While not totally unknown to the RPG world (Mass Effect 1's Bring Down the Sky add-on came first, and maybe there have been downloadable additions to RPGs prior to that), Fallout 3 has brought the potential of Downloadable Content for RPGs to the spotlight. I like explaining concepts that you probably already know, so, Downloadable Content is basically an addition to a game that you can download from an online source that adds significant aspects and features to the game that are not available in it normally. Mass Effect 1 released one soon after the game was available, a free extra mission to download that added a side quest to the game and fleshed out some of the setting of the game. It was pretty cool, awesomely free of charge, and there's a rumor that there will be one more released soon before Mass Effect 2 is finished for advertising purposes--which would be kickass, lemme tell you.
But while Mass Effect 1 was the first RPG I saw to implement the idea really well (besides, obviously, online RPGs; given that they're completely dependent on online factors to begin with, I don't count them the same way), Fallout 3 has really provided an example of what you can do with additions to an off-line RPG, and how successful it can be (each Fallout 3 DLC package costs more or less $10 to get, which allows for a tidy profit margin with how many people buy them, given that the programming for them is only one game area's worth). Through its add-ons, it's not only provided different areas and items of interest to add diversity to the game, but it's also added several sidequests with their own minor plots, several instances that further develop the world and history of Fallout, and even developed the main character's personality a bit--something the game proper barely does to begin with.
So, what did I think of each Downloadable Content for Fallout 3, you ask?* Well, let's go over them, following the order of release.**
Operation: Anchorage: Not counting the release of the GECK editor, Operation: Anchorage was the first DLC released for Fallout 3. All in all, a pretty good add-on. The pre-nuclear-devastation battle for Anchorage, Alaska is referenced several times in Fallout 3's main game, and getting some insight into what it was like and the general idea of how it went down via a virtual reality simulator was pretty neat, developed that bit of Fallout history nicely while giving you a fairly fun few missions where you have to rely more on your game skill than on the various super-powerful weapons and armors you may have already amassed. The DLC also gives an interesting glance into the mentality the Outcasts, allowing you to see firsthand that their flawed beliefs and objectives lead to dissension and murderous disagreements even within their own ranks. Operation: Anchorage develops the world and players of Fallout a moderate amount while giving you an interesting and different environment and set of missions to play through. Definitely a solid start.
The Pitt: The Pitt is another part of the Fallout world referenced a few times during Fallout 3's main game, with the Pitt (the ruins of Pittsburgh) being made out to be a hellhole of chaos, danger, and ugly brutality so extreme that it challenges even the imagination of the regular citizens of the wasteland, who are no strangers to harsh violence. As such, I did feel slightly disappointed when I actually went through it. It was a sucky place, to be sure, with slaves working themselves to death under brutal captors in an industrial setting, occasionally having to fight to the death in an irradiated tournament chamber or go searching for resources in the untamed areas of the city filled with gun-wielding madmen and mutant beasts, but...well, I mean, that's a pretty effectively horrible setting, to be sure, and Fallout 3 depicts its evils well, but this is Fallout here. What's an unthinkable hellhole for most other RPGs is only a few steps worse than the average wasteland location for this game. The game explains it as The Pitt having become much more ordered and manageable in the recent years from the horrible place mentioned in Fallout 3's main game, but still, I was expecting to be thrown into the worst place ever conceived, and it didn't happen.
The rest of the DLC follows this feeling of "Alright, but not what I'd hoped." The mini-plot of The Pitt has too much of a morally ambiguous feel to it, is okay-but-not-awesome as a story in general, and only slightly ties into the rest of the Fallout world. It's a decent enough side quest, but it doesn't measure up to the first DLC.
Broken Steel: Pretty much the biggest add-on, and also originally intended to be the final one, Broken Steel extends the game past its original ending and keeps the story going as you help push the bad guys out of the Capital Wasteland. This one was great--not only did it have the most additions of sidequests and locations, it tied in directly with the plot, kept it going, added bits and pieces here and there, and fixed up a serious plot hole with Fallout 3's original ending (see my former rant and retraction on this point). While the main, most important plot line of the game, the goal of providing clean water to the Capital Wasteland, is mostly settled in Fallout 3's main game, this DLC does briefly touch on it as it goes along with tying up the other loose ends of Fallout 3's major plot lines. A decent extension of the plot, a few decent minor new characters, several additions to gameplay and exploration through the wastes, correction of a previous mistake, and the ability to see that your actions in the main game paid off...a big thumbs-up to Broken Steel. Now if only it had made a new ending for when you finished it up; Fallout 3 now just doesn't really have a conclusion.
