"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.
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