Version tested: Xbox 360
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.
Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation
- 10 new planes (200 Points / GBP 1.70 / EUR 2.40 each)
- 2 Idol Master planes (400 Points / GBP 3.40 / EUR 4.80 each)
- 1 new multiplayer map (100 Points / GBP 0.85 / EUR 1.20)
At first glance, the DLC page for Namco's superb flight combat game looks like a treasure-trove of wonders. There are sixteen items in total up there - the 13 listed here, along with three freebies (a set of plane skins decorated with the Scarface emblem from Ace Combat 2). Surely enough to satisfy the demand of even the most ardent sky warrior?
Perhaps not. Throttle down for a moment and consider this; if you buy everything on that page, you end up spending 2900 Microsoft Points, which works out at GBP 24.65 or EUR 34.80. In other words, there's enough DLC up there for you to spend a fairly significant portion of the purchase price of the complete game on. Ouch. So what are you getting for your money?
This is where it starts to get really disappointing. The GBP 1.70 you spend on each new plane doesn't actually get you a new plane - it gets you a new skin for an existing plane, and a new set of statistics to go along with it. There are no new in-game models up there, just new paint-jobs for existing aircraft, and a few tweaks to the spreadsheet that works out handling, speed and the likes. The Idol Master planes, which are decorated with garish paintings of the paedoriffic anime girls from the Idol Master game, are even worse value; over three quid for a lick of paint!
The new multiplayer map, at least, is a bargain, coming in at under a quid for a fairly solid new Team Battle locale (although of course, maps are less crucial in a game which is mostly about sky combat anyway). The rest of the DLC, however, is hard to see as anything other than a rip-off. It's not that it's entirely pointless - Ace Combat fans will definitely enjoy having a few more planes with different stats and flight models to play with. It's just that it's hugely overpriced, since all you're getting for your money is a texture and a few figures to tweak the stats. Combine all ten of them into a package for 400 points and you'd have a solid piece of DLC; at 200 points each, this feels like really blatant gouging of loyal customers.
Phantasy Star Universe
- Ambition of the Illuminus expansion (1600 Points / GBP 13.60 / EUR 19.20)
This is the single most expensive item we've reviewed in this roundup (although it doesn't come close to the overall cost of Ace Combat's planes). It's also easily the single most fully-featured, content-rich piece of DLC on Xbox Live - featuring a new storyline that continues on from the single-player, new levels, new lobbies and mini-games for the online side of the game, and a host of new weapon types, character design elements, clothing and special attacks.
In other words, it's a complete expansion pack - and indeed, if you're playing PSU on the PC or PS2, you'll be paying twenty quid for it as a boxed game. That makes the asking price for Xbox 360 owners seem really very reasonable, especially when you consider that this isn't just an expansion which sticks new components into the multiplayer - it's also got a whole new storyline experience in there.
Phantasy Star Universe itself, of course, is a divisive game - and we're still really not convinced that it's worth spending seven pounds a month on a subscription for the rather limited online content. If you're happy with doing so - and that's a big "if" - then Ambition of the Illuminus is a very solid expansion, however. The new zones are nicely atmospheric and varied, while the new in-game items continue to evolve Phantasy Star's wonderful neon aesthetic.
We like the new storyline, too. Allowing you to actually play as your own character for the first time (in the original game, the single-player story focused on the existing character of Ethan Waber), you get a chance to roam around and interact with heroes from the first game as you hunt down a new Human Fundamentalist faction who are wreaking havoc in the Gurhal system. It's not exactly epic sci-fi, but it's enjoyable and fairly light-hearted - much like the original PSU.
Plenty of other nice updates come bundled with the Illuminus pack. The new grid system for laying out your room and furniture is a welcome improvement to the staid placement system in the original game, and the addition of new Photon Arts and weapon classes will, of course, give online players plenty of new content to get their teeth into.
