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.