Video game expansions and additional content have been around longer than one would expect. From Sonic 3 & Knuckles‘ Lock On Technology to level packs in the original Doom, base game releases have been able to expand and grow post launch for well over two decades now. The dawn of the internet lead to these expansions being widely available as Downloadable Content or DLC.
While this is more common now in Live Service Games, some of the best forms of DLC are the Story Expansions. These are usually bit-sized packages that either continue a game’s story, offer new forms of gameplay or bring players to new areas to explore within the game world. But what happens when a DLC or expansion is too good? When an expansion goes above and beyond the game it’s based on? It’s more common than one would think.
Far Cry 3 – Blood Dragon
One of 2012’s standout titles was Far Cry 3 and it still holds up to this day as the pinnacle of the franchise. It laid the groundwork for future Ubisoft open world sandboxes while seamlessly weaving gameplay and story together. It successfully avoided the ludo-narrative dissonance trap most of those titles fall victim to. With great gunplay, a beautiful open world and one of gaming’s most memorable villains, Ubisoft Montreal had a hit on their hands. Far Cry 3‘s quality generated enough hype and praise on its own but it was overshadowed by its DLC, Blood Dragon.
For lack of a better term, Blood Dragon kicks ass. Blood Dragon is a love letter to 80’s action movies with all the camp and cheese dialed up to 11. Movies like Terminator and RoboCop are clear inspirations as players take control of the genetically altered super soldier, Rex Colt. While the core gameplay of an open setting, gunplay and skills still remains, a whole new neon coat of paint is applied with the visual flares one would expect.
Loading screens reminiscent of VHS tapes. Cutscenes designed in the style of classic NES games like Ninja Gaiden or Mega Man. A synth-laden soundtrack that sets the mood. While the nostalgia mining of the 80s has gotten tiresome as of late, to go full retro like this prior to Stranger Things is a pretty impressive move by Ubisoft.
On the gameplay side, Ubisoft decided to inject a bit of Doom into the Far Cry formula. While there are still Far Cry elements like exploration, expanding the map and light RPG elements, the combat is clearly the focus. With unique weapons like chain guns, shurikens and a Dragon Blade, Blood Dragon was Ubisoft letting loose and having fun which translated to the final product.
One of the aspects that makes Blood Dragon stellar is how “out of left field” it was at the time of its release. Typically, DLC would follow the “more of the same” formula, much like most of the expansions discussed here. It would’ve been easy for Ubisoft to create another small DLC island for more Jason Brody adventures but they didn’t. They made something unique and unexpected and because of that, Blood Dragon is one of the most memorable Far Cry experiences ever despite how tremendous its base game is. It was so popular it sold half a million copies in 2 weeks while boosting the sales of Far Cry 3, doing exactly what a great expansion should do.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag – Freedom Cry
Let’s stick with Ubisoft a bit longer. Ask most gamers what the best Assassin’s Creed game is and there’s a good chance Black Flag will be their answer. Edward Kenway’s swashbuckling pirate adventure took the series to new heights as it shifted focus toward the open sea. Complete with ship boarding, pillaging and ransacking, drinking, sword fighting and other pirate shenanigans, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was hard to top.
While Assassin’s Creed games have had story expansions and DLC since the second entry, there’s no doubt Black Flag’s offering is one of its best. Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry follows Captain Kenway’s right hand man Adéwalé as he captains his own vessel in search for those ever nefarious Templars. The story picks up several years after the end of Black Flag.
Adéwalé washes up on the shore of the French Colony Saint-Domingue after his ship capsizes during a storm. From there, he must confer with the locals, find a ship, build a crew and continue his mission against the Templars. The story is small and self contained, focusing more on its characters than the overall Assassins vs Templar plot. This is all for the best as Freedom Cry tackles some pretty lofty subjects.
Adéwalé, being a former slave from Trinidad, is faced with a similar situation when arriving at the capital city of Port-Au-Prince. Part of the narrative that’s intertwined within the gameplay is freeing the enslaved people around the island. By raiding plantations or rescuing slaves in randomly generated instances, Adéwalé can form his crew and gain access to new equipment and weapons.
This mechanic is certainly controversial. Using the real life travesty of slavery and “gamifying” it can be seen as a bad look by some. But the overall themes and character driven narrative help soften the blow of an otherwise sensitive subject. Liberating slaves that then band together and help to take the fight to their oppressors acts a very real driving force behind both the players and Adéwalé’s actions. Because of this, Adéwalé becomes a much more relatable and likable protagonist compared to Kenway.
One of Black Flag’s main draws was its ship traversal and combat. While fun at its core, it did tend to overstay its welcome as opposed to traditional on-the-ground Assassin’s Creed fare. Freedom Cry opts for the Assassin’s Creed III approach, with the majority of its 5-6 hour runtime on land with ship gameplay being lightly sprinkled throughout.
