Saturday, October 2, 2010

DAO DLC: A Missed Opportunity?

DownLoadable Content aka DLC has become an increasingly popular phenomenon, and Dragon Age: Origins happily ascribed to this methodology of providing new content that players can pay for after the release of the game.  While its DLC is enjoyable, I'd have to argue that it hasn't done enough to push the Dragon Age experience forward. Let's take a quick look at the individual bits of content to explain why...

Stone Prisoner
Arguably the best of the DLCs, but arguably that's because much of it was developed in concert with the actual game, but it simply wasn't ready by the time the game went gold. A fully integrated companion with a full repetoire of interjections and opinions on events within the game, Shale has been compared to HK-47 from Knights of the Old Republic. The DLC also features two quests, and when combined with Shale's hilarious pigeon-killing desires, it feels like a part of the core game.

Inquiry: Shall I crush the bird for you now, master?

Warden's Keep
This DLC prompted complaints from players because of the in-game advertising of adding a person to the player's camp (which they go to frequently). This person had a bright exclamation mark indicating that they had a quest to give, but this required the player to purchase the DLC to accept it and hence get rid of the exclamation mark.  Marketing furore aside, Warden's Keep was a fairly standard "dungeon" crawl (set in a keep). Cutscenes featuring ghosts to explain the history of the keep gave it a weird cinematic touch, and it added some interesting points to the Dragon Age lore, and more importantly for some players, a chest to keep their belongings that they weren't using.

Return To Ostagar
I can't comment too heavily on this, as I haven't played it.  However, by all reports, it was a fairly standard dungeon crawl featuring some quite powerful equipment as a reward at the end.

Darkspawn Chronicles
This odd stand-alone DLC gave the playet the opportunity to play as Darkspawn, and attempt to kill all the citizens of Denerim.  While it offered plenty of combat, it didn't actually do a whole lot that was terribly new.  Playing as an ogre was similar to the abilities of a golem, though you did get to use a shriek to turn invisible and taking out ballistae operators so you could bring the rest of your darkspawn party around. As such, it offered a small tactical variety in combat, but otherwise was fairly similar to what the player had already experienced. This was one review summary: "More than anything, The Darkspawn Chronicles is plain and simply fun. There’s none of the dialogue, the decisions, the weight of destiny hanging over top of you. The end result is exhilarating, and I heartily recommend that all Dragon Age fans try The Darkspawn Chronicles out for themselves." I think that this reviewer should not be playing RPGs, because they're obviously missing the point.

Hurlock angry! Hurlock smash!

Leliana's Song
This was perhaps the most original of all the DAO DLCs. Characters were introduced with their own "splash screen" during the middle of gameplay, which initially felt a little surreal and out of place in Dragon Age, but it gave the DLC a very unique feel.  Combined with Leliana being a voiced protagonist, it had a definite "cinematic RPG" flavour albeit with a stylised delivery that reminded me of Zombieland or some equally fourth-wall breaking title. It also starts off trying to encourage you to avoid combat, though it hits a section of almost pure combat as it approaches the end.

Golems of Amgarrak
Another heavily combat focused mod, this delivers probably the most difficult combat scenarios within the Dragon Age franchise thus far. It definitely succeeded in pushing characters to their limits and putting them through the combat wringer.  The story was somewhat weak, though credit must be given for utilising a weird "reality phase shift" (ie alternate realities of the same area) to implement backtracking in a relatively small level layout without actually making it painful. While this isn't something I'd like to see repeated regularly, it was an interesting technique that deserves a mention.

Golems: They're big, hard and angry.

Witch Hunt
Again, I've not played this one, but I instead watched a youtube video playthrough of the mod.  Despite being pitched as a "meet up with Morrigan" mod, Morrigan is in it only very briefly at the end, and raises more questions than provides answers.  Again, it's mostly a dungeon crawl with lots of fighting. There are a few pieces of intrigue, most notably regarding a talking stone statue, but the mod on the whole seemed to be trying to pose questions to potentially be answered by Dragon Age 2 rather than bring closure to the story of the Warden in DAO.

