The five DLC packs associated with ME3 (for the purposes of this post, I’m focussing purely on the story-based additions, not those that provide additional multiplayer maps, weapons and character costumes) From Ashes, Extended Cut, Leviathan, Omega and Citadel can be divided into three approximate categories: Lore, Fan Service and Add-On. Lore pertains to additions that deepen or expand on the main game’s mythology, back story and wider universe leading to a greater understanding of species or events central to the main plot. Fan Service are those that were primarily released to soothe or bolster player responses, directly or indirectly protecting commercial concerns, but adding little in terms of significant character or story development. Add-Ons are those that expand on the main game’s story and wider universe but are largely superfluous to the game’s main plot.
Obviously there’s some cross over, but broadly speaking, they can be categorised as follows: Lore: From Ashes & Leviathan Fan Service: Extended Cut and Citadel Add-On: Omega. The question that occurs to me when reviewing these is should they have been DLC, or incorporated into the main game somehow (even if only in brief references) in order to give the player a fuller story experience? Leviathan is thematically related to several events that occur throughout the ME series. Like several missions involving the Rachni Queen and the Thorian in ME1 and the Reapers and Collectors in ME2, Leviathan explores ideas of mind control, mental instability, free will and the effect of war and suffering on mental health. It serves as a Reaper origin story, which is where accusations of Fan Service could slip in – the nonsensical cyclical nature of the Reaper’s storyline was a source of confusion for many fans, as demonstrated in the meme below:
From Ashes is particularly interesting as it’s definitely lore and significant lore at that, and yet much of it could be missed out due to freedom of player choice. From Ashes provides the background of the mysterious Protheans, the ancient race revered by the Asari and assumed to be responsible for the more advanced technology available in the game’s universe including the Mass Effect Relays that give it its name. It even affords the player the opportunity to add a Prothean to the crew; the prickly and antagonistic Javik. However, if the player doesn’t take Javik along on a mission to Thessia (the Asari homeworld) there’s a huge amount of this they’d miss out, namely the fact that it was the Reapers, not the Protheans, who were responsible for Mass Effect technology. This is a pretty huge plot point, and yet discovering it is left entirely to chance. It also links into the theme of mind control once more, with suggestions that many Protheans were indoctrinated and aided the Reapers in their creation of the relays, knowing that they would later be used to end life across the galaxy, but brainwashed into believing this to be a righteous cause. I find it strange that neither Liara (the ship’s resident Prothean expert until Javik comes along) nor Javik expresses any desire to involve Javik in this mission, as this would at least give the player a hint that they would benefit (at least in narrative terms) from doing so. Early appearances of the Protheans (in the form of their AI) in ME1 suggests that their physical features had not yet been fleshed out at this point of development. Even Javik’s resemblance to the Collectors (who transpire to be the Reaper version of the Protheans) could be due to retrofitting rather than forward planning. As they ultimately became such a central aspect of the game, this begs the question, why were they not more fully incorporated into the main story, or at the very least, the DLC missions themselves telling more of the Prothean story, rather than expectations being placed on the player to replay the main mission in a specific (unsignposted) way. I’m going to gloss over Extended Cut for now, because that and the surrounding controversy is a discussion all of its own, (which I do intend to have at some point, but not right now) and move on to Fan Service two, Citadel. Citadel comprises multiple elements but each places fan service firmly at its core. There’s the apartment donated to Shepherd and her crew by Admiral Anderson. This provides simple customisation options to the player which took me back to my days working on PlayStation Home. It’s amazing the level of engagement fostered in players just by allowing them to choose between shiny and matte kitchen counters. The apartment provides the player with a space to return to that offers the familiarity of the Normandy combined with a level of personalisation and customisation previously only afforded to Shepherd’s appearance. Via its main storyline, subplots and ‘narrative collectables’, Citadel offers deeper understanding of previously fringe characters such as Anderson and Kahlee Sanders, and allows for extending and deepening both inter-relations between the Normandy’s crew and Shepherd’s individual relationships with them as well as revisiting those lost along the way. Finally, Citadel provides a number of other more typically ludic diversions for the player in the form of additional mini-games and metagames at the Silver Coast Casino and surrounding environs. All these elements work together to encourage the player towards feelings of celebrity and superiority, of being a member of an elite group. There’s the sumptuousness of the apartment with its opulent art and luxurious layout, there’s the little touches in the storyline like Shepherd’s queue-jumping at an exclusive restaurant and admission to an exclusive soiree (although these moments are undercut with Shepherd’s typical inability to be classy – smashing through the glass floor of the restaurant and ending the soiree by pursuing an enemy through the Citadel archives) and there’s the “high-roller” nature of the Silver Coast games and the metastory surrounding them – Shepherd rapidly becomes (even more of) a