This is the best of both worlds as the ship combat and exploration always stays fresh and the traditional gameplay continues to be as fun as it always has been. While Assassin’s Creed games can sometimes be bloated adventures with almost too much to do, Freedom Cry showcased the best the classic iterations had to offer in one bit sized package. With a surprisingly emotional story and excellent gameplay variation, Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry is a standout entry even when compared to main entries.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 – Torna: The Golden Country
The Xenoblade Chronicles series has been quite the heavy hitter for Nintendo since it debuted on the Wii in 2010. Its sequel sold well over 2 million copies, becoming Monolith Soft’s most successful game at the time of its release. It’s one of the biggest games of Nintendo Switch in both scope and scale. Because of that, the whole experience couldn’t fit on one cartridge.
Clocking in at about 15 hours or so, Xenoblade Chronicles 2′s expansion, entitled Torna: The Golden Country, is one of best examples of what makes the series so special. While most expansions stay relatively unchanged in the gameplay department, Torna keeps the same foundation while changing most of the core gameplay from its base experience.
The combat is streamlined while still retaining that addicting complexity of the base game. Instead of having access to three blades during combat, players control one of two characters, a Driver and a Vanguard. Each have special Art attacks that have passive abilities on cooldowns, switching between the Driver and Vanguard to maximize damage potential. This system is unique to Torna and gives players the taste of Xenoblade Chronicles combat without the hours of learning that it takes to master it in the main series.
Torna’s structure is reminiscent of the Wii original, having smaller hub like areas rather than the massive biomes from Xenoblade Chronicles 2. This allows areas to be more densely packed with enemies, secrets and details. It also allows the story to be on a smaller scale and weave a more personal, character driven tale.
As a prequel, Torna’s narrative fills in the backstory gaps of characters such as Malos, Jin and Mythra. Torna doesn’t fall victim to most prequel stories as its events were briefly touched upon during the main campaign. The destruction of Torna and the motivations of the main cast are all central to the main game’s plot. This gives players a personal story while also filling out the grander plot of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 in satisfying fashion.
Torna also features gameplay mechanics not seen in the main game to make it stand on its own a bit. Where the main game had various Blades players who could swap in and out, the main cast stays relatively the same. Because of this, they all have their own unique skill that players can utilize at campsites. Staying at a camp, players can cook status affecting food, craft build altering pouch items, or create key items that progress the story. These mechanics give each character their own little personality trait that’s directly tied into gameplay.
Torna does a great job of setting itself apart from the main series while also streamlining Xenoblade Chronicles 2 for veterans and newcomers alike. While Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is an incredibly ambitious title, there’s no denying it has its fair share of issues, all of which have been ironed out for this expansion. For the definitive and digestible Xenoblade experience, look no further than Torna: The Golden Country.
Fallout 3 – Point Lookout
Bethesda’s revival of the Fallout franchise couldn’t have gone much better. Taking Interplay’s classic, isometric RPG into the modern era with Fallout 3 led to record sales and a resurgence of the once prolific series. While Fallout 3′s main campaign was spectacular, the best aspect of its release was the plethora of DLC it received after its launch in 2008. Out of the five expansions, the best one, by far, was Point Lookout. Set on the coast of Maryland, players travel to the titular Point Lookout via a ferry from the main Capital Wasteland.
Point Lookout, a rough amalgamation of the real Point Lookout State Park in Maryland, is one of Fallout‘s most interesting locations. The wastelands of the Capital, Commonwealth and Appalachian variety share very similar visual designs and color palettes. Point Lookout very much stands out in that regard, opting for an irradiated swampland shrouded in overcast weather and sprinkled with a dash of mystical elements as well.
The unique biome of Point Lookout comes with additional storylines, weapons, armor and enemy types that all fit its theme perfectly. There’s a very somber tone to the whole location as players engage in quests about missing children, megalomaniac mansion owners, Chinese espionage and mystical rituals and cults. Point Lookout is the only expansion that introduces a new open world setting as opposed to the more linear or combat focused DLCs before it. Because of this, it stands out as being the best of the bunch. That’s not to say Operation Anchorage, The Pitt, Broken Steel or Mothership Zeta weren’t great, it’s just that Point Lookout takes what Fallout 3 did so well and gives the players more.
Sometimes, bigger isn’t always better and that’s proven when comparing Point Lookout to its base game. The long stretches of barren wasteland in Fallout 3, while impressive for the time, could drag on for a bit too long in between interesting locations. Point Lookout’s more compact nature allows for the landscape to constantly be dotted with areas to explore, buildings to loot and locations to discover. It shrunk down the great Fallout 3 experience into a more consistently enjoyable and rewarding experience.
Point Lookout has a very similar feel to New Vegas a lot of ways. It’s able to set itself apart from Fallout 3 as well as the series at large in almost every aspect. The landscape is varied with beaches, cliffsides, caves, swampland and abandoned piers. The enemies are grotesque Swampfolk and Swamplurks as opposed to typical Raiders or Super Mutants. The prewar era weapons are a joy to wield. Tie everything together with a story that’s better written while not taking itself too seriously and you have an adventure as memorable as Fallout 3.
