DLC has always split gamers down the line on whether or not they’re a fan of it, well, let me rephrase that, whether they think it has any merits. On one hand, it is a gateway to companies becoming even greedier and lowering the quality of their products under the intention of taking even more money out of their consumers’ pockets, showing the corruption of the community and industry as a whole. But then there are others who do see benefits for it, when done right it can lead to new and worthy content to established franchises and provide an even better experience because of it and in some cases fix problems with the core game. Mass Effect is a great example for literally all of these points, it is guilty of the corruption and manipulation of the system (From Ashes DLC) and also shows how it can add too and improve the initial story (Extended Cut DLC). However, when talking about the best DLC from the series, that distinction goes to the Citadel DLC, the very last piece of single-player DLC released for Mass Effect 3. There was a point where I considered it to be the greatest piece of DLC in all of gaming, but then The Last of Us of course had to match it with Left Behind.
It seems fitting that my two favourite videogames would also create my two favourite pieces of DLC, while it’s difficult to compare the two seeing as they serve different functions for both the game and the audience’s expectations, I do find myself in a constant struggle trying to decide which I think is better, so I feel a back-to-back analysis is in order.
The Last of Us: Left Behind
Left Behind was released on Valentine’s Day in 2014, 9 months after the initial release of The Last of Us, it follows two stories, cross cut at random intervals, the main plot is a prequel to the initial story, showing Ellie reunited with her best friend Riley as the two sneak into a mall to have one last adventure before Riley is shipped off the next morning, as the two spend the night together, their true feelings begin to show when their time is cut short when they are attacked by infected and Riley is killed. While the second story takes place in-between the Autumn and Winter sections of the initial game while Joel is mortally wounded and Ellie searches through a nearby mall, hoping to find the medicine to help him. The two stories, though not sharing any story based similarities aside from both being set inside malls, do have a lot in common thematically. In the original game, Ellie says that her greatest fear is to end up alone and it’s expanded upon here, showing the two people in her life that she cares about and how one is taken away from her and how she fights to keep the other.
The idea of us as the audience growing to care about Riley is a difficult one seeing as she has a pre-determined fate, we know that she’ll be dead by the end of the DLC. Yet Naughty Dog managed to make us care for her because Ellie cares for her, the relationship between the two of them is believable and genuine thanks to some fantastic writing from Neil Druckmann and amazing performances between Ashley Johnson and Yaani King. Because we empathise with Ellie because we understand how much she cared for Riley and thus we know how much pain she must be going through at the thought of losing Joel too, again, even though we already know his fate. But it goes further than a sense of empathy, when Ellie is looking for medicine is the only time in the whole game when she is truly alone, even in the winter section where she has to fight against cannibals, unbeknownst to her, Joel is coming to save her, here, there is no one but her, that sense of solitude really sets in.
I hold one major belief in whether or not a DLC can be considered good, that being whether or not it adds to the story and characters, and Left Behind brings it in a way I never would have seen coming. Ellie is the greatest videogame character of all time in my opinion, she’s the one that feels the most real due to mix between realistic writing and again, an amazing performance by Ashley Johnson, this is easily the most diverse and greatest acting job I’ve seen in a single role, I don’t see someone acting like a 14 year old girl, I see a 14 year old girl. Of course a fair amount of that praise also goes to the animators, adding the smallest amount of detail to her expressions and body language to make her movements feel completely natural, and through facial expressions alone you can read a lot into her character. What Left Behind does for her is show her in a new light by having her interact with someone her own age, her best friend, letting her be her silly, goofy and boldly expressive self with someone equally silly, goofy and boldly expressive. But of course there is more to it than that, the now famous kiss between the two characters, which actually does very little in terms of Ellie’s character development, with or without the kiss, she’s still the same person as is her relationship with Riley, nor does it add any new subtext or context for the main story in the game, for her personally it is a cute and honest moment of passion between two girls who love each other.
The real importance of this moment is actually much more substantial for gaming as a whole. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, women in the gaming community have been under a lot of flak recently, whether they be the characters in the game, the developers or the players. The most common argument amongst this controversy is the unrealistic standards of women in videogames, yet Ellie has received unanimous praise for being a great female character, and this moment only makes her better. Think long and hard about how many protagonists in a videogame that you’ve played are gay? Excluding games like Mass Effect where you chose your characters sexuality, but ones where you are required to play as a gay person? Now if you were able to think of a substantial number, how many of those characters were women?
What we have here is a unique and ground-breaking moment in feminism and gaming and whether you want it to be or not, it is in fact a big deal, and I predict that decades from now when gaming culture can be more equal and developed (fingers crossed) this will be looked back on as a defining moment in all of gaming. And what makes it all the better is that it wasn’t an out of nowhere twist that was trying to trick its audience by saying “ohhh fooled you! You were playing as a lesbian the whole time!” but rather leave subtle hints around the game to put the thought in your head, so once the moment came, the reaction wasn’t of shock, but of success, as most people’s reactions were that of a “I knew it!” scenario.
