Okay: this will probably be a little complicated. I'm trying to figure out the best way to structure my remaining posts on DA2. I'm wrapping up an exhaustive play-through of the main campaign (sans the Exiled Prince), which includes two purchased DLCs, Legacy and Mark of the Assassin. Chronologically, I played through the expansions late in Act 3, so near the end of the game but before I actually beat it. I think I'll do one post apiece for each DLC, then one mega wrap-up post for DA2 that covers my final thoughts on the game, both mechanical and philosophical. Deal?
So, here goes: first, the question of when to play. From what I understand, the content is leveled, so you can tackle it at any time. However, the rewards are leveled as well. They will be a bit better than what you would ordinarily get at that time in the main game. So, for example, if you play during Act 1, the gear you get will be better than what you would ordinarily find in Act 1, but will eventually be replaced in Act 2. By doing it near the end of Act 3, the gear I got ended up being the best in the game (at least, until I play Mark of the Assassin).
Also, story-wise, the content of the expansion will acknowledge what has already happened in the main game. I think that you'll probably get the most content if you have already played through the majority of the game, but you should get different stuff at any stage.
I was delighted by what the expansion provides: not just new monsters and maps and items, but also a surprisingly rich set of banters. My companions were downright chatty at times; not that I minded, since they never repeated themselves, and were usually quite funny. Interestingly, they also have banters between Hawke and companions, which I don't think we've seen in the main game. (There are even some three-companion banters, which are extremely rare outside the expansion.)
You can pick any companions you want to bring along. I recommend choosing an effective team. Most of DA2 is, frankly, pretty easy; you can beat most battles with any random collection of people. Legacy is actually pretty challenging, though. Fortunately, there was one part a little ways into the expansion where I could swap out party members, so I switched from "Here's a fun group of people!" to "Here's a fun group of people who won't die!"
The battles are much more tactical in Legacy than in vanilla DA2, and you'll finally have use for some abilities that were only rarely useful before. For example, you'll occasionally encounter a group of enemies who are lined up in a row, which is a perfect opportunity for something like Archer's Lance. There are also more environmental features, like traps that you can activate to attack your enemies (or that can be activated to harm you), and complex battlefields that require you to make decisions, such as whether to take a detour to take out some weak snipers or endure their fire while tackling melee opponents.
The expansion also starts to address one of my two least-favorite aspects of DA2: the replicated environments. All the settings in Legacy are different from the DA2 maps. These cover a great amount of ground, quite literally: a vast desert area in the Free Marches, a surface dwarven fortress, a sprawling dungeon, a vast underground cavern, a green lake with a giant tower. Now, a couple of the maps are internally recycled - you have a set of consecutive boss fights that all seem to be set in the same chamber - but it didn't happen often enough for me to get irritated. The actual textures seem to be a mix of new and old, with a fair amount of new stuff.
The expansion makes some interesting and largely cool changes to the look of Dragon Age. The most obvious comes a little ways in when you encounter the Darkspawn. These seem to have been totally redesigned; in particular, the genlocks are a LOT bigger and scarier-looking than in the previous games. Genlocks used to just be fodder, little ugly dudes who ran around and stabbed you. Now, they are enormous rotund brutes. The Genlock Alpha now seems a bit like a troll, but it has a huge shield that it wields to devastating effect, including one move that I dub the "choo-choo train".
A few new NPCs make an appearance in the expansion, and I was really impressed with their design and voicing. One particularly sad/funny character seems to be a mixture between Igor and Gollum.
For my team: I'll go into more details on my team composition / combat strategy in my upcoming DA2 post, but for now, I'll note that I initially arrived with Hawke (a dual-wielding rogue), Merrill, Aveline, and Isabella. You'll note that, apart from Merrill, there's no AOE in that group, and it led to a lot of suffering. Isabella would typically die a short time into almost every major fight, and sometimes Hawke or Merrill would die before the end. Later, I was able to swap in Varric for Isabella, which helped a lot... he's still a bit squishy and would sometimes die (which he never does in the main campaign), but if I kept an eye on him I could keep him alive, and in any case he was able to take down a lot of bad guys. Varric was also a great person to have along for lore reasons, and I would recommend taking him even if he isn't normally in your party, just because of some insights he has and makes on the dwarven situation. In contrast, Aveline and Merrill were fun to have along, and had some good banters along the way.