Bioshock – Minerva’s Den & Burial At Sea
To wrap up this list, it’s a Bioshock Double Feature. There’s no denying the lasting legacy of the original Bioshock, something its sequels have struggled with. While Bioshock 2 is better than most people give it credit for, Infinite fumbled at the goal-line under the weight of Ken Levine’s ultimate vision. Luckily, both games have expansions that exceed expectations, making each title more memorable in the long run.
Bioshock 2’s Minerva’s Den shares similarities with the previously mentioned Xenoblade expansion in that it’s a very streamlined Bioshock experience. Everything that makes up a Bioshock game is present and spectacular. Dynamic combat with unique weapons and plasmids, non-linear level design, a dour tone tied together with a narrative filled with intriguing political and social commentary complete with a mind-bending ending twist.
Rapture is one of the greatest locations in gaming and Bioshock 2‘s expansion introduces players to a new portion of it. Rapture Central Computing is the technological epicenter of the doomed submerged metropolis. At the heart of all Rapture’s automated systems is The Thinker, the supercomputer responsible for automated processes found throughout the city. Not only is The Thinker a neat concept in general but it also gives context to most of how Rapture operates. From oxygen levels to Security bots and Cameras, The Thinker is responsible for these functions.
Like most science fiction revolving around a computer or AI, things inevitably go sideways. Tasked by its creator, Charles Milton Porter, Subject Sigma must enter Minerva’s Den and acquire the blueprints of The Thinker from Porter’s former colleague Reed Wahl. With help from Bioshock alumni Bridget Tenenbaum, Porter looks to take the supercomputer to the surface to help the civilized world as opposed to the doomed Rapture.
Sigma stomps and shoots his way through Minerva’s Den in traditional Bioshock fashion with new weapons and plasmids to use on unique enemies to make the DLC unique to the base game. Where the DLC elevates itself above the original campaign is its narrative. Without wishing to spoil anything, the twist to end Sigma’s short but sweet adventure rivals the original Bioshock for its inventiveness and impact.
Minerva’s Den is able to push Bioshock 2 out from under the shadow of its predecessor. While Bioshock 2 will never be able to live up to the original, its DLC is able to give the game its own identity. While the base game is still great, Minerva’s Den solidifies the whole package as worthy of the Bioshock moniker while also being some of the most fun in its universe.
While Minerva’s Den stays relatively unchanged from its base game, Bioshock Infinite’s expansion does not and is all the better for it. While ambitious, Infinite couldn’t live up to the hype it generated prior to release. Burial at Sea makes up for some of that disappointment. Bioshock Infinite’s Burial at Sea takes players back to Rapture in a two part release. Splitting the DLC in two was intentional and very much benefits the package overall.
Part 1 feels like Bioshock again. Infinite very much fell in line with the shooters of that era. Linear mission style progression with limited weapons and plasmids littered with style over substance set pieces. This departure from the old-school roots of Bioshock was only a part of why Infinite didn’t live up to the hype. Burial at Sea Part 1 marries Infinite’s modern sandbox with its old school design to breathe fresh air into Booker and Elizabeth’s adventure.
Taking place prior to Rapture’s downfall, Burial at Sea showcases Andrew Ryan’s true vision. Through the eyes of one of Booker Dewitt’s many incarnations, players are tasked with aiding Elizabeth in tracking down a little girl named Sally. Going from the pristine utopia of Rapture to its seedy underbelly, Burial at Sea shows Rapture in new and old lights that are both fascinating and nostalgic.
Part 2 is where things get interesting. For reasons related to spoilers, players take control of Elizabeth and finish off the entire Bioshock trilogy on a satisfying note. The neatest part about the split is that Part 1 plays much different to Part 2. Controlling Elizabeth feels like an entirely different game. Focusing more on stealth, Elizabeth must sneak about Rapture, avoiding Splicers and using items like sleeping darts and special plasmids as work-arounds to traditional combat.
The dichotomy between both parts helps each stand out from one another while also serving as a cohesive story and it’s pulled off quite brilliantly. As one expansion, Burial at Sea is able to take the best of Bioshock and Infinite, sprinkle in some unique gameplay of its own and tie up an entire trilogy with a neat little bow. For what Infinite lacks, Burial at Sea more than makes up for its shortcomings, being the perfect sendoff for a wonderfully little trilogy.
A good expansion adds to the original release and extends the enjoyment of the title. Much like a sequel, a great expansion is able to learn from the mistakes of its base game, improve or streamline mechanics and gameplay elements to make an overall good game even better. These types of DLCs are special in their own right as most wouldn’t exist if the developers were given the chance to spin their ideas into sequels. Sometimes bigger isn’t always better and a compact and concise little adventure is the perfect way to enjoy a genre or game series. There a many examples of expansions exceeding expectations but these are some of the best.
Any honorable mentions we missed? What’s your favorite DLC or Story Expansion? Let us know in the comments below!