Monday, October 4, 2010

Mass Effect 2: DLC Done Right

Part of the reason I discussed DAO's DLC was not only to lament that it could have been so much more, but also so that I would have a good counterpoint when analysing the DLC released for Mass Effect 2. So let's give a quick recap of each of its (playable) DLC and discuss why they've succeeded in a way that Dragon Age's offerings have not.

Roughly equivalent to DAO's Stone Prisoner, it adds a new party companion with a personal quest.  Perhaps a little less content than Stone Prisoner, but Zaeed has a group of dedicated fans for being one of the toughest characters in space.

Normandy Crash Pack
This was a bit of a let down, although it appeared to be mostly for nostalgic reasons and closure regarding the destruction of the Normandy and the deaths of its crew members. It was effectively a treasure hunt.

Firewalker Pack
This was another shallow DLC, but free. It was basically designed to introduce the Hammerhead, a new land vehicle to replace the (unwieldy) Mako. This was largely a bit of platforming/driving with the Mass Effect universe, and while it did not receive overwhelmingly positive reviews, it did do something different.

The Hammerhead: Agile and Fragile

Stolen Memory
Adding the master thief Kasumi to Shepard's crew, this DLC offered a few interesting things.  A new weapon got many players excited, as did Kasumi's new combat abilities. The mods also featured an investigation sequence where the player had to determine how to get into a locked vault. While the solution could be pursued in a mostly linear fashion and was fairly straightforward, it did offer something different in terms of gameplay.

Project Overlord
Overlord took the Hammerhead and showed its true potential, and delivered a nice story in addition. Turning the Hammerhead's exploration into an interesting game element, including a set piece fight in the vehicle and "frogger-like" sections. It also featured "regular" ME2 gameplay, wit a surreal cutscene and an enjoyable set-piece boss fight for its conclusion, not to mention a great moral choice.

Lair of the Shadow Broker
While it was always going to gain attention and sales because it reunited Shepard with Liara from Mass Effect 1, Lair of the Shadow Broker was the real deal in its own rights. While it started with another clunky investigation (arguably worse than in Stolen Memory) it soon hit its strides.  Combat sequences featuring enemies using Kasumi's Flashbang Grenade, followed by a car chase sequence, a defense segment and two set-piece boss fights all combined to make the gameplay really enjoyable.

Hold the line!

So what is it that makes ME2's DLC successful and popular, whereas DAO's wasn't as warmly received?  For starters, ME2's DLC took more risks. There was no Warden's Keep or Return To Ostagar which just offered "more of the same" as had been given to the player in the main game.  The firewalker pack consisted entirely of flying around in the new vehicle, and none of the standard combat present in the main game. So while it was fairly straightforward, it was a testbed for what was truly to come in Overlord, which really put the new vehicle through its paces and showed that it was capable of integrated smoothly into the main game as a viable alternative to ME1's Mako. The flying vehicle section of Lair of the Shadow Broker (I'm going to use the abbreviation LotSB because that name is simply too long) was another out-of-the-box bit of gameplay, which was fun despite not being terribly difficult.  It perhaps erred on the side of being too easy, but it was really well implemented because you really felt under pressure, and combined with Liara's "encouragement" it really felt like you were taking charge of a chase scene in a sci-fi movie. It was fun.

LotSB chase scene: better than a silly pod race

Stolen Memory tried something different when it tried to integrate an investigation into the game, but unfortunately it amounted to little more than moving around and talking to people. It was almost as though it was trying to bring an adventure game playstyle in Mass Effect, but there wasn't a whole lot of thinking the player had to do, meaning it didn't quite work. This was reduced even further in the beginning of the LotSB, amounting to little more than hunting for the interactive items in the level. This was probably the weakest part of both respective DLCs, but again, it was experimenting with something different. I imagine it could provide an interesting diversification of gameplay if it were more enjoyable and required a bit more grey matter. 

Mention should also be given to the set combat pieces of Overlord and LotSB that help make them standout, and truly showcase that Mass Effect 2 has managed to bring its gameplay mechanics on par with actual Third Person Shooters. Hardline RPG fans might decry this as an example of how it is no longer an RPG, but I'd argue that the genre need not be constrained to mechanics that rely purely on character leveling and the luck of invisible dice rolls. But that's a digression I could spend a whole post on... in fact, I'll probably do that in the future.

The point is that ME2's maturity and mastery of its mechanics as evidenced in its DLC brings with it more challenging and more interesting fights within the game. Putting the player into new situations not only makes for increased variety and interest, but it makes the game more fun. No one wants to do the same boss fight over and over again. Simply shooting or attacking an enemy until it dies doesn't really make a fight feel special. It just makes a game repetitive and repetition leads to boredom, which is something a designer never wants their players to feel.

We just need to kill 65,340,285 boars

The reason that ME2's DLC have worked better than DAO's is because they not only fully integrated with the main game (only 3/7 of DAO's DLC do this), so that they contribute to the overall storyline of the series and the game itself in a coherent fashion, but they also experiment with new gameplay. Not simply choosing to present the same gameplay from a different perspective (Darkspawn Chronicles), or the same gameplay to act as a hook for the sequel (Witch Hunt), ME2's DLC changes the gameplay dynamic significantly. It takes risks.

It is doing something even better because it's using the existing player base as a test bed for potential new gameplay styles and sequences that could be adapted for use within the final chapter of the series. Taking fans of the series and giving them a cheap way to explore new types of content for a low cost allows the developers to see what works and what doesn't and then use this to inform their decisions for future games.  They don't have to spend time creating a full game for millions of dollars that could potentially be a failure, but instead can dedicate time to producing a small amount of content for an already established and eager audience to see how it is received. If something works, then it can be taken and used in a sequel as part of its gameplay and fans will be happy. Similarly, if a particular mechanic does not work, then it can either be tweaked to correct the issues and potentially get another test run in a second DLC, or it can be ditched entirely.