As I noted above, the fights in Legacy require more tactical thinking than usual. They still aren't great, for the most part... you need to deal with dematerializing enemies and stuff. Still, at least they're challenging (on Normal), which DA2 combat rarely is. There are charging Brontos, which we've seen before in Origins, but they pack a much bigger whallop this time around, so you'll want to side-step them if you aren't immune to knockbacks/knockdowns. A series of boss fights late in the game involve tackling Guardians, which have a kind of interesting puzzle mechanic to them: in some of the fights, the Guardian creates phantoms of itself, and you need to find the "right" Guardian in order to kill it. (Fortunately for me, the game continues to track your target when he summons them, so this was perhaps easier than the developers intended.)
Similarly, there was another interesting fight against a couple of golems. Each golem has a special property: one is very heavily armored and resistant to physical damage; another is immune to magical attacks; and one constantly regenerates health. They activate, one at a time, and after taking enough damage they will shut down and activate another. Towards the end, multiples can be active simultaneously. Tactically, this was a relatively straightforward battle - what you need to do is visible right in the name of each golem - but it was still an interesting system for combat and a fun fight.
The rewards for the expansion are pretty decent. There was less XP involved than I expected; I think I only gained about 1.5 levels for the whole thing. It would probably be more substantial at earlier levels, though. There are some loose potions lying around, which can take you above the 12 or so that the game normally spawns for you; I think I had about 20-25 by the end. The coin is pretty excellent: it was kind of a let-down in DA2 when you would find a gleaming golden pile of treasure, then click on it to find that it contained 56 pieces of silver. Many of the loot piles in Legacy have actual gold coins; I think I earned close to 100 gold by the end just in currency, plus a bunch more from selling trash and items. The items are fairly good... there's a nice set of armor for Hawke, a semi-random assortment of rings and belts and amulets (including two very useful Bone Rings for Merrill's blood magic), and a couple of unique items for companions - I found a nice ring that only Varric could wear. Oh, and there's also a unique weapon and belt for Hawke. Both are good and worth equipping, though not amazing; I suspect I'll replace them in Mark of the Assassin. I'm also trying to decide whether to keep my new armor set or not... it has better stats than my Champion set of gear, but looks kind of goofy, sort of like what Captain America would wear if he was a medieval female rogue.
If I had to make a complaint - which I don't, but I will - it's that I feel like we've played this expansion before, back when it was called Watcher's Keep. Once again, we have an Ancient Evil, who has been Sealed in a Tall Tower, by the Sacrifice of a Guardian, who belongs to an Order responsible to Imprison the Ancient Evil, and who Manipulate the Hero while Avoiding their Duties. It's not a bad story, to be sure, and elements like Larius keep it feeling fresh.
The lore was really cool. We haven't heard much about the Grey Wardens in DA2, and this shed some fresh light on them. The Wardens have a close relationship to the dwarves, since they're the two groups who constantly fight darkspawn. As far as I can tell, though, none of the dwarves were aware of the prison the Wardens built, or else they wouldn't have stumbled inside there. We've seen glimpses before in stories like Warden's Keep of how the Wardens can be insular, secretive, and manipulative; they built the prison for good reason, but have caused suffering to others through their actions.
I was also fascinated by Larius. We've heard about the corruption and the Calling since early in Origins, but I'm pretty sure that this is the first time we've seen a Warden in this condition. While his gait and speech are funny, his condition is quite sad. I've always thought that the Calling was very melancholic, and have been intrigued by any writings about, for example, Called Wardens fighting alongside the Legion of the Dead in the deep roads.
That said... I must confess that I sided with Janeka against Larius. I have no good excuse for this. Everything about the situation was screaming out that Larius was right (in the immortal words of Robert Anton Wilson, "Of course I'm crazy, but that doesn't mean I'm wrong"), that Corypheus was too great a danger to release, that he couldn't be bound, that he was manipulating the Wardens in the same way he had manipulated the Carta and darkspawn. I guess it ultimately came down to Merrill and Varric weighing in on Janeka's side. I should have known that sensible Aveline would have it right.
