Expansion packs were once a core part of playing PC games, but they can often feel less essential in a world of constant updates and microtransactions. Original game Alec, expansions Adam and Graham, and brief DLC Alice gathered to discuss their favourite game expansions and why they still think the model works.
Alec: If you were going to expand yourself, what would you expand? Genitals don’t count.
Adam: I’d probably go for a greater sense of purpose. My life is a bit like a series of sidequests without a mains storyline to distract from them. If I was going to expand anything, I’d make the central journey of life seem like it had a little more direction and some sort of incredible endgoal (other than the cold embrace of the grave). I’d also buy a new winter coat.
Alec: I think I’d like a better lumbar. Or maybe an extra set of knees. I think they’d be a great help when it came to repeatedly lifting up a heavy toddler. Anyway, enough about our desires: we are here to discuss which game expansions - which is almost an old-fashioned word now, isn’t? - have been the most not-rubbish. And, I suppose, if expansions are and should still be a going concern in the age of more nugget-sized DLC. Do we yearn for the days when a large expansion for anything successful was basically a given?
Adam: Absolutely. When I find a game that I love, I’m usually fascinated to see how the creators would expand on their original ideas. Part of that comes from a suspicion that compromises have always been made, for better or worse, and the belief that a few more months of work might allow ideas that had fallen off the drawing board to find their place in the game.
Graham: Yeah, I think expansions are still great. Even in this world of early access and live feedback during development, you still regularly hear developers say they just got good at making a game at the point it came out.
Adam: On top of that, I tend to spend a lot of time with the games that I love so something like Crusader Kings II, which has new bits and pieces every time I start a campaign, is perfect. At this point, it’s a different game to the one I reviewed at release and in another time it would most likely have been a sequel. In the digital download age, those big add-ons still exist and with the right production and distribution model, a single game can support years of expansions.
Alec: I think there’s something huge in that idea of creators expanding upon their original ideas. So often now the DLC is at least planned (and sometimes made) in advance, as part of a careful marketing and revenue plan, whereas before it was wait and see how it goes down, often across much longer time periods. People trying to improve rather than simply add more. What are your highlights, anyway?
Adam: There are two types of expansion, to my mind. Or two types that I love at any rate. First up there are the game-changers, expansions that dramatically alter the feature-set. Those are the kind that can make a mediocre game good, or make a good game great. Civ V falls in that category. I liked it well enough at release but the expansion built on different areas of the game - literally tackling early- mid- and late-game problems - and managed to bring something great out of it.
Then there are expansions that just give me more of something that I already love. Dark Souls did that with Artorias of the Abyss, although that’s a bit of a cheat because the PC version included it from day one. I have fond - and possibly faulty - memories of the Diablo II expansion though. More recently the Dishonored DLC was superb and improved what was already a great game without just adding some new levels. It felt like a different approach to familiar ideas and places.
Alec: I’m fond of expansions where you’re hard pushed to encapsulate exactly how it’s improved the game. The more recent Civ ones are like that, like another pass, filling in gaps and finessing rather than necessarily big screamy features, as was Bloodmoon for Morrowind. Sure, everyone talked about how it had werewolves, but what it really did was add new places, new stuff, new strangeness, new possibility to a game already rich in that stuff. You almost didn’t know it was there. It helped to make it feel the right size, with the right amount of potential.
Graham: It's "more of what I love", but Deus Ex: Human Revolution's Missing Link is one of the best bits of expandy DLC I've played, because it's also "what I love done better". It's a chapter that's designed to slot into the main game's plot, filling in an inessential part of the story that went unseen, but it's the Human Revolution team applying everything they'd learned during the process of making the game. And never more clearly than in its boss fight, which uses the design originally planned for the Barrett fight in the main game, till they had to cut it. It's a boss fight that makes sense within Deus Ex, proving it can be done: you can stealth it, you can win it non-lethally, you can break into boss's office before the fight and nick his special gun for yourself...
Alec: On the other side of the coin to that, I wasn’t totally sure about the BioShock Infinite expansions being this weird hybrid of plot continuation and whole new game. I didn’t quite grasp its purpose, although I was hugely impressed by how they went to town on the appearance, and the stealth stuff too.