celebrity at the Armax Arena with fan requests pouring in to guide her progression through the arena battles. One of the key criticisms arising about this content was the question of tone, but in reality, I believe it’s as much (if not more so) an issue of pacing. On receiving the DLC, a fan’s natural reaction is to play through as much of it as possible as soon as it is available. They have already seen/played what the rest of the game has to offer, and want to see something new. But in doing this, they play a story far more light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek in tone than the game proper. That’s not to say Citadel is without its moving, melancholy moments. The sections of Anderson’s autobiography scattered around his apartment give insight into the loneliness and loss that shaped him into the leader he now is, and his preparations for what he assumes will be his last mission. Messages from deceased crew members Mordin and Thane are truly heart-wrenching in their simple, matter-of-fact delivery. Yet overall, the tone in this DLC is that of jovial space-romp rather than the multi-tonal space opera characterised by the vast majority of ME’s other missions and installments. From the crew’s frequent quips and humourous in-fighting to the amusing visuals of hulking Krogan Wrex perched uncomfortably on an expensive sofa or hard-bitten mercenary Zaeed trying to win cuddly toys in a claw machine to the rather ridiculous twist in the main plot, the DLC is largely played for laughs. This seems to contradict what I said about this being a pacing issue, but look at it this way – if these scenes were experienced at intervals (particularly those that can easily be experienced at intervals such as the majority of the crew interactions) they would provide moments of necessary levity to what is otherwise a rather tense and gloomy tale of the universe’s impending destruction. It is only when they are experienced en masse that their tone becomes a problem. Another issue of pacing is presented in the chase through the archive. Here, the player is given the opportunity to view and listen to graphical representations of key moments in the game world’s history, events only briefly touched upon (or presented as dense blocks of text in the game codex) previously. However, the player is actively discouraged from interacting with these exhibits because they are harried by Cerberus forces and pressured by their crewmates and the implied (although ultimately false) time-constraint of the storyline into continual pursuit of their enemy. This could have been rectified by opening this area to the player after completion to allow examination of the installations at their leisure, but such an opportunity is never presented. Rectifying the pacing problem of the piece as a whole is one with no easy solution, all though a possible approach would be to allow the player to start the content at their earliest opportunity, but to unlock further interactions/scenes at a more gradual rate, although I appreciate the complexity of such a task may have been beyond the game’s capabilities or the developers’ timescale. The only section which did have significant tonal issues (as opposed to minor tonal issues exacerbated by pacing) was the choice of Shepherd’s antagonist – a clone of herself. This was problematic for several reasons. Firstly, the implication of the Lazarus Project that resurrected Shepherd in ME2 both through the associations of its title and specific visuals and character comments was that she was ‘raised from the dead’ in some way. The technology employed to rebuild her remains ambiguously sketched and Shepherd variously questions how far she may be considered biological, synthetic or a combination of the two, but it is never implied that she is a clone, or one among many. In fact, Miranda implies that Shepherd is unique when she says: “… I would’ve implanted you with some type of control chip. But the Illusive Man wouldn’t allow it… He wouldn’t let us do anything that might limit your potential in any way.” Secondly, while there is precedent for cloning in the ME universe, it is not consistent with the vision presented by Shepherd’s clone. In ME2, Krogan scientist Okeer succeeds in cloning the tank-bred Grunt, but the implication here is that this was a process of many years (Krogans are long-lived and the genophage has by this point been active for more than 2000 years, meaning Okeer could have worked on this for centuries). Grunt is released fully grown, his memories implanted by Okeer. In terms of human cloning, we have Miranda’s sister Oriana. Again, this seems to have been an extremely long-term project with Oriana born as a baby and raised by her family in the manner of a naturally-produced biological child. Between Shepherd’s body being recovered for the Lazarus Project and her (adult) clone making an appearance a maximum of three and a half years has passed. Such a rapid turnaround for an adult clone violates the game’s own mythology and as such overspends its credibility budget to the point of ridiculousness. An alternative, but still interesting antagonist would have been Kai Leng, as his story remains largely unresolved in the main game, and this would give an opportunity for more insight into his character beyond the rather two-dimensional villain we’re presented with. Last of all is Omega, perhaps the most successful in terms of story and gameplay, possibly because it makes little attempt to integrate with the main game. While offering an alternate perspective on Asari crime boss Aria T’Loak, the game is largely standalone. However, that’s not to conclude that this is the ‘best’ approach. Overall I would say I enjoyed Citadel the most, because I’m a sucker for anything that allows me to spend more time with beloved characters, which is a testament to the quality of the writing and the characterisation. In fact, there is much of value to be found in all the DLC packs, including what can be learned from their flaws and shortcomings.