For a brief period, I did allow myself to think that maybe, just maybe, the game was going to let me do it. Have it turn out that Janeka was actually right, and we could enslave Corypheus to the Wardens' will. I doubted we could actually end the Blights - that would be too big a shift - but I could see this as being somewhat analogous to the decision at the end of Mass Effect 2 to salvage or destroy the base, and fantasized that perhaps DA3 would tack in a slightly different direction depending on which path you took. Sadly, I was right all along, and after a heartbreaking (and, I have to say, insultingly easy) fight against Larius and his comrades, the expected outcome came. (On the other hand, though, this did lead to my single favorite line of the expansion. When you release the final seal with your blood, and Janeka confidently announces that she will bind him, and starts channeling her power... only to have him casually deflect it and cancel her efforts. Her line-reading is short and so very sweet: "... Shit!")
Once I figured out just who and what Corypheus was, my jaw dropped. I had thought that he was some sort of older awakened darkspawn, like the Architect from Awakening. Nope: he was one of the ancient Tevinter magisters. One of those who pierced the Veil and pursued the Golden City! The one who caused the city to turn black! The one who brought demons into the world! The one who freaking created darkspawn and the blights! The one who unleashed almost all the suffering that the world has undergone for thousands of years! Right here!
I had plenty of time to mull over this celebrity and its infamy while conducting the final boss fight. I'll comment more on this phenomenon in my upcoming DA2 post, but while DA2's combat is generally stupid, its level-ending boss fights are awesome: they're much more interesting and tactical than any of Origins' fights. I generally have to suffer and die a couple of times before figuring it out; once I have the system down, I can make progress, but still need to keep on my toes.
In his normal aspect Corypheus is quite easy. He doesn't hit particularly hard, and doesn't seem to have much resistance or immunity. Hawke tends to be my main damage-dealer, and she could often beat one of these stages with a single rotation of her singular talents: Mark of Death, Backstab, Assassinate, Twin Strikes. The tricky part comes in between those aspects. Corypheus teleports to the middle of the room, becomes invulnerable, and starts channeling power from one of the statues. I had initially thought that this was to regenerate his health, as with the Queen of the Blackmarsh from Awakening. Actually, though, he activates an awful fire-spinning mode. If you imagine the room as being a clock, then the fire is like a set of hands that constantly sweep the face of the clock, slowly rotating in unison. Your party will take massive fire damage whenever it hits you.
During my first attempt, I quickly noticed that the four statues had become actionable, and deduced that I would need to use them in order to continue fighting Corypheus. So I split up my team, and had each person run to a separate quadrant, and activated the statues nearly simultaneously. This ended... poorly. Each statue spawns two Lieutenant-level shades; nothing too difficult, but when facing a single companion who is probably taking massive fire damage, it proved extremely painful. Varric died almost instantly. The others were able to fight off their opponents, then run across the room and slay Varric's killers, upon which Corypheus transported himself back into the arena for another quick bout. I revived Varric with a consumable item, only to have him die again the next time Corypheus summoned fire.
After one or two wipes, I came up with a new strategy. I should have learned this long ago from horror movies: when facing an ancient unspeakable evil creature, never split up! Instead, I kept all my guys together and ran to a single statue when Corypheus started drawing in energy. His spokes of fire start off at the statue he's draining and the one opposite; I think it was north and south in my game. So, I huddled by the west statue. As soon as the flames appeared, the statue became clickable. I selected it, then quickly killed the two shades before the fire completed its one-quarter rotation to us. Again, Hawke's skills worked great here; Assassinate can one-shot a statue guardian, even without Mark of Death, and Twin Strikes will take off a majority of the others' health. In retrospect, I did kind of love how the battle design puts a time limit on combat, which adds some meaningful intensity and makes it a good strategy to pop high-damage, high-cooldown abilities early. (In an earlier attempt, I tried to engage the enemies while simultaneously fleeing the flames, which was less successful.) As soon as the second guardian shade fell, I would immediately sprint out ahead of the onrushing flames. We would run forward until we had caught up to the far spoke, then follow it until we reached another statue, at which time we would activate it and repeat.
