Version tested: Xbox 360
Nine months after launch, and Mass Effect 2 finally has a DLC offering to compare with Dragon Age: Awakenings. Not in terms of size – Lair of the Shadow Broker still takes the best part of an evening to polish off – but as a showcase for the strengths of both parent game and BioWare itself. This is a solid, thrilling, satisfying addition to an already expansive universe; one that leaves you on an appropriate note of hopeful melancholy.
It starts with a slow burn, though. The Illusive Man drops you a line saying that he's found some info on the mysterious Shadow Broker, the information dealer who retrieved your space-blasted body, and whom your former ally Liara T'Soni wants dead. From that simple beginning, it's off to Ilium to meet with Liara and things quickly take on a conspiratorial tone.
It's a testament to just how well this miniature story plays out that I find myself retreating from anything that feels remotely spoiler-like even at this early stage. Suffice to say that it pulls off a near-perfect balancing act, finding room for all the elements that Mass Effect 2 excels at while maintaining an energetic forward momentum. There are some fun conversation options, a little investigate work, some blistering corridor gunplay, and at least two epic stand-offs where enemies pile on from all sides. Add in two enjoyable boss fights and you've got an experience that is much more varied and substantial than its short playing time suggests.
It even finds time along the way for a plot twist (rather heavily signposted, but nicely paced all the same) and offers a jaw-dropping bit of visual showboating as you battle your way across, around, under and over the hull of a giant space cruiser hurtling through an atmospheric storm. It perhaps resembles the climax of the first game, where you fought through the crumbling Citadel, a little too much but when the view is this dramatic, who cares about a little thematic repetition?
Mostly, it's a tour de force for BioWare's scripting team, who tie together dangling plot threads from the first game and the sequel, weaving them into a new narrative that seamlessly enhances your understanding and enjoyment of both games. There are beautiful character moments that benefit from the richly drawn cast and the organic, interlinked world they inhabit. There are fist-pump moments of classic Shepard bad-assery, and a memorable Paragon/Renegade moment with a hostage. There are fleeting references and clever in-jokes that will thrill those who have fully immersed themselves in this rapidly expanding universe.
Clocking in at over 1.5 GB, this is clearly more than an off-the-cuff cash grab. There are cut-scenes to rival anything in the full game, and new dialogue that allows for any combination of characters you might take with you. It even takes into account the romantic entanglements you may have made during your two-game career, without painting itself into a corner that won't make sense to those who haven't popped their virtual cherry.
For all its successes, Lair of the Shadow Broker's real treasures lie at the end, however. Obviously, the risk of spoilers is even greater here, so if you don't want to get even a sniff of a hint of what might unfold, skip to the score at the end now.
You see, it's only once the story is resolved that the true benefit of this DLC becomes apparent. The prize for victory is access to the Shadow Broker's network, a vast resource of information that proves both entertaining and indispensable.
Unlocking the Shadow Broker's base as an open location, to which you can return at your leisure, you get such perks as a terminal where you can purchase mining manifests, marking mineral rich planets on your Galaxy Map and saving you a lot of tiresome scanning. You can also invest a few thousand credits in various missions, undertaken on your behalf by the Shadow Broker's operatives. The pay-off for these comes with the passage of time, making it the gift that keeps on giving. And that's not to mention the healthy amount of credits and research items you'll accrue along the way.
But still there's more. A video archive contains brief YouTube-style clips taken from around the galaxy. Some contain incidental characters you'll already know, others are just random and bizarre. The game promises more each time you return, and they're quirky enough to make it worth the effort.
Fans of Mass Effect's expanded narrative would also do well to check out the dossiers the Shadow Broker has collected on your travelling companions. An absolute jackpot of character development, it manages to add more colour to an already fleshed-out cast. There are some great gags – witness Legion's Gamer Profile from the MMORPG Galaxy of Fantasy, Miranda's e-dating records, or the top five tunes that Garrus listens to through his visor. There are also some more meaningful entries, such as a transcript of the conversation where the infant Jack was taken from her mother for study.
It all adds up to a downloadable package that stuffs in an awful lot of content, while maintaining the pace and rhythms of a lean blockbuster movie. For the duration of this story, it's a satisfying side-dish, prepared and presented with flair. For the player planning another jaunt through Mass Effect 2, it adds far more to the game than some of its disappointingly slender predecessors. The only major downside is that it makes the wait for Mass Effect 3 all the more agonising.
9 / 10
Mass Effect 2: Lair of the Shadow Broker is available now to download on PC and Xbox 360.