Adam: I think Bioshock 2 is the best expansion possible for Bioshock 1. Maybe we’d all have realised how good it is if it had been sold as DLC rather than an entire new game. The changes to combat made the entire game so much more enjoyable for me because I actually used plasmids during hectic combat sessions in the second game - and set up neat little rooms full of traps.
I was trying to think of an expansion that actually made a game worse. That seems like something that might happen in multiplayer land, where I rarely tread. Something that messes up balance or divides the playerbase. I’ve rarely been unhappy to see new pieces being added to a game that I love but it would probably be a much more intimidating possibility if I played online. I’d hate a Rocket League expansion that changed the basics, for example.
There is a problem with big singleplayer expansions though. I was playing through Pillars of Eternity, which I’m enjoying a great deal at a very slow rate. Now that the first half of the expansion is out (an expansion released in two parts is undoubtedly grotesquely large and time-consuming) I feel the need to start again. I don’t want to miss things and I don’t have time to play through twice. So I’ll cut my losses, start over and play the complete experience. Except I won’t. Because of the whole two-parter thing. I’m fucked, basically. I can’t play until it’s complete because I’m like that and then it’ll be about seven hundred hours long.
Alec: You’re going to have a very old-school retirement. Yeah, there’s something to be said for expansions you can go directly to, the old C&C model - here are some new missions with some new silly cutscenes, don’t worry about remembering anything. But in this age of everyone knowing everything I don’t know if games would dare to simply repeat themselves like that.
Oh - speaking of BioShock 2, it would be remiss of us not to mention Minerva’s Den, which is arguably the best bit of BioShock ever. And if we go with the idea that BioShock 2 was an expansion to BioShock, then Minerva’s Den is an expansion of an expansion. META.
Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall was like that too. The expansion was better than the parent game, and then they went and expanded the expansion. More games should just endlessly improves themselves, even if it means we can’t quite keep track of which version is which.
I tell you what, I got very excited about the Half-Life expansions back in the day. I was too young and stupid to have at all scrutinised what it was that worked so well about Half-Life, I simply wanted to be in that place with those aliens some more. I even got breathlessly excited about Blue Shift, and would happily have played through three or more so-so slices of Vortigaunt-bothering like that. Clearly, I am more discerning now. Although if someone suddenly put some new Dungeon Keeper missions…
I am so old.
Graham: It helped that Opposing Force was a good distillation of the things Half-Life already did well. I liked that alien gun arm you could feed green goo balls, although I too was simply excited to spend more time in Black Mesa. And you could see Gordon Freeman through windows, doing things that you did in the main game!
Adam: Oh yeah, I was the same. Didn’t even have to be official in any way whatsoever. Disc full of new Doom maps? Yes please! I’d try them all and find a favourite.
I do have an issue with any kind of expansion that forces me to play through the whole game again. That’s fine if something has changed but if I need to trek through the Forest of Introductions and then through the Mountains of Grind before I can visit the Archipelago of Novelty, I’m really going to need a guarantee that those are some truly handsome islands. Situations like that make me annoyed to have joined the party early rather than just waiting for a GOTY edition with all content included.
Alec: Yeah, despite my earlier praise for Dragonfall, stuff like that and the upcoming Wasteland 2 spit'n'polish does make me groan a bit. But I’ve already done that! What am I missing out on? Am I going to repeat myself? Are my OPINIONS going to be wrong and irrelevant if I don’t go back? Why couldn’t you buggers get it right the first time, etc?
Anyway, we should probably wrap up. All-time best expansion pack? Mine is H&M Fashion Stuff for The Sims 2. So heartfelt that they couldn’t even be bothered to think up a proper name for it. ‘Fashion stuff. y’know, clothes and shit.’
Alice: I enthusiastically buy stupid outfits for virtuagirls. I'm the problem.
Adam: Brood War. People like Brood War, right? I’m not entirely sure what my favourite is; probably a Crusader Kings II bit, but which one? God. Something historical. Or not. Err, Alien Crossfire for Alpha Centauri.
Graham: Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance is obviously my favourite expansion. It's standalone, it adds great new units, it improves the AI, it is the supreme version of the best RTS ever made. Maybe strategy games are just really good at expanding?
Alec: Can I say X-COM: Terror From The Deep, or is that cheating? Fair’s fair, though: they cheated when they called it a sequel.
Adam: XCOM 2: It Was The Aliens Wot Won It is my favourite upcoming expansion.