, so perhaps I should be grateful). They do have an approval rating, but as killing the good guys adds to approval rating and the vast majority of the module involves more spilled blood than a Sam Peckinpah flick, it’s not really something you need to consider the way you did as a Grey Warden.
Another thing I missed was assigning skills as I leveled up. For me, a big part of the joy of RPGs is tweaking all those little numbers to produce a killing machine on two legs; if I don’t get new skills and talents, it feels more like hacking and slashing than like a proper roleplaying game. On the other hand, the hacking and slashing brings its own mindless satisfaction; the combat system in DA:O was well-designed originally and the designers take full advantage of it in this module.
A standard of any RPG is inventory management. If you’re someone who likes to get to the good (bloody) parts and doesn’t want to fiddle with figuring out whether the stats on this Mace of Mayhem are better than the ones on that Dagger of Disembowelment, you’ll enjoy the lack of goodies in Darkspawn Chronicles. Sadly, this was another aspect I found myself pining for. In most RPGs, my characters’ backpacks are stuffed as full as my purse is in real life, but my Darkspawn dude went through the game without accumulating much. Playing through the module does unlock a shiny new sword for your Grey Warden, though.
Dragon Age: Origins – Darkspawn Chronicles is short, but cheap. The average gamer will get somewhere between half an hour to two hours of play out of it. Given its more limited gameplay, it’s probably a wise idea to keep the module nasty, brutish, and short. As there are no dialogue cutscenes or character interactions, combat is the featured attraction here, and too much of that can get wearisome. For a short time, though, it’s entertaining enough.
If you’re a full-on fanatic for all things Dragon Age (which I am), then Darkspawn Chronicles is probably worth the 400 points it’ll cost to download it, if only to read some codex entries that you wouldn’t otherwise have gotten to see. But don’t expect to find any new favorite characters; the only familiar characters you’ll see will be the ones you kill (and call me silly, but I felt a bit guilty directing my ogre to rip the faces off my beloved companions from the main game).
Think of it not so much as an appetizer for the next major expansion, but as a little trifle — an amuse-bouche, bite-sized and spicy, but not something you’d want to eat as a whole meal.