Add-ons. Sigh. What began as an actually okay idea back in the days when a really popular PC RPG would release 1 or 2 sizable expansions to a well-loved game for a reasonable price, has become in present times a nightmare of consumer abuse as companies release incomplete products with the intention of charging their customers over and over again just to play the game--the one they already bought at the price of $60 or more--in its complete form through downloadable content packages. It’s gotten to the point that some developers don’t even see basic sales as their economic goal, but rather the sales of the DLC packs. Season passes, Day 1 DLC, content that the main game cannot be said to be complete without...game companies pull all kinds of dirty, underhanded shit that would make a used car salesman blush, because they know they can get away with it as long as children with little-to-no consumer discretion have access to their parents’ credit cards. The old days of expansions established a slippery slope, but developers didn’t even try not to fall down it--if anything, they grabbed a pair of skis and went speeding toward the corrupt abyss as fast as they could. Even the Japanese companies eventually got in on it, and if Atlus is anything to go by with Shin Megami Tensei 4 and Radiant Historia, they’ve slapped a pair of rockets on their skis to make up for lost time on their trip down to dignity’s rock bottom.
And yet this lousy state of the industry still isn’t as bad as the whole micro-transaction and lootbox nonsense.
Still, even if the add-on experience has been toxic overall to the industry, there have been quite a few expansions and downloadable content packs that have been enjoyable, positive additions to their games. They may be in the substantial minority, but they’re there, and worthy of praise. And that’s just what we’re gonna give them today, as I list out the 8 best RPG add-ons that I’ve seen so far!
Why 8? Because 10 just gets too long, 5 wasn’t quite enough, and 8 is the best number overall.
8. Mass Effect 2: Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC
Lair of the Shadow Broker is a good way to start out this list, because it’s an example of how you can create an add-on to a game that connects solidly to its cast, lore, and plot, but avoids the easy pitfall of providing content that seems like it should have already been a part of the main game. LotSB creates an engaging, interesting side adventure with a decent story that is especially notable for 2 successes: A, it expands on a substantial, but inescapably tertiary part of the lore of the series (that being the Shadow Broker, who has been mentioned several times as an individual of note in Mass Effect 1 and 2, yet has only been directly involved in between-game events), and B, it more strongly incorporates a major character of the previous game (Liara) who unfortunately didn’t get a chance to have much significance in ME2. Liara’s lack of major importance in Mass Effect 2 wasn’t a flaw, mind you: she’s in the right role, it’s just not as big as the audience would have expected for the most important party member from the first game. So basically, this DLC allows us a better involvement in the side-story that Liara is pursuing, which addresses the audience’s natural expectations of Liara having important involvement with this game, and it expands the Mass Effect universe by focusing on an influential entity within it, doing so in a way that feels connected and relevant to the events of ME2, yet far enough separated that it’s not just providing content that should have been there to start with. That means that Lair of the Shadowbroker essentially is doing everything that a good, ethical add-on should--and it’s doing so with a fun, exciting, and meaningful adventure. Great stuff; I wish most DLCs could so skillfully tread the difficult path of giving more content, without it turning into something that should have been already intrinsic to the game.
7. Neverwinter Nights 1: Hordes of the Underdark Expansion
I admit, I have a bit of a love/hate thing going with Hordes of the Underdark. While the first 2 chapters of this add-on are very boring and seem to be going nowhere, which I hate, I really love the last third of it, which is so epic, creative, and overall awesome that it earns a spot on this list. It also is a worthwhile addition to Neverwinter Nights 1 beyond just its own quality, as Hordes of the Underdark also incorporates a major antagonist of NN1’s main campaign, Aribeth, and far better explores her potential as a character than the primary story did, retroactively improving NN1’s main story by doing so. In a way, HotU (or its concluding chapter, at least) is not just a strong side story, it’s also a way of giving us what we should have gotten from Neverwinter Nights 1 to begin with: a solid, meaningful, and epic story that fully capitalizes on the creativity and grandeur of the Dungeons and Dragons universe.
6. Fallout: New Vegas: Lonesome Road DLC
Lonesome Road is a great, intelligent content pack that seems like it’s the developers’ attempt to give their own thoughts on the major conflict and choices of Fallout: New Vegas’s main plot, providing an interesting and thought-provoking summary and analysis of the game’s events and themes. As such, it acts as a great final, concluding side adventure to the game. But it’s also strong enough to stand on its own--Lonesome Road does an exemplary job of exploring the character of Ulysses, who’s a vaguely-referenced but clearly important background presence in Fallout: New Vegas’s events, and as an unexpected but very welcome bonus, it establishes a character history for the protagonist of the game, too. It thus has merit enough that it’s a solid side story to engage in at almost any time of the game, allowing you to consider the perspectives Ulysses offers on the main game’s conflict while they’re still relevant to the decisions laid before you in the primary plot. Strongly connected to the game proper while staunchly remaining a side story, intelligent and fascinating as it analyzes New Vegas’s lore and the culture of the United States, and providing a new perspective on the character you control, Lonesome Road is pretty damn great.