So while a lot of this DLC certainly adds to the characters and themes of The Last of Us, does it do anything story-wise? Well that’s a rather subjective answer. The Last of Us has a very open ending that leaves itself up to interpretation, does Ellie know Joel was lying to her? If she does why did she go along with it? What does this mean for Joel? What does this mean for Ellie? What does this mean for humanity? Etc, etc. So whether or not this game ties into the main game depends on your interpretation of the ending, for me personally I feel like this game adds to the theory of Ellie seeing through Joel’s lie, and gives a plausible reason for why she complies with him.
As discussed, the major theme of this story is that of loneliness, Ellie loses Riley and nearly loses Joel. So think about the final statement Riley says to Ellie “We fight, for every second we get to spend together, whether it’s two minutes or two days, we don’t give that up” (this speech being intercut with her saving Joel) then tie that in with the final statement Joel gives to Ellie at the end of the main game “I’ve struggled for a long time with surviving, but no matter what, you keep finding something to fight for”. Both Riley and Joel share a similar philosophy of fighting to survive, not just for yourself, but for someone you can care about. A philosophy that Riley taught Ellie and Joel has re-enforced, giving Ellie the view that the life of the people you love is more important than your own. Ellie seems to have very little care of her own life, more than willing to sacrifice herself to the Fireflies in an almost euthanasia-esque manner. In the end, her going along with Joel now feels more for his benefit than her own, as if her sole value lies in making the people she loves feel better. Depressing I know, but also rather brilliant on Naughty Dog’s part.
Finally there is the gameplay, where the DLC is sadly lacking in this part when it comes to innovation. The original game already had pitch perfect gameplay so I didn’t go in expecting many changes, the only real major change is the inclusion of the hunters and infected being able to fight each other which I enjoyed. That and pointless conversation branch options that add or change nothing about the game and seem especially pointless when the initial game never had any kind of mechanic like this. But with that being said, this game was never about the gameplay and it’s not what I remember. I remember Ellie & Riley goofing off in a costume shop, I remember them mocking the P.A. ladies voice, I remember them reading horrible puns together, I remember their conversations and I remember why I cared so much about these two in the first place.
Left Behind is the most intelligent and well-crafted piece of DLC that I have ever played, it’s use of themes and characters make it stand out above the rest and this 2 hour experience still holds more meaning than 7 instalments of a first person shooter could ever hope to. But does it beat the entertainment and satisfaction of Mass Effect 3’s Citadel DLC?
Mass Effect 3: Citadel
(Disclaimer: I will be referring to Commander Shepard as a male in this analysis because that is the gender I chose for this playthrough)
Mass Effect 3 had a lot of DLC released for it, some good (Leviathan) some bad (Omega) and the final piece of single-player DLC for the game, and the last for the entire franchise was Citadel, released exactly one year after the game on March 6th 2013. Like Left Behind, the story can be split into two parts, but this time it’s a linear story, rather than intercut between two different intervals. The story follows Commander Shepard and his crew taking shore leave on the Citadel, where Shepard now has a fancy new apartment courtesy of Captain Anderson, when he is attacked by an unknown mercenary gang, who soon is revealed to be led by a clone of Commander Shepard, initially made by Cerberus for spare parts. He seeks to replace the original Shepard and take over as Commander. The original of course wins and the clone is killed off, the second half of the game then focuses on Shepard throwing a party for all of his crew and…that’s it, just the crew hanging out.
It’s no secret that Mass Effect has a lot of similarities and homages to the popular franchise Star Trek, this story in particular sharing themes and plot points similar to that of Star Trek: Insurrection. The story shows what Shepard would be like without his companions by his side, his clone has all of his abilities and intelligence, and while he shares his memories, he doesn’t have that first-hand experience that shapes a person’s life. It’s an interesting character study as well as highlighting the importance of Shepard’s crew. The ensemble cast of characters has always been Mass Effect’s greatest strength and this game expands on why that is. Unlike previous Mass Effect instalments, the concept of actions and consequences doesn’t play much of a role, most likely because it’s a short and self-contained story so it plays out the same way no matter what you pick, your clone will die, whether you kill him or he kills himself, it doesn’t really change anything. But this game isn’t really about creating events to be paid off in the future, as much as it is a celebration of what has been achieved so far, speaking of celebration…
The second half of the game consists of Shepard throwing a party in his fancy new apartment and inviting whichever crew members you would like, of course if you don’t invite all of them then you’re kind of a prick. This entire section of the game consists of nothing more than you walking around your apartment and watching all these characters from three games interact with each other. We have Grunt and Wrex debate who is strongest, Samantha and Joker get embarrassed by EDI, people make fun of Shepard’s dancing and of course Tali gets drunk. I can honestly say that this DLC is worth buying for this segment alone, being a long dedicated fan of the franchise, it’s nice to see them all play off each other and simply have fun. The best moments in any series when it comes to characters is when they’re just sat around talking like normal people, it’s the parts that humanize them and gives them more character by seeing what they’re like when they don’t have to save the galaxy. Also seeing certain characters who never meet in the main story get drunk together is always a treat. Like I said, Mass Effect owes its success to the character roster for having one of the greatest ensembles there is, so dedicating your entire DLC to showing why they’re so important and why they work together so well seems like an easy decision, especially for the final DLC where you want to show the best your game has to offer.