The section after this gets nasty, though. After another fairly simple bout against Corypheus (who does teleport once mid-combat, but is otherwise unremarkable), he then blasts down large sections of the stone roof upon you. Now, in addition to the spinning wheel of doom, you also need to navigate a twisted warren of rock obstacles. This, of course, makes it even harder to stay ahead of the flames. This was the last time I died in the fight... well, actually, I think I reloaded after Varric bit it. I blame the pathfinding: it's usually quite decent, but during this section, there would often be times when a person in the party would head off in entirely the wrong direction, towards the flame and with no opening back to our destination. I guess that in a normal fight I wouldn't even notice: the companion would correct and head back after a few seconds. The stakes are too high here, though! I learned the hard way that I need to keep a close eye on everyone, pausing a fraction of a second after issuing move orders, and immediately selecting and re-ordering anyone headed the wrong way.
After getting this down, I was able to beat Corypheus on my next try. There's a third and final stage to the Wheel of Doom which is even harder and crazier. Basically, he has summoned all the elements against you: spokes of fire, inconvenient boulders, electricity that runs along the rocks and creates live currents between them (dealing minor electricity damage whenever you cross a threshold) AND giant icicles falling from the ceiling, that damage and (gulp) slow you down.
While I needed to pay constant attention to what was going on, I finished the final fight without any close calls. One nice side-effect of the constant running is that you have the opportunity to naturally regain health and stamina. I think Hawke maybe drank one or two stamina draughts, and perhaps a single health potion, but that was it. Shortly before finishing the third and final wheel, Merrill temporarily deactivated Blood Magic and drank a potion, but even then she was still at half health, and could have done fine without it. Aveline was surprisingly resilient, and even Varric never fell. The lesson I've learned is one that all RPG players know by heart: stay out of the fire!
The final, final round against Corypheus was a blast. He teleported once or twice again, and this time it was a bit more challenging to re-orient to him, what with all the fallen rocks and plunging icicles and everything. I pulled out all the stops with Hawke, and even managed to finish him off in style with an Explosive Strike.
The post-battle finale and coda were done very well. Janeka was nicely humbled and thankful. Am I just imagining things, or is there a possibility that Corypheus may have escaped with her? Eh, I'm probably making it up. Well. She's an interesting character, and I hope we see her again in DA3.
Oh! Just realized I forgot to write anything about Malcolm Hawke. That was the other major aspect of this DLC: learning more about your family's past. It was cool; I liked learning about what your father had done, the noble sacrifice he made to ensure safety for his family. It seems like this might help explain why Bethany was able to remain free for as long as she did. It was a nice gesture to have the various Wardens remember and honor what Malcolm did. The words exchanged between Bethany and Hawke were very touching. (I'm now curious if I could have brought her in my party - I've gotten used to her being visible but unselectable in the party composition screen, but it seems like it would have been valid to choose her for this. I imagine that she would have a lot more to say about the things you learn regarding Malcolm.)
The scene with your mother was a very kind grace note. I suspect that if you played Legacy during Act 1 or early Act 2, this same conversation would probably "really" happen. They presented it very well, though, such that it doesn't feel recycled or anachronistic. How many of us wish that we could spend some more time with loved ones who have passed on?
On the whole, I quite enjoyed Legacy. It improves (though doesn't totally fix) the things I dislike about Dragon Age 2, and layers on some great story, new insights into your personal history and lore about the history of Thedas.
Quantifying its value is tricky. I paid $10 for the DLC, which means I spent three dollars more on this expansion than I did on the entire DA2 game. The expansion is quite a bit shorter, of course... I didn't keep close track of my play time, but it was probably around five hours, give or take some time for reloading. Minute-to-minute, though, it's more engaging than a lot of DA2: no filler quests, no backtracking, and lots of new environments to look at.
I know I said before that I wasn't going to be taking any screenshots of DA2, and I did uphold that for quite a while, but I started sliding on that promise near the end of Act 2, and ended up with a whole bunch of photos for Legacy. Be warned: if you fear spoilers, or large volumes of images depicting another persons' experiences in a video game, do not follow that link.
Otherwise, expect some notes on Mark of the Assassin and a final roundup of DA2 before too much longer!