Version tested: Xbox 360
"Life is like a box of chocolates," opined lovable simpleton Forrest Gump. "Yuh nevah know wutcher gunner get." He might have been talking about life in the 1960s and how going to Vietnam could make you a shrimp millionaire, while thinking for yourself and protesting gives you AIDS, but he could just as easily have been talking about the downloadable content for BioWare RPGs. On balance, it was probably the first one, but that doesn't offer a clumsy segue into a games review, so let's stick with the second.
Because in the chocolate box of DLC, BioWare's output is more variable than most. For every rich, creamy Lair of the Shadow Broker there's a hard, bitter Darkspawn Chronicles. Thankfully, Mark of the Assassin is definitely a delicious treat rather than tasteless stodge.
Things kick off with an ambush in which Hawke and the gang are attacked by assassins. Luckily, another assassin turns up to help you out. She's Tallis, a spunky elven killer, and she's got a favour to ask. An Orlesian duke has an ancient artefact that doesn't belong to him and she's on a mission to get it back. This being an RPG, you're going with her.
To begin with, your task is to gain entrance to Chateau Haine, home to the oily Duke Prosper, and this involves using your kudos as the Champion of Kirkwall to enter and win his annual hunt. Your quarry: the wyvern, just one of several new beasts introduced in this DLC.
This synopsis only holds true for a limited amount of time, as Mark of the Assassin takes great delight in wrong-footing the player, varying the gameplay and twisting the storyline as it goes along.
From there, you take a diversion into adventure game territory as you and Tallis navigate the Duke's garden party, tracking down a key that will let you slip into the chateau. Then the gameplay switches to stealth as you try to creep into the vault unnoticed. Then there are dungeon crawls, boss fights and a lot of optional puzzles with desirable loot at the end.
It's a mixed bag, but in the best sense of the term. Mark of the Assassin doesn't clock up more gameplay hours than other DLC packs, but it crams itself with enough narrative, action and intrigue that it feels very satisfying; a substantial standalone campaign executed on a micro scale.
Not all the elements work as well as you'd hope. The stealth isn't as dreadful as you might expect, but nor is it particularly revelatory. It mostly relies on dimwitted guards with rigid patrol patterns and zero peripheral vision, but it's a welcome change of pace and serves the story well. Pity that Hawke's default stealth stance makes it look like he's soiled his pants.
The puzzles, too, are hardly inspired. Floor tiles open gateways, colour-coded emblems open sequences of doors and portraits must be completed by flipping a grid in the correct order. On their own, nothing special, but taken as part of the whole they're enough to force another mental gear change and keep memories of one-note hackathons like Return to Ostagar at bay.
What impresses most with Mark of the Assassin is just how much optional material there is. Side quests aren't usually much of a feature in add-on packs, as all the resources go on driving the main story forwards. Not only does Mark of the Assassin offer a wealth of secondary quests, it offers different ones depending on the make-up of your party. All told, there are 10 character-specific side quests to be found, and that doesn't include another five quests that you can take or leave.
There are easter eggs as well, with lots of fun callbacks and cameos for players steeped in Ferelden lore as well as an intriguing encounter with a team member from Dragon Age: Origins. And, for the curious, hints at potential future storylines are dangled, both personal plot threads for the members of your party and ominous portents for the Dragon Age world at large.
Mark of the Assassin also earns kudos for introducing new enemies such as the dragon-esque wyverns and the scuttling Ghasts, and for not falling back on the bloody Darkspawn for the umpteenth time. Toss in a green and leafy location that makes for a welcome respite from Kirkwall's grime and the whole experience feels fresh and invigorated.
Somehow, despite having so much going on, the tightly packed storyline of Mark of the Assassin isn't overwhelmed. It takes a similar starting point to Mass Effect 2's Stolen Memory, but quickly forges its own path and motors along to a climactic battle that feels serious enough to cap things off. There are funny moments along the way, and scenes of melodrama and poignancy, but the tone never feels haphazard and the tale glides from comedy to tragedy with surprising grace. When they're operating at full strength, BioWare's army of writers are capable of superb plotting and pace, and Mark of the Assassin certainly benefits from that expertise.
The voice acting matches the high standard of the script, with Felicia Day making for an enjoyable foil as Tallis. A veteran of Joss Whedon's TV shows as well as hit web series The Guild, Day could easily have been stunt casting - particularly as Tallis has been designed to look a lot like the actress voicing her. Flirtatious and feisty, it's easy to be wary of a character that seems ruthlessly designed to pander to the inflamed fanboy libido. Day rises above the clichés, however, and makes Tallis a character worth sticking with. It seems doubtful we've seen the last of her.
Often, with poor DLC, it's the loot that justifies the experience. Certainly, BioWare is no stranger to serving up slim corridor-based expansions that only prove worthwhile because of some weapon handed out at the end. Mark of the Assassin has goodies to spare - the Orlesian Lancer armour set is especially juicy - but the fact that it feels like a secondary bonus rather than the motivation for the whole enterprise speaks highly of the effort that has gone into this download. The benefits of the loot ultimately pale alongside the memorable story and characters, which is just how it should be.
Hitting the "confirm download" button on any new piece of BioWare DLC is always a gamble, but with Mark of the Assassin it pays off. It's an absorbing and varied side story that feeds back into the wider Dragon Age universe in subtle ways. What more could you need?
8 / 10