The writing in Citadel is also much more focused on the comedy, Mass Effect has always been a very funny series, especially in Mass Effect 3, but they take it to a new level here, especially when it comes to self-referential humour, making fun of Shepard always saying “I should go” or the long elevator rides in Mass Effect 1, the game is chocked full of it, this is a fanboy’s dream for how funny this game is and willing to mock its own tropes and errors. But the funny thing is, even with the majority of the story being treated like it’s the ice cream you get after a big meal, it still has moments of seriousness that don’t feel forced or pointless. Depending on your choice of romance, you get a scene of the two of them bonding and no matter the pick, it always feels nice, my particular favourite is Liara’s scene which shows why the two of them make such a good couple and how comfortable they are around each other. Thane’s tribute is also very well handled, they show their respects to a fallen comrade, also if you romances him as FemShep then it will also be the only time you see Shepard cry in the whole series.
Though the game technically takes place before the end of the game, I, like most gamers and even the developers treated this as a last goodbye. Like I said, this was the very last piece of single player DLC so it was also the last time we were ever going to see these characters, and Bioware went out of their way to give our favourite heroes a proper send off. We get to relive the glory of the original games while also getting the ending we wanted; I don’t think it’s any secret that people were disappointed with the ending of Mass Effect, we were all hoping (me especially) for a happy ending where the crew is sat around celebrating and throwing a big ol’ party, and that is exactly what we got here. A celebration of their success and mourn for what was lost on the way, and it can all be summed up and put a lump in any fans throat with the final exchange between Joker and Shepard “It was a good ride” “…the best”. Thank you Bioware for giving us the ending we all wanted.
The gameplay in Citadel offers a fair amount of variety in its levels, there are the typical cover shooter sections as there are in all of the games, but this game adds some new variety to it by giving you new weapons and allowing you to bring along all of your crew members (It changes very little of the gameplay but it’s still a nice touch). There’s also new levels too it, including an Ocean’s Eleven homage where you and a fellow crew member have to break into a casino in the middle of a party. The game also lets you play with all of your former crew members from the first two games in the Armax Arsenal Arena, a battle simulator where you can fight with a variety of your crew members from all three games. Strangely only Wrex is the only former crew member to be involved in the main story, my assumption is because he was the only original crew member to not appear in at least two games as a squad member.
Citadel works perfectly as a last goodbye to an amazing franchise, capitalizing on its strengths as well as mocking its own weaknesses with a lot of effort and fun gameplay to it. So which one do I prefer? Left Behind or Citadel?
Usually I compare these sort of things by five categories, but seeing as these are much shorter experiences, I’m only going to do this by three categories. Story: While Left Behind offers great thematic structuring and adds a lot to the main game, Citadel is the perfect send off for this story and shows why this franchise is so good. Characters: This was the hardest category, Ellie is the greatest videogame character of all time and this game develops her even further, but Mass Effect thrives on how great of an ensemble they have, but even then, none of the characters will have had the same effect as Ellie will on the gaming community. Gameplay: Left Behind doesn’t really add much to its gameplay and has pointless conversation branches while Citadel is able to build on their own system even 6 years after the first game.
Left Behind – 1
Citadel – 2
Gameplay was a no-brainer for who was going to win and while story had more of an argument to be made, Citadel was the last time these characters were going to have their story told. The real difficult choice was characters, Left Behind is a great character study with believable relationships and deep meaning behind it, but Mass Effect was a celebration on what was already achieved, it didn’t need to develop characters, it had already achieved that level of success. But they say that it’s all about the journey, not the destination and that’s what I felt here, Ellie has achieved so much yet also has so much more to offer while the Normandy crew have reached their peak. Regardless of the results, these are still two amazing pieces of DLC and if you have the games then I highly recommend picking them up. And if you don’t have the games then I highly recommend picking up them first and plaything them through. These are the greatest pieces of DLC for the greatest videogames.