Ultimately, though, the fact that Illuminus is a solid (and incredibly good value) chunk of DLC isn't enough. It doesn't fix the most basic problems with the online game - like the fact that the subscription is bloody expensive for what you get, and that enforced grouping means you need to have a group of friends playing (and paying that sub!) to enjoy it. A fine update for existing fans, then, but not really worth considering if you've been steering clear of PSU thus far.
John Woo's Stranglehold
- Map Pack (1200 points / GBP 10.20 / GBP 14.40)
Describing Stranglehold's DLC as a "map pack" doesn't quite do it justice. Unlike Halo 3's excellent Heroic pack, which includes just three maps, Stranglehold's first chunk of DLC has ten new maps on offer - and for only 400 points more than Halo's offering. Admittedly, this map pack is one of only two pieces of DLC that come in at over a tenner (see PSU on the previous page), but surely with this many maps, it justifies the cost?
Well...sort of. The maps themselves are great, with a fairly significant level of variety in terms of setting, gameplay and size. Many of them take their inspiration from various areas in the single-player game, covering Hong Kong film-set type locations like slums, markets and harbours. Our favourite is Naval Exercise, a huge tanker-like ship whose rabbit warren interior encourages hide-and-seek gameplay - but every map in the pack is crammed with Stranglehold features like falling objects to shoot out, ropes to slide down and so on.
The 21 new "characters" which come with the pack are less impressive. Although a few characters from the game who weren't previously playable in multiplayer make an appearance, the vast majority of what you get here are just skins for Tequila himself - and frankly, they're not even necessarily any better than the skins you unlock by playing through the single-player experience. They're not awful, but they don't add much value.
What will add value in some people's eyes, however, is the addition of 250 new gamerpoints. This is something we simply don't see enough of in DLC - new challenges and Achievements that add to your Gamerscore, thus appealing to the obsessive-compulsive nature of our inner Xbox gamer. The Stranglehold Map Pack includes ten new Achievements, all of them focused on multiplayer, and many requiring you to do things on specific maps from the new pack.
The question, of course, is whether you view Stranglehold as a multiplayer game at all. We know plenty of people who enjoyed the single-player but never experimented with the multiplayer - and admittedly it's no CoD4 or Halo 3, designed instead as a loose, accessible and entertaining blast to enjoy with a few friends. In that context, it's great - and if you're into that, this DLC is a damned good way to spend a tenner.
- Four new plasmids and tonics (Free)
Not everyone seems to be determined to squeeze every cent out of Xbox gamers with DLC - and it's worth including BioShock's effort just to contrast it with some others in this roundup. Completely free, gratis and for nothing, you get four new gene enhancements - Sonic Boom, EVE Saver, Vending Expert and Machine Buster. Sonic Boom is a rather fun new plasmid, while the three tonics should help anyone struggling through the game. In addition, the pack gives the option to disable Vita Chambers - and unlocks a 100-point Achievement for completing the game without using one. Ouch. Can't argue with that for free!
- New high-level dungeon (400 points / GBP 3.40 / EUR 4.80)
- Six in-game items (200 points / GBP 1.70 / EUR 2.40)
The DLC for Microsoft's rather divisive entry into the JRPG market is a rather varied selection. On the one hand, you have the Shuffle Dungeon - which, for the price of a pint in London, grants you hours of gaming for characters level 50 and over, with 30 new items and 10 new bosses. On the other, you have Six Treasures - which involves paying nearly two quid for a few in-game items, including the Master Thief manual, which increases the drop-rate of good stuff from monsters. Paying for that makes us feel a little cheated. On the plus side, you can also download new game difficulty levels from Live for free, which makes up for it a bit.
