Every now and then, someone pops out of the woodwork to complain that the games industry isn't innovative any more. This is clearly nonsense. Certainly, publishers might have an ongoing love affair with barely distinguishable sequels and a herd mentality that makes sheep look strong-willed, but consider this - year after year, the industry invents new and previously unheard-of ways to make you part with your cash. If that's not innovation, what is?
Download Content (DLC) is a new arrival in the exciting field of wallet-stripping, and the Xbox 360 is on the vanguard. Many Xbox 360 games have content available for download sometime after launch, allowing you to hand over a few measly Microsoft points for access to new maps, models, missions and the likes. It's a great idea in theory, obviously - who doesn't want to extend the life of their favourite game a bit? In practice, though, there's some suspicion about it. Nobody wants to find themselves paying extra money for content that should have been in the game in the first place.
Hence these DLC roundup features, where we'll be looking at the bits and bobs that have made their way onto Xbox Live - and, soon, PSN - in the past few months, and checking out what's worth whipping your card out for, and what deserves to sit, dusty and unloved, in the digital dustbins out the back of the Marketplace.
- Heroic Map Pack (800 Microsoft Points / GBP 6.80 / EUR 9.60)
Halo 3 may have been unseated, at long last, by Call of Duty 4 at the top of the Xbox Live most-played list in recent weeks - but don't doubt for a second that Bungie's opus is going to hang around the top of that chart for years to come. It definitely helps that the team seems totally committed to DLC, and, even as we write this, there are rumblings about a second map pack for the game appearing in the near future.
So what do you get for your almost-seven-quid? It buys you three multiplayer maps, in essence. You're paying a bit over two quid each for the maps, in fact, so you'd rather hope that they're good. Thankfully, they're better than good. They're absolutely fantastic, demonstrating Bungie's unrivalled ability to craft multiplayer maps that are perfectly honed and tuned, with every weapon placement, every piece of cover and every chokepoint carefully considered, tested and polished.
Standoff is the undoubted star of the trio, a relatively compact but very open map which features two bases at close quarters in an outdoor setting. It's a symmetrical map, and perfect for team games - with plenty of room for vehicle play around the edges and in the central corridor, while the base entrances themselves become a playground for fierce, messy melee and grenade combat. Moreover, it's beautiful, its vast radio telescopes standing solemnly in the early morning haze on the horizon being one of the most dramatic backdrops to any Halo multiplayer map.
The other two maps are interesting because they add something totally new to the Halo 3 experience, and hint at a willingness on Bungie's part to really innovate and explore new ideas with DLC. Rat's Nest is heavily modelled on the giant base in the second area of Halo 3's single-player, and is a vast indoor experience that's perfect for vehicular mayhem. If careening around indoors on vehicles is new to Halo, though, the final map offers something even more unusual.
Foundry, as the name hints, is really designed as a Forge map. While in its basic configuration (in which it appears in the ranked playlists) it's a solid, enclosed, Quake-style map, full of ramps and giant crates, it really comes to life in Forge. Bungie has changed the way it makes maps for Foundry - whereas previously all of the levels were static, with only vehicles and weapons being editable in Forge, in Foundry every crate, ramp, tunnel or wall is an editable object. This allows players, for the first time, to actually move around and play with the layout of the level - and is a tantalising glance at the true potential of Forge.
Worth a couple of quid each, then? Absolutely - it's a small map pack, but manages to pack a startling level of diversity and quality into its three levels. If you're feeling miserly, though, take comfort. Bungie will be making the Heroic pack available for free to everyone just ahead of the launch of its next map pack, sometime this spring.