5. Fallout: New Vegas: Dead Money DLC
A lot of people will no doubt cry heresy at the idea that Dead Money would be superior to Lonesome Road, but I honestly do believe it to be the better of them. Dead Money’s got a well-paced, interesting narrative that perfectly blends Fallout with the excitement of a heist story and a treasure hunt, and it’s a great side story that’s more than divorced enough from the game proper that you don’t feel that it was missing from the main game. Yet it still has characters that tie it to the main game’s background lore well enough that it doesn’t feel spontaneous. But what I really love about this DLC, and what elevates it above Lonesome Road, is that it’s a great, multi-layered story about the concept and folly of greed. Greed as a theme permeates the history you uncover throughout Dead Money, the events you yourself are going through, the characters and conflict of the DLC, and its conclusion and message. But it’s never overbearing, it’s always skillfully subtle, which is another point in its favor--it provides an enjoyable story on its own terms without having to bonk you over the head and scream what it wants you to get from it into your ear. All respect to Lonesome Road, but Ulysses did seem, at times, so blunt that it was almost like the writers were afraid that we the audience might not have picked up on certain aspects of Fallout: New Vegas’s story and wanted to make damn sure we all appreciated their magnificence. And in being a story about the cost of greed, and exploring that idea, Dead Money is tied just as strongly to the main game (what with it being set, physically and thematically, in Las Vegas) in the intellectual sense as Lonesome Road was in the more concrete* sense. High quality, and completely its own side story yet inescapably tied in its motif to the main game, Fallout: New Vegas’s Dead Money DLC is an excellent example of what an add-on should be.
4. The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine Expansion
So far, I’ve focused on the importance of add-ons fulfilling 1 or both of 2 purposes: being a side story whose connections to the main game, while present and important, are distant and unrelated enough that the add-on’s existence does not imply incompleteness in the main game, and/or being a way of providing some form of content that, while not missing from the game per say, nonetheless was expected/hoped for by the audience (Liara having a substantial role in Mass Effect 2, grander use of D+D’s potential in Neverwinter Nights 1, etc). There is, however, another role that a good add-on can have for a game, particularly since add-ons basically always are created after the main game is finished with: that of a send-off, a finale, a last hurrah. Obviously the conclusion of the main game should stand on its own completely and totally, and to require a DLC to create a true ending for the game would be unconscionable--but DLCs and expansions can still accomplish much as epilogues, or conclusions to the series as a whole rather than just to the game.
The Witcher 3’s Blood and Wine expansion is an excellent example of this. Blood and Wine is a solid adventure in its own right, but more than that, it’s a love letter from CD Projekt Red to the trilogy that made them as a game developer, and to the fans of that trilogy. It’s filled with references to the series as a whole, it revels in the characters of the series and the choices the audience has had Geralt make, it explores the Witcher world in a new arena, and it gives us 1 last perspective, both new and yet also familiar, on Geralt, through the eyes of another of his friends from the books whom we have previously only heard briefly referenced. Blood and Wine is a great example of how to make your love for your creations and your appreciation for your audience’s support known at the end of your trilogy, mixing the typical joy of a new, well-crafted adventure with the pleasure of a known, enjoyed history and community, as you create a final goodbye to this beloved series.
3. Borderlands 2: Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep DLC
As a finale to Borderlands 2 (even if it unfortunately did not end up being the last DLC released for the game), the kind of add-on that’s meant as a conclusive goodbye to the game as the developers move onto new projects, Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep is absolutely top tier. It’s funny and engaging in the signature Borderlands way, to the best degree that the series can accomplish. It makes use of nearly the entire major cast of Borderlands 2 to each character’s best strengths. It enjoyably explores the geek culture that a substantial portion of the game’s audience is familiar with/immersed within, while remaining easily accessible and open to more casual gamers. And, most interesting and laudable in my eyes, this DLC creates a concise, understated emotional summary of Borderlands 2’s main plot, which it uses to create a scenario of really touching character growth for 1 of the more memorable NPCs of Borderlands lore. In essence, TTAoDK is the ultimate DLC send-off to a game: it gives you all the new, fun content you could ask of an add-on, functions as an adeptly created story in and of itself, and it reminds you of all that you loved about the main game--and goes a step beyond that, incorporating that recollection dynamically and purposefully into the DLC’s own plot’s narrative, to the end of leaving the player with the perfect farewell from the writers. Much alike to the case of The Witcher 3’s Blood and Wine expansion, playing Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep is like having the game’s developers extend their arm to give you a firm, grateful handshake, as they look you in the eye and say, “Thank you for playing what we made. We’re happy you loved it as much as we did.”
