Once regarded with uniform suspicion, premium downloadable content for console games has thrown off some of that stigma in recent months, as the likes of GTAIV: The Lost and Damned and the Mirror's Edge Pure Time Trial Pack have advanced the original games in directions influenced by critical and community response.
With Tomb Raider: Underworld's Xbox 360 episodes, however, fans perceived the dark spectre of corporate indulgence. The two new episodes - Beneath the Ashes (out tomorrow, 24th February) and Lara's Shadow (10th March) - had overlapped slightly with the full game's development, and an exclusivity deal with Microsoft did little to purify Eidos' motives in the eyes of sceptical players.
Tomorrow, we'll get to make our minds up, as Beneath the Ashes goes on sale. Before that, we spoke to Ron Rosenberg, senior producer on both episodes, to find out more about them and more about their DLC credentials and relationship with Underworld itself. You'll also find out a bit more about the second episode, Lara's Shadow, for which Rosenberg exclusively confirms that you get to play as the Doppelganger. Look out for our review of Beneath the Ashes very soon.
Eurogamer: Can you tell us anything new and exciting about Beneath the Ashes? What sort of things have you got in store for Tomb Raider fans who need another fix?
Ron Rosenberg: Wow, there's a lot of exciting things in this release. The goal for Beneath the Ashes was to push the gameplay mechanics further than we were able to in Tomb Raider: Underworld. The team working on the project learned a lot of lessons over the course of the development of the main game and we used that experience to push things a little further. One example of an area of focus was pushing the potential of the grapple hook, which you must use to execute some remarkable acrobatics and to solve some interesting new puzzles.
The adventure begins with Lara in the ruins of Croft Manor. She's sifting through the remains of her father's secret study which contains information about a hazardous artifact he was safeguarding. The artifact is extremely dangerous if exposed to water. The destruction of Croft Manor has unearthed the entrance to an ancient dungeon where the artifact is hidden. First thing you see as you enter is water pouring into the pit.
Eurogamer: You've said that Lara's Shadow has a brand new playable character. Is the name as much of a giveaway as we expect?
Ron Rosenberg: Yes, there is a brand new playable character in Lara's Shadow, the Doppelganger. The Doppelganger is a dark and deadly double of Lara with incredible powers and instructions to end the Croft lineage once and for all.
I think people are going to have great fun playing the bad girl character of the Doppelganger. We're quite proud of how she turned out. The release is a great example of using DLC to innovate and try new ideas and I can't wait to hear what the fans think of it. We developed new gameplay mechanics to support her superhuman strength and agility that make the experience different than any other Tomb Raider game. It's a rush to play.
She also presented some quite intriguing storytelling opportunities for us. As the Doppelganger likes to boast, she is a copy of Lara "with the flaws removed", and getting to know her provides some insight into Ms Croft.
Eurogamer: How would you say the two episodes complement Tomb Raider: Underworld? Do you see them as distinct elements, or as finishing touches?
Ron Rosenberg: Both of the episodes build on story beats in Tomb Raider: Underworld, but they clearly were crafted as standalone releases and wouldn't fit into the narrative structure of the full game. Beneath the Ashes takes place underneath the ruins of Croft Manor, whose destruction was one of the major dramatic moments in Underworld.
Lara's Shadow delves more deeply into the story of one of a lesser known Underworld characters. Neither would have made sense as part of the larger narrative in Tomb Raider: Underworld, but the DLC format works great for delivering these stories. Personally, that's part of what excites me about DLC. The shorter format allows you to tell stories that you might not in a full game.
Eurogamer: In terms of length, to use a familiar Tomb Raider metric, how many of the game's grand, switch and platform hunting puzzles would you say players can expect from each episode?
Ron Rosenberg: Not that there aren't puzzles, but the episodes are less focused around switch and platform hunting so I wouldn't use that as a metric. In playtesting, we're seeing an average completion time of around three hours with some people taking as long as six hours.
Eurogamer: Eric Lindstrom, writing on the Tomb Raider forums in January, said that the content was originally cut to avoid slipping the game, which might give the impression they were weaker sections than others. Presumably you'd disagree! Can you explain why these two episodes specifically were selected for that?
Ron Rosenberg: There's been some confusion around that. It is true that we utilised some assets created for Tomb Raider: Underworld to create the adventure, but each of the episodes was conceived as an original DLC release. The team has built the environments around an original story created specifically for DLC. I would also mention that the disc for Tomb Raider: Underworld was completely filled and these are not part of a plan to hold back content as some have speculated. Each of the new downloads contains approximately 1GB of content and there is no way either would ever have fit on the Tomb Raider: Underworld disc.
Eurogamer: What do you think of existing downloadable content pricing - for things like Fallout 3 Operation: Anchorage, GTAIV: The Lost and Damned, etc? And have you decided on a price for Beneath the Ashes and Lara's Shadow yet?
Ron Rosenberg: I think it's reasonable. A lot of effort goes into creating the DLC content. We've had a large team working on our DLC, so while we do receive some advantage from established tech and assets, we're also putting in a heck of a lot of effort into creating these new releases. Beneath the Ashes and Lara's Shadow are being offered at 800 Microsoft Points each. Each episode offers enough gameplay that their value compares proportionally with a full game release.
Eurogamer: Another key part of the DLC debate, of course, is how much gameplay players get out of downloadable content. Rockstar hopes to raise the bar this month, claiming Lost and Damned is a third the size of the main GTAIV campaign, and features new multiplayer modes. Where's the balance between price and content for DLC, and how would you say the two Tomb Raider episodes shape up?
Ron Rosenberg: Our DLC is priced comparably to other action-adventure single-player DLC and I think it represents great value. Gameplay time has been a big consideration as has the fun factor. There are many types of DLC that offer the player different types of compelling experiences. We are trying to grip the player's imagination and engage them with the combination of story, action and other challenges that are the hallmarks of a great adventure. This is something that you might not get from a multiplayer map pack. As a gamer, I think it's great to have both of these different types of DLC available.
Eurogamer: The decision to go exclusively with Xbox 360 attracted a lot of attention, and not all of it positive. How do you feel about that in hindsight, and about exclusive content for consoles in general?
Ron Rosenberg: Of course, I'd love to see the DLC made available to anyone who wants to play it. At the same time, I'm appreciative of the support we've received from Microsoft. There is an immense amount of effort that goes into creating DLC content. We are pioneering a new format and I think it is going to have lasting positive benefits for gamers.
Tomb Raider: Underworld - Beneath the Ashes is due out for Xbox 360 on 24th February. The second episode, Lara's Shadow, is set for release on 10th March.