So having listed all that, it's clear that the DLC for DAO has been quite heavily combat focused, though there were attempts within Golems of Amgarrak and Witch Hunt to push forward knowledge of the Dragon Age world of Thedas somewhat, albeit in vague terms with unfinished answers. While they delivered stories that were complete, they raised peripheral questions regarding characters or monsters that were left wide open with only the smallest snippet of information given to the player. I understand the need to leave hooks open to provoke interest by curious fans, but this should not be done at the expense of providing a narrative that feels complete.

Why do statues always have to speak in riddles?

While the DLCs were mostly enjoyable, there's something that they just didn't quite do right. Expanded dungeon crawls with many recycled areas comes across as a little lacklustre, even with a small $8 price tag. There is a lot effort involved in producing content, that's true, but apart from the inherent polish required by commercial releases, I'd possibly argue that most of these DLCs could have feasibly been produced by a team of modders in a slightly longer timeframe.  Now, polish does take a long time (and of course, there were the issues with the initial release of Witch Hunt), but I can't help but feel that Dragon Age's DLC could have been so much more.

There's some really great content within DAO, and there's some good content in its DLC, but with perhaps the exception of Leliana's Song, the DLC didn't push the boundaries of the DAO experience. It didn't try hard to give players new gameplay experiences, a different slant on the gameworld, or develop the overall lore of the Dragon Age setting in a palpable form. Allusions are great because players will get to see and understand the correct interpretation when DA2 comes around, but they leave players feeling a little hollow in the meantime. This is why Golems and Witch Hunt somewhat lack a powerful punch that they otherwise could have delivered to really spark excitement for DA2.

Leliana broke the fourth wall and the mold of DAO DLC

DAO's DLC is enjoyable, but ultimately combat focused and simply delivering "more of the same" as what the player experienced within the original game. This isn't to say that this is a bad thing, as DAO was fantastic, but it was perhaps a missed opportunity to really push the buttons of players and get them even more excited about the Dragon Age franchise by exploring new territory with its DLC.


  1. Anecdotally, Mass Effect DLC has been much better received by folks on the forums I frequent. Certainly Witch Hunt seemed to compare poorly to the apparently superb Shadow Broker. I usually use this as an opportunity to say "you should try Dragon Age mods, they're infinitely better value for money than DLC!" ;)

    I've played most of the DLC up to Leliana - my copy bugged out and delivered me FemJaden in place of Leli, and I haven't got around to fixing it yet.

  2. And once again, a comment preempts what I was going to discuss in my next post! Am I too predictable or something? I am going to look at ME2's DLC and examine the things it delivered that DAO's DLC didn't.

  3. I miss nwn1 premium modules. Those were cool.

  4. When RtO was first announced, I was excited - Duncan's and Cailan's deaths were to be explored more, perhaps even something tied to their pasts would be revealed giving the player more insight into their characters. Didn't work and I haven't bought a DLC after that, preferring to wait for reviews. None of them have been really favorable - except for Leliana's Song.
    There are so many things in the DA world that they could have used - I don't know why this fixation on the companions' stories. Even then, Sten would have seemed a logical choice to showcase something different and give us more Qunari lore.

  5. I can't understand why people say that "lelianas song" was any good. It was a simple killing spree but not as enjoyable as "darkspawn chronicles". I liked leliana ingame but the bard in DAO is not a bard at all, you get some buffs but you are still a killer.
    The ad said something about intrigues and the game of nobles or something but what you do is kill people, rob them and then you are betrayed, oh how unpredictable... Sorry it was one of things that made me buy the ulimate edition but i'm really disappointed.

    As for Shale, i couldn't imagine playing without "her".

  6. Leliana's Song became hack & slash towards the end, but the start was not intended to be combat heavy. I almost avoided combat entirely. If better AI had been implemented, I think they could have had a fun semi-stealth section. If you felt the whole adventure was hack & slash, I might have to suggest that some of that is your own fault.

    As for the predictable plot, wasn't that part of the point? It would be like going in to watch the movie 'Titanic' and complaining that you knew the boat was going to sink. You know what is going to happen between Leliana and her mentor because you find out in Origins, but it is the experience of finding out how events unfolded and the spectacle of their presentation that I felt made it enjoyable.