2. Fallout 4: Far Harbor DLC
This is basically just a flawless add-on. I don’t even know what to say about it, honestly. Far Harbor has a tight, thought-provoking story and theme revolving around the concept of the truth: the truth of who you are, the weight and consequences the truth can have, the power the truth can have to destroy yet also to reconcile, what the truth even is, these are all subjects explored with a masterfully soft touch through the adventure and characters of Far Harbor. This evaluation of the concept of truth is excellent on its own, and it strengthens your experience with the main game, too, as it creates new perspectives on the synths of Fallout 4, as well as a fresh, fascinating possibility of the Sole Survivor’s identity that adds a new lens through which to view her/his actions and role in the main story. It also relates well to Fallout 4 in the sense that it explores arguably the most famous part of Maine, which is appropriate as a side story to a game otherwise set in and focused upon Massachusetts, since Maine was originally a part of Massachusetts before being made into a state in its own right. And, of course, it’s great that Far Harbor also further develops Nick Valentine’s history and personality--he wasn’t missing any depth or anything (in fact, I’d argue that Nick is the best, most interesting and developed character in Fallout 4, and in the top 5 for the entire series), but it’s great to see his character added to. This is, frankly, the perfect standard DLC: a flawlessly distant-yet-connected side story of impeccable quality that gives fresh meaning and depth to the game it’s connected to. Fun, thoughtful, and excellent as a whole, I wish all DLCs could be of Far Harbor’s caliber.
1. Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer Expansion
Yeah...there’s no way this wasn’t gonna be the winner. I mean, I may love Far Harbor and Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep and all, but comparing even their level of excellence to that of Mask of the Betrayer is like comparing a Stradivarius to a kazoo. What is there to say, honestly? Mask of the Betrayer is pure storytelling poetry, some of the finest narrative work committed to video game format. To call it thoughtful, insightful, and superlative is to undersell this master work of intellectual and emotional exploration. If this were its own game, rather than an expansion, it would easily be in the top 10 RPGs I’ve ever played. And hey, while it’s a long, long way away from being 1 of MotB’s best qualities, it’s also worth noting that it’s great in the sole terms of being an add-on, too--it continues Neverwinter Nights 2’s events with a new, far better adventure, and even redeems the main game substantially by retroactively making NN2’s ending less shitty. This is true excellence, folks, 1 of the greatest moments in RPG history. I can’t even say I wish more add-ons were like it, the way I did with Far Harbor--Mask of the Betrayer is the kind of beautiful coming together of genius, creativity, and opportunity that can’t be duplicated.
Honorable Mention: Mass Effect 3: Citadel DLC
The Citadel DLC, like Blood and Wine, and Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep, is a really great farewell to the Mass Effect series and to the players. Its plot isn’t much to look at, admittedly, but that’s not really what it’s about: Citadel is more about 1 last opportunity to spend time with the characters who so elegantly and vividly brought the Mass Effect trilogy to life, to see the best examples of the bonds of their friendship and love that we the audience have come to feel as a part of our own selves. And it’s also about reveling in the lively, engaged audience, as Bioware honors its longtime fanbase by incorporating many nods to the memes and slang they’ve created around discussing the ME series, and addresses several of their lasting concerns with the game (such as allowing us a chance to finally see the entire team working together at once on a mission, allowing players to at long last romance Samara, and giving a few nutters the chance to bed Javik). Citadel is the quintessential farewell DLC, an example of the developer clasping the player by the shoulder as they both look tearfully yet happily at the sunset of the saga.
...But, the fact remains that for all Bioware’s attempts to give the audience what they wanted in this DLC, the company still refused to do that which was wanted most by its patrons, that which was needed most by Mass Effect 3: creating a new, artistically consistent and appropriate ending to the game. So no matter how wonderful it is to have your final Mass Effect moments with the Citadel DLC, you still must do so with the terrible knowledge of an unspeakably horrible end to Shepard’s efforts looming over you the entire time. This is, thankfully, something that can be solved through the wonderful, thank-God-it-exists Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod...but just because some dedicated, true enthusiasts of Mass Effect were able to correct the ending situation, that doesn’t mean that Bioware’s sins are any less. While Citadel’s quality as Bioware’s acknowledgment of and tribute to its fans and its series is considerable, great enough that it should be on this list, the fact is that it was also the final, resounding knell of failure on Bioware’s part to do what should have been done for Mass Effect 3’s integrity. So, the best I really feel comfortable with is giving it the Honorable Mention here, because the only way you can really experience all that Citadel has to offer as a farewell to the series without having to be reminded of the greatest storytelling failure I’ve ever personally seen is by acquiring a separate, unconnected mod that Bioware had nothing to do with.
And that’s that! The greatest RPG add-ons I’ve encountered thus far, laid out in neat order. What did we learn today? Who actually cared to know which DLCs and expansions I think are best? Nothing and no one, that’s what and who! But I did buy myself another 10 days before I need to come up with something else to make a rant on, so...Mission: Success!
* It’s a pun, see, because Lonesome Road was all about roads, and, like, concrete? Yeah, I know, I suck.