The past couple of months have seen a large chunk of story DLC hit for a variety of AAA games. Here's a look at three of the biggest, for Assassin's Creed Syndicate, Batman: Arkham Knight, and Rise of the Tomb Raider. Read on to find out if they are worth your time.
Assassin's Creed Syndicate - Jack the Ripper
The base Syndicate experience is the most light hearted, thoroughly charming, and deeply funny game in the entire series. The only game that had me chuckling more often in 2015 than the misadventures of twin Assassins Jacob and Evie Frye was King's Quest! Part of what makes Jack the Ripper's success so immediately apparent, then, is its stark contrast to the rest of the experience. If Syndicate is Assassin's Creed at its lightest, then Jack's story represents the franchise at the darkest point it will likely ever reach.
From a narrative perspective, this DLC takes Evie back to London after a decades-long hiatus helping out the Assassins in India. Jacob has been running things in London on his own, and doing a good job of it until The Ripper killings started. Players are thrown into a very, very different London, one seized by an all-consuming fear of Jack. The game is gray and depressing, as it rightly should be, and the atmosphere is completely absorbing. For fans of the main game, the opening moments will be surprising and possibly even a bit traumatic.
If there is any justice, Jack himself will go down as a legend among video game antagonists. He makes this DLC completely his own, his acting, creepy movements, and unsettling visual and audio tricks selling you on his insanity. He is just sympathetic enough to be human, but ultimately Ubisoft Montpellier plays one of history's greatest monsters straight: Jack is completely terrifying and, ultimately, irredeemable.
Female protagonists are still a bit too rare in games, let alone playing as a middle-aged woman, and fans can be assured that Evie is incredibly well handled. From her new outfits and character model to Victoria Atkin's standout performance, this is Evie grown from a girl to a woman, and she brings all sorts of interesting tricks from her time in India to loosen Jack's grip on London. The Indian Assassins have long used fear as a weapon, and using a variety of nonlethal (but still wince inducingly painful looking) spikes and hallucinogenic powders, players can make an example of any enemy they choose, utilizing a new "fear" system to scatter enemies to the winds and instantly subdue more powerful enemy types. It's hugely empowering stuff, and is similar in concept to the systems present in the Batman Arkham games and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. That said, it's more in-depth here than in those titles and, due to its systemic nature, is a little easier, and more enjoyable, to exploit. From a gameplay perspective, this is really the only addition to Jack the Ripper over the base game, but it's an absolute success and is a mechanic that I want to see return in the series' next installment.
Jack the Ripper contains very few design flaws, but it is sadly lacking in polish versus the main game. In particular, getting behind the reigns of one of London's hugely enjoyable horse-drawn carriages causes the game's framerate to crash to a halt all too often. Enemy AI also struggles to adapt to the new fear system at times, though to often comedic results. There was a moment where I performed a fear takedown on an enemy inside a building and, instead of causing everyone to run away in a panic, it attracted hundreds of guards. In small clusters the guards would pour into the building, see what I had done, scream and freeze, as more guards would flood in and do the same. Eventually I had to just leave through a window to avoid crashing the game.
Even with some tech issues, Jack the Ripper is a fascinating and experimental take on Assassin's Creed's core pillars and is very possibly its most well-written story. It certainly represents the series at its boldest and most daring, and stands as a fitting expansion to what is one of the best Assassin's Creed titles ever made. If you enjoyed Syndicate to any extent and can stomach a relative lack of polish, experiencing Jack's story is a must.
Assassin's Creed Syndicate - Jack the Ripper is... Recommended.
Batman: Arkham Knight - Season of Infamy
Batman: Arkham Knight is bizarre when it comes to DLC. Regardless of your opinion on the Batmobile, Knight is one of the most tightly designed narrative-driven action/adventure games of all time, the result of an experienced developer that clearly loved what they were crafting. Its DLC, from challenge rooms and skins to horrible 5-minute "story expansions," has existed as far removed from that notion as possible: quick, dirty cash grabs, that actually soured my thoughts on the game as a whole. Expectations for Season of Infamy were understandably weighty, billed as a meaty expansion that would see the return of four fan-favorite villains and give Batman more questlines to pursue around Gotham.