Kasumi's "heist" didn't quite work, but the DLC still did

In my opinion, this is a good use of DLC. This is what DLC should be used for by commercial studios. Using DLC to test out the mini-games and new gameplay styles that the developers are contemplating putting into the next installment of a franchise. Using them to push the boundaries of the game and see if players would like to have a taste of a slightly new direction in addition to the core gameplay that they've already demonstrated they love by buying the game in the first place. But it should not replace the existing content wholesale, as that's not what players want.

This is exactly why Firewalker wasn't well received, as it wasn't until the Hammerhead was combined with the original gameplay that players loved it. Admittedly, in Overlord the developers had already experimented with the Hammerhead once before, but this only reinforces the point. They didn't get it quite right the first time, but on its second outing, the Hammerhead was a lot of fun. It still needs a little bit of tweaking, as it feels as though it has less firepower and durability than Shepard does on foot, but if we see it in yet another DLC or even in Mass Effect 3, I imagine those issues will be addressed.

Frogger minus frog and cars, but with bonus molten lava

While DLC has been maligned by players at times, it offers both players and developers a means to improve games. The ideal DLC isn't a new weapon, outfit, vehicle or map. ME2 has these as well, but they don't interest me. These are micro-transactions, or just regular transactions if you're milking people for $10 for maps they've already played before - yes, I'm looking at you Modern Warfare 2! (I know I'm making a small habit of attacking MW2, but it did so many things wrong that it's hard not to come back to it) The ideal DLC also isn't simply a mini-expansion offering an hour of gameplay in the same vein as the original game, which is where the Dragon Age: Origins DLC suffered.  They act as small improvements to a game, but they're not the best use of DLC to benefit the game itself.

The ideal DLC adds to the game as a whole, developing it and any franchise it might be a part of into something better. It should help explore what the game can and cannot do, and how it might improve or modify its gameplay. Ultimately, the ideal DLC will serve to make the core gaming experience more interesting and more engaging for the players.


  1. I actually purchased the Kasumi DLC and the Operation Overlord one the other day and played through them.

    One problem I have with purchasing DLCs is that most of them really feel... well. Tacked on. Not quality-wise necessarily (though often that as well) but if you've already played a game and then purchase a DLC, well... It doesn't feel part of the whole.

    It's why I tend to prefer expansions. They are obviously also things "tacked on", but most often they are developed enough to feel like something I can invest myself into. Or a middle-ground, like with Mysteries of Westgate. A great price but it was still developed enough that I could really get into it.

    With the Kasumi DLC, well... I enjoyed the character and all that. But the majority of content is over so fast that it feels like I barely had time to enjoy what's there. Project Overlord had a great setpiece at the very end (some of the visuals quite clearly System Shock 2 inspired which was cool) but I think like 75-80% of it is pretty damn filler though I will say that I'm definitely not a fan of the vehicle sections, so that obviously affects my perception of the DLC.

    Fallout 3, mediocre game though it is, had some pretty involved DLCs. Taken on their own (and not talking about quality of the overall game), the scope of some of them is probably the best "bang-for-the-buck" in DLCs I've seen. But even then, it feels like someone took a limb and attached it to the body long after the body was completed. Especially with Zaeed and Kasumi since they don't have the same kind of dialogue interactions like the other characters.

    Many of these problems obviously stem from my own perception, when playing a DLC after having finished the rest of the game once. But I also feel that (so far), I'm plunking down money (little as it is of course) for a product which most often feels subpar to the rest of the game.

    I'm not a huge fan of these sort of add-ons as a whole, but on a positive note, it does seem that developers (well, some of them anyway) are putting more time into the DLC and upping the quality overall. Like you say, Lair of the Shadow Broker has had a lot of positive feedback and maybe I'll try that in the near future. And like I said, the finale of Project Overlord was some of the best Bioware has done in terms of the drama of it.

  2. I've generally been disappointed with Bioware's DLCs, the only exception being Shadow Broker. The environment was awesome, the gameplay varied and fun (including the investigation, in my opinion) with an very interesting story. I also found the length of the dlc (playtime) to be perfect.

    I also think Bethesda and Rockstar especially do a great job with DLCs. Both Gay Tony and Lost and Damned felt like well thought out and complete experiences.

  3. I can understand that people might not like the vehicle section of Overlord. Personally I really enjoyed it, but anyone who doesn't is probably going to feel the DLC as a whole fell short.

    I've heard nothing but good things about the GTA IV DLCs. One day I might get around to returning to the game and trying those out.

    As for Bethesda/Fallout 3, I really cannot bring myself to go back to it. When I did finally work up the courage to try it again, the game had seemingly decided that it was going to crash on a regular basis (which it did for a period while I was playing it). A dozen crashes in the space of a couple of hours was all I needed to put it back on the shelf for good. If I ever play it again, it will be for analysis only.

  4. Also, I forgot to say that I wholeheartedly agree regarding the character interaction with Zaeed and Kasumi for Mass Effect 2. I know having proper dialogue trees would have required getting Mark Meer and Jennifer Hale to record more lines for Shepard, but it would have been worth it. They do feel a bit like cardboard cutouts in comparison to the rest of the crew members. You get brief interactions with them during their loyalty quests and that's it.

    I made a series of posts some time ago regarding DLC integration and commented that Shale felt much less "tacked-on" compared to Zaeed because of this exact issue.