It's been interesting to see BioWare, consummate master of the long-form narrative, come to terms with the new storytelling territory offered by downloadable content. After fumbling the ball with a drab pair of morsels for the original Mass Effect, it's been far more proactive with its sequel, as well as its sibling, Dragon Age. It's not been an easy journey, however. Finding ways to insert new, compelling tales into enormous pre-existing stories, and making those tales resonate on their own terms, is a skill that the RPG behemoth is arguably still grinding towards, one painstaking XP point at a time.
Mass Effect 2 has fared better than Dragon Age, that much is clear. There's not really been any DLC that can compare to Return to Ostagar for sheer pointlessness, and even the less compelling offerings have either been free (as in the case of the Normandy Crash Site interlude) or easily ignored (as in the case of downloadable sunglasses for Thane).
What is most exciting is that the two most recent additions to the Mass Effect tapestry showcase a developer that is using DLC not to suck up more cash by offering more of the same, but to play around with parameters of the original game in novel ways.
- Free to Cerberus Network owners
The Firewalker pack is a good example of this, a free off-shoot that introduces the hovering Hammerhead tank to the Normandy's arsenal. It's hard to begrudge anything that costs you nothing (assuming, as always, that you've got access to the Cerberus Network using a free code) and this leeway also helps to paper over the nagging feeling that the five Firewalker missions are more of a tutorial for a tool that you can't use anywhere else.
After retrieving the Hammerhead from a downed transport, you're set on the trail of its inventor and the mysterious events that led to it becoming lost. As a diversion from the main story, it's a fun change of pace. As a compelling experience in its own right, it feels disappointingly slight.
Despite the shadow of the first game's woeful Mako tank looming large, the Hammerhead dispels any gameplay doubts almost immediately. Nimble and fast, its main benefits are a muscular boost that allows it to shoot upwards and glide to safety within a generous radius, and a cannon that fires homing rockets. It can also mine resources or download data by jiggling about in highlighted areas.
Each mission gives you a chance to try out a different aspect of the vehicle's control, and they're all amusing if inessential. Things get a bit too platform-gamey as you hop from one rocky outcrop to another (my notes read "Is the Hammerhead related to Jumping Flash?") but there's a tangible pleasure in swooping it around areas clearly designed to maximise its entertainment potential.
Combat, sadly, is the weakest element. The cannon is fine, but there's no real feedback - it rarely feels like you're pummelling enemies with high ordnance. Worse, the Hammerhead is a fragile creation, prone to exploding after brief exposure to small arms fire. It recharges faster than the ponderous Mako, but you'll find that enemy encounters still rely too heavily on the old tactic of pounding the fire button while bunny-hopping over projectiles.
Even so, just when you've found the measure of the thing and start to enjoy yourself, the missions run dry and the story, such as it is, fizzles out. Only one of the missions requires you to get out of the Hammerhead and explore a location, but even that excursion is brief and uneventful.
It leaves the DLC feeling like a great idea in search of better integration. Had the Hammerhead been incorporated into the game from launch, it could really have livened up a few of the less interesting planet missions. Fingers crossed that BioWare has more plans for it, and will use it to flesh out future DLC adventures.
Editor's note: Since the Firewalker Pack is a free download, we didn't feel the need to give it a score. The score on page two of this review applies to the Kasumi - Stolen Memory add-on only.
Kasumi - Stolen Memory
- 560 Microsoft or BioWare Points (£4.76 / €6.72)
Far more substantial is this new side mission, which introduces the twelfth member of the new Normandy team. Much like Zaeed's loyalty mission, it's short and self-contained but offers enough long-term benefits to make it valuable to anyone just coming to the game, or planning a new play-through.
Tweaking the mission formula slightly, you'll be playing with just Shepard and new recruit Kasumi Goto, a master thief, rather than the expected duo of tooled-up companions. While we gamers tend to get hung up on how long things last, and how that time compares to money spent, Stolen Memory does a good job of justifying itself through enjoyable gameplay and clever storytelling. Short, yes, but also surprisingly sweet.
After making contact with Kasumi during a fun scene on the Citadel, you're given the option to fly off to the luxury home of Donovan Hock, an amoral arms dealer who murdered Kasumi's partner and stole the "grey box" containing his memories. Infiltrating Hock's lavish party is your first task, with Shepard donning a space-age Bond tuxedo to mingle with the guests while Kasumi guides him from the shadows.
Boil it down to the gameplay elements and there's not much in this section to get excited about. You wander around looking for scenery hotspots and triggering conversations. As a scene-setter, though, it's incredibly fun, taking Shephard out of his element and introducing a splash of light-hearted heist caper into a game that skews more toward bombastic action and epic moral choices.
It's surprising just how funny these scenes are, with BioWare skirting as close to outright comedy as it's come in a long time. From Shepard's pseudonym - Solomon Gunn! - to the Krogan cartoon playing on a security monitor, the solitary credit lurking down the back of a sofa and a sly Dragon Age reference in Hock's vault, this is Mass Effect at its most playful.
Things inevitably turn violent, and Kasumi's prowess in combat makes her an instantly attractive addition to the squad. As befits her stealthy trade, her skills draw from the traditional RPG rogue character set, with the ability to disappear and pop up behind enemies, as well as a flashbang grenade stun attack that you can learn from her.
The combat scenarios escalate nicely as you battle your way out of Hock's fortress home, culminating in a robust boss battle that is predictable yet very satisfying. The denouement adds more shading to Kasumi's flirtatious character - also explaining why she's not available for romance in the main game - and, in a commendable final flourish, the obligatory moral choice at the end is dictated by intimate emotional considerations rather than battlefield pragmatism.
Coming out the other side of the DLC, not only will you have a new character who is both useful in combat and fun to have around, you'll also have a serious pile of credits pilfered from Hock's many safes and datapads, another tech upgrade and a new SMG weapon. Like Zaeed, once Kasumi joins up, you can visit her and investigate the various possessions she brings with her to get a little more back-story. Unlike Zaeed, her responses are more varied and she'll even comment on the romantic choices you've made. Best of all, Kasumi's presence in the previously locked observation deck opens up a cocktail bar, which grants you the long-overdue ability to get absolutely hammered on the Normandy.
8 / 10