The expansion slots directly into Batman's "Most Wanted" side content, tucked away on a separate menu that doesn't impact the game's total completion % that unlocks its final ending. What's on offer here is certainly an improvement over previous DLC, offering a decent hour and a half or so of story to pursue. The DLC's fatal flaw is that the content is thoroughly and, with few exceptions, lazily recycled from the base game. The main story and side content in the base game constantly flooded the player with new types of puzzles and combat gimmicks, but what's on offer here is the same blend of combat, Batmobile drone battles, and moderate sleuthing players have already done for dozens of hours.
Exactly half the DLC is worth your time. The missions devoted to Killer Croc and the Mad Hatter are infinitely lesser variations on themes and ideas present in the rest of the series, tepid at best and frustrating at worst. Mr. Freeze's questline, from a gameplay perspective, is tired, two poorly designed stealth sections and a mediocre Batmobile combat segment and... that's about it. Narratively speaking, though, it is a fantastic and emotional culmination of everything that Mr. Freeze has been in the Arkham series, and caps off his tragic story arc in style. In gameplay terms, there is literally nothing about Ra's Al Ghul's return that is worth discussing: you've done everything here in another game in the series, and it was more enjoyable then. However, this tale about a civil war that has erupted in the League of Shadows climaxes with a difficult choice for players to make, one that puts them behind the cowl in a way that no Batman game or mission has yet to this point. It's hugely affecting, is the highlight of the DLC, and demonstrates the huge potential that Telltale's upcoming take on the caped crusader has.
Aside from a few big moments, though, Season of Infamy joins the rest of Arkham Knight's long line of hastily executed and lazily constructed DLC. It doesn't do enough to differentiate itself from things you've already done dozens of times before, and it simply isn't executed to the same high standard as the rest of the experience.
Batman: Arkham Knight - Season of Infamy is... Bland.
Rise of the Tomb Raider - Baba Yaga: Temple of the Witch
Rise of the Tomb Raider is a curious game for me: it went from something I loved every second of, to something that drove me a bit crazy and caused me to vent to anyone who would listen, and straight back to something that I can't, and don't want to, stop playing. Its blend of rich puzzle-solving, collectible-laden exploration, and versatile combat is something that I now simply can't get enough of, so its Temple of the Witch story expansion arrived just in time for like-minded players to get their fix.
This dark tale of a vengeful forest spirit takes Lara to a new location called the Wicked Vale, which slots so perfectly into the game's setting that it's hard to picture it without it. This DLC represents the absolute pinnacle of Crystal Dynamics' storytelling ability, delivering the most tragic story they've ever thrust Lara into. To talk about it in-depth would be doing a disservice, but know that Lara's time in the Wicked Vale unearths a history that is surprisingly sweet and incredibly sad, and is punctuated by some of the most memorable moments in modern Tomb Raider.
Temple of the Witch offers up a fantastic remix of the game's flexible combat, exciting setpieces, and tricky puzzle-solving (the entirety of the Wicked Vale is basically a brand new Tomb), capped off with a boss fight that puts all of the players' combat, traversal, and puzzle-solving skills to the test, mixing and matching demands in a high stakes scenario to create one of the most memorable Legend of Zelda-style boss fights to ever exist outside of Nintendo's legendary series.
Temple of the Witch represents DLC done right, combining the base game's winning gameplay formula with great storytelling and plenty of surprises, including some moments that best anything found in the main game. It joins that rarefied space of story DLC occupied by the likes of The Last of Us: Left Behind and BioShock Infinite: Burial At Sea Episode Two, of DLC that genuinely enhances the player's time with the experience and provides a greater regard for the work as a whole. In an industry space occupied by the lazy and cutthroat, Lara's latest gives everyone something to reach for.