Should RPG downloadable content ever feel extraneous?

I gave myself yesterday off from reading or writing, owing to having worked all weekend, and I finally started playing the Firewalker “free” downloadable content pack for Mass Effect 2.

I found myself getting bored within the very first mission. There was no additional dialogue recorded for Shepard or the two squadmates I selected for the mission, Garrus and Mordin. The actual gameplay wasn’t terribly exciting, and it didn’t add anything to the story.

Mass Effect 2 is all about the story and the characters for me. It has competent shooter mechanics, but if I want a shooter I’m going to play a FPS title. What makes Mass Effect so great is the universe, and the effects of your choices on the world around you and your relationships with the characters.

To be fair, I’ve only played the first Firewalker mission and it looks as though the three remaining missions are where the action is. I haven’t read anything in the media, however, about a story component to this DLC. Therefore, my interest is waning having been “at the helm” of the hovertank gunship and having some idea as to what’s in store for me: flying around and blowing shit up.

I wrote a few weeks ago about my feeling that game developers have a right to create DLC during a game’s development. I also wrote that I feel DLC should be something which is not part of the central game experience, i.e. nothing should be held back from the retail release just to have DLC ready to go sooner rather than later.

Firewalker feels like something that wasn’t completed in time for the retail release, but which really should have been there. It feels downright vestigial as I go through it with my post-story-completion character. My fear is that the upcoming “Kasumi’s Stolen Memory” is also going to feel the same way. Kasumi may be an interesting party member with a good story, but I’ve already beaten Mass Effect 2. The story of which she is ostensibly meant to be a part of us already over.

I respect Blizzard as a development studio because they are willing to hold back products, or even cancel them (Starcraft: Ghost) if they don’t feel the product is up to snuff. They’re a monolithic company so they can make those sorts of decisions without feeling a sting to their profits, especially with the cash cow that is World of Warcraft…but the fact remains that they put the quality of their software above other considerations, which means the consumer gets every penny’s worth they spend on Blizzard products. I don’t care how long Blizzard takes on Starcraft II or Diablo III, because I know that when the games come out they are going to be sterling examples of games in their genres.

Bioware isn’t as big as Blizzard…but they’re not a small company by any means. I think I would have preferred it if they had held back Mass Effect 2 until Firewalker and the “Kasumi’s Stolen Memory” story arc were finished such that they could have been incorporated into the main game, which I’ve already said was too short for me.

DLC in RPGs ought to be something that is written to take place after the main story has ended. Broken Steel is the best, recent example of this I can hold up. It clearly takes place after the main story of Fallout 3 has ended, and breathes more life into your character. The Pitt and Point Lookout don’t explicitly take place after the main plotline, but they’re self-contained stories of appreciable length so they can serve as extensions of the story. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion DLC is another great example of how to handle post-story DLC. The downloadable modules were self-contained adventures.

I am interested to see how Firewalker and Kasumi’s Stolen Memory feel when I go through them with my second character, who is still towards the beginning of the Mass Effect 2 story. Chances are they will feel perfectly integrated to the point where I am now considering abandoning the Firewalker content with my first character, and going through it for the first time with my second character to get the experience I feel I should have had from the get-go.

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