Both gamers and industry alike are still fumbling around, circling each other, trying to figure out how the whole downloadable content situation should work. What's a reasonable price? How much should it add to the game? Shouldn't this content be in the game already? Or is it material that would otherwise never have seen the light of day?
It's unlikely that Return to Ostagar, the latest squirt from BioWare's busy digital udder, will offer any satisfying answers to these burning questions. It's a thin, forgettable little thing, cheap in price yet offering little more than 30 minutes of one-note gameplay for your virtual money. What you're really doing is forking out for another stat-boosting set of matching armour pieces and some rather tasty weaponry, dressed up in a rather half-baked narrative shell.
As the title prosaically suggests, you're headed back to Ostagar, the game-opening scene of King Cailan's grisly defeat, Loghain's betrayal and the fall of the Grey Wardens. A location loaded with importance for the world of Dragon Age, then, but its potential remains sadly untapped by the time you reach the end of this minor diversion.
The quest begins with an encounter in the forest near Lake Calenhad. One of Cailan's closest allies is being roughed up by the soldiers of a corrupt local lord. You arrive too late to save him, but he coughs up the location of a secret key in the ruins of Ostagar which will open the king's private chest. Inside are vital documents and the sacred sword of the Ferelden throne.
So off you go to Ostagar, where you traipse through locations already familiar from the start of the game, now buried in snow and populated by gibbering Darkspawn. Finding both key and chest is one of your aims, locating Cailan's armour is the other. Following his death, it was divided up between the Darkspawn generals and it's from their corpses the armour must be reclaimed.
For a game so driven by character and story, it's a depressingly uneventful journey though. The path through Ostagar is completely linear, with only a few inessential trinkets and locked chests to find along the way. There are no puzzles, no curious secrets and, apart from the ill-fated soldier who sends you on the quest, there's no NPC interaction. You march through the map, slaughter everything in your path and open every sparkling box, crate or sack you can find.
It took me about 45 minutes first time through, which included my usual OCD compulsion to check every corner for loot. Replaying again with a different character, it took about 25 minutes. If you're playing with a character who has finished the main quest line - and several months from Dragon Age's release that seems fairly likely - there's no challenge whatsoever. My Level 23 Arcane Warrior Mage carved his way through the enemies like a chainsaw through butter. Ditto for my Level 22 Rogue.
Even the boss at the end - the fearsome ogre that killed Cailan, now resurrected by a Darkspawn necromancer - was sliced and diced in less than 20 seconds. As the 25G Achievement popped up for avenging the monarch, it felt curiously unearned and I couldn't help be reminded of Bring Down The Sky, the flimsy DLC for the original Mass Effect. Return to Ostagar shares the same undernourished structure, rote situations and underwhelming conclusion.
What's most depressing is how this miniature semi-mission manages to completely avoid all that makes Dragon Age fun. The wonderful cast of characters is given nothing to do, and the brief conversational cut-scenes only carry any thematic weight if you have Alistair or a certain someone else in your party when you discover Cailan's body. Even then it's hard to swallow the portentous air that the game tries to impose on these otherwise mundane events. Interaction with Cailan in the game was limited to one conversation, and at best he came across as an ineffectual fool, so who cares what happens to his mortal remains?
By reusing old locations and enemies without offering anything exciting or new, Return to Ostagar does little to coax you back in. BioWare has proven itself adept at creating compelling worlds, now it just needs to show that it can convince us to keep exploring them. Suffice to say, feeble half-baked offerings like this are a step in the wrong direction. Hopefully Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening will do a much better job next month.