Point Lookout: Honestly, when I first heard about this DLC, I thought it would be lame. I mean, it looked like it was just exploring a swamp area with some mutant hillbillies. Whoop-dee-doo. Then I played through it, and found that it was my favorite. You're never too old or too familiar with the idea of "Don't judge a book by its cover" for a refresher course in it.
Point Lookout is basically everything I could hope for in a Fallout 3 add-on, and much more. Its plot is fairly self-contained, not having too much to do with Fallout 3's main game, but it introduces an entirely new, and rather neat, aspect of the Fallout world's events and history, a game of Spy Versus Spy of sorts that's been waged since before the war that destroyed the world, in which you get to play a small part. It also further develops Fallout's history with a couple of minor side quests that have you investigate happenings and individuals from before the war that further give you an idea of what the world was like at the time. It introduces a few characters of interest. Of lesser importance, it's also really fun to play through--the environment is surprisingly well-made even for Fallout 3's high standards, and you get to do a hell of a lot of exploring and treasure-hunting--there's all KINDS of great stuff hidden all over the place on the unusually large map. And what helps that is that the treasure-hunting is actually CONVENIENT--rather than having to go all the way back to the merchants and/or your home in the Capital Wasteland every time you've filled your inventory and need to unload, there's a couple of VERY well-stocked vendors in Point Lookout to sell to, and a safe container right on the boat that brings you to and from the area, which you can fast-travel to and actually bring with you back to the Capital Wasteland. Extremely convenient.
And beyond anything I would have expected is a moment in Point Lookout where the game's protagonist, the Lone Wanderer, gets some character development. In a game where all the protagonist's actions, dialogue, opinions, and beliefs are almost completely up to the player, it's hard to flesh out the main character because every normal method for doing so is already in the hands of the player. But the hallucinations during one part of Point Lookout's main quest provide multiple insights into the character of the Lone Wanderer, with his/her worries and deep insecurities being displayed in the form of delusional visions and voices. Darned cool; this DLC went above and beyond.
Mothership Zeta: Following on the heels of the incomparable Point Lookout didn't help this disappointing pile of nonsense any. It's almost the exact opposite, really--the plot is silly idiocy perforated with holes, the enemies and setting have very little variety once their initial novelty wears off, the characters range from bland to modestly okay, and the whole thing is just so far removed (literally and figuratively) from the actual events and world of Fallout that it seems largely pointless. I mean, with the other DLCs, you discover lost technology and aid the Outcasts in acquiring it, decide the fate of an entire city of slave workers, wage a war against the Enclave, and bring about the end of a major Bond-villain-esque world player of the pre-war age. With this one, you just...go bother some aliens that abduct a few people every now and then. Granted, they generally do nasty things to their victims, but they're making less of an impact on the Fallout world than random raiders do. What's the point?
The one thing I will give this add-on is that they do a good job of making the aliens seem completely foreign and inexplicable, as one might expect they would be. They don't speak any human language, seem to have completely random intentions for their various prisoners with no discernible method to their actions, and for reasons totally beyond anyone's guess have some obsession with Giddyup Buttercup toys, seeming to regard them as some sort of military super-weapon or cultural idol or something. So kudos for having aliens be alien. But overall, a disappointing DLC. I actually wrote this whole rant about a month and a half ago, and just kept hanging on to it in the desperate hope that Bethesda might release one last DLC after Mothership Zeta, but it looks like that's not going to happen, so I'm left with a slightly sour taste in my mouth when all is said and done.
So, when all is said and done? The Fallout 3 DLCs were fun and had some neat ideas. I'm glad for them. I AM a little wary of the idea of having to buy parts of a game separately instead of all together, given the potential for companies to mercilessly attack their gamers' wallets with this stuff, but most of Fallout 3's add-ons have the feeling of ideas that the company, Bethesda, had after completing the game, rather than just content that they held back so they could sell it later. I'm fine with that--the game was released a complete product, and these DLCs are just an overall enjoyable series of extras. I just hope that any RPG developers in the future who want to use Downloadable Content follow this example and don't abuse the idea with extra content that was deliberately cut from the game just so they could sell it separately. We'll just have to see how it goes--the upcoming Dragon Age should provide us with a good test of whether other RPG companies can also be responsible with several dedicated DLCs.
* I am aware that you probably did not actually ask that. I'm just accustomed to using that transitional expression.
** It occurs to me that I just spent two paragraphs explaining what a Downloadable Content package is in a rant that will actually be focused on going over the specific instances of said packages, meaning that the only people who will be reading it are the ones who already know all about it. Apparently, I am an idiot.