- Chopin Music Unlock (80 points / GBP 0.68 / EUR 0.96)
The cheapest piece of DLC we looked at in the whole roundup, and also the oddest. For a princely sixty-eight pence, you can unlock the ability to listen to the (admittedly absolutely beautiful) renditions of Chopin's piano masterpieces found in the game any time you like. On one level, we can't help but feel like this is the sort of thing that should be in there anyway - you've bought a game with this music in it, why on earth should you have to pay to be able to listen to it at your convenience? On the other hand... Well, it's 68 pence. Still, for a couple of quid you could probably have a CD of Chopin's works - making this into even more of an oddity, and of dubious value despite the low price.
Forza Motorsport 2
- Pack of ten new cars (400 points / GBP 3.40 / EUR 4.80)
- Road America track (100 points / GBP 0.85 / EUR 1.20)
This is the December update to Forza Motorsport 2, and a clear demonstration that Microsoft is determined to support the game - and at a reasonable price. For the cost of one Idol Master skin in Ace Combat 06, you get ten fully modelled, gorgeous looking cars - from the likes of Audi, BMW, Ferrari, Pontiac, Porsche and Renault. You don't get to play with them immediately, though - they have to be unlocked with in-game credits, too. In addition, there's a lovely looking rendition of the Road America track, which hosts the US Le Mans series, for eighty-five of your English pence. With packs like this every few months (there was another in September), Forza's DLC is turning out to be the best value across all of Marketplace.
Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock
- Two three-track packs (500 points / GBP 4.25 / EUR 6.00)
- Three singles (200 points / GBP 1.70 / EUR 2.40)
In addition to a couple of worthy freebies - the Halo theme and the Boss Battle pack, which features original compositions by Tom Morello and Slash - Guitar Hero III has been garnished with a fair few new pieces of DLC since its launch. Our favourite of the three-track packs is the Foo Fighters one, featuring old classics like This Is A Call, but the Velvet Revolver one is no slouch, featuring of course the stylings of the aforementioned Slash. The singles on offer are a more eclectic bunch - Extremoduro and Die Fantastischen Vier are popular with our continental brethren, we're told. The main disappointment here, predictably, is price. SingStar offers the music, the video and the game data for each track for 99p - charging more than that for something without the video doesn't seem right. Good selection though, and we suspect most GH3 players will want that Foo Fighters pack.
Naruto Rise of a Ninja
- Japanese voice pack (Free)
- New Character and Arena Packs (500 points / GBP 4.25 / EUR 6.00 each)
Ubisoft's surprisingly good take on Japan's best-loved noisy ninja has two main offerings on Xbox Live - and it's the free one we like best. One of the biggest problems we had with the game was its shockingly dreadful English voice acting, so it's a relief that you can grab the Japanese dialogue for free online. Full marks on that front. The new characters and arenas for the fighting game portion, too, are welcome. You get two fully fleshed out characters, with their own moves and specials, along with two new battle arenas in each pack, which isn't bad for just over four pounds. If you're not convinced, though, there's a demo version of the content online - a nice touch we wish more DLC publishers would emulate.
Need for Speed ProStreet
- Five new cars (and new event days) (800 points / GBP 6.80 / EUR 9.60)
- Unlock all tuning items (800 points / GBP 6.80 / EUR 9.60)
- Unlock packs of six cars (400 points / GBP 3.40 / EUR 4.80)
Call us cynics, but we started writing this feature convinced that we were going to encounter plenty of publishers ripping off their loyal audiences with DLC prices. Sure, we found plenty of overpricing, but we were pleasantly surprised at the value on offer in most games - until we ran into EA's strategy for DLC. Don't be fooled - only one of the items listed above is actually new content, the five-car pack which costs twice as much as Forza's ten-car pack. The rest are unlocks for things that are already in the game, and which you could unlock by simply playing it - which then leads us to wonder what incentive developers have to balance their game properly, if they can make more money by selling virtual cheat codes to hapless gamers at vastly inflated prices? They probably call it choice - we call it disgusting gouging.
Upon which note! We're done for now. Look out for another roundup soon, and let us know in the comments if there's anything specific you're curious about that we can help you by having a look at.