Expansion Packs: For those Who Remember Them

8 09 2009

Back in the day, by which I mean the 1990s, we didn’t have Downloadable Content. Instead PC Gamers would often throw down 30-50 dollars on a piece of software that usually would only work if they owned another piece of software. Crazy, you might say, but it’s true. They were called Expansion Packs. In the days of people citing $10 for 5-10 hours of extra gameplay as a ripoff, it’s hard for me to take that seriously considering the prices spent on Expansion Packs back in the day. So with that in mind it’s time to fire up the time machine of gaming knowledge that is my mind and find what I feel to be the best 3 expansion packs I ever spent money on. Also there will be spoilers.

3. I swear by my replica Star Wars Rebel Soldier Helmet I will end you.
Half-Life: Blue Shift
Release Date: 2001

This expansion for Half-Life (natch), placed us in the shoes of Barney Calhoun, one of the many Barneys (security guards) employed at Black Mesa. Specifically you’re the one banging on the locked door that the tram containing Gordon Freeman passes by in the opening to Half-Life. Naturally you do not ever directly interact with Gordon Freeman, instead facing your own set of challenges as you try to help a small team of scientists led by Dr. Julius Rosenberg escape from Black Mesa before the Xen aliens or the HECU troopers kill you all.

In addition, the expansion also added a “high-res texture” pack that updated the textures for Half-Life and also altered the appearances of some of the weapons. In Blue Shift the Glock became a Beretta (side note: why does everyone think that’s such a great pistol to use in games?) and the MP5 became an M4 Carbine. I felt the Carbine made a lot more sense for the HECU troopers to be carrying, especially given the under-slung grenade launcher.

A lot of people criticized this add-on for not adding enough but I disagree. I had plenty of fun playing it, mostly in referring to every dead Barney I encountered by a different last initial, and I felt that the pacing as well as the overall story (escaping from Black Mesa) was a good one, and it hadn’t really been done yet. In fact, Barney is the only person who wasn’t tailed by the G-man, so the fact that he manages to get out of Black Mesa in one piece is a bit unique. I also liked the updated graphics, since this was a time when I though good graphics were important or some other silly thing. It’s also worth noting that Blue Shift was the first Half-Life game to have a signifignant nonplayer character (Dr. Rosenberg), something that would eventually be expanded on by Half-Life 2.

Lastly I felt the title of the pack itself was very good, since Blue Shift is another science term, thus fitting in with the “Half-Life” motif.


'Tis But a Scratch!

Mechwarrior 4 was a great game but at the same time I did feel that, after the technical marvel that was Mechwarrior 3, the game had sort of missed the boat on a couple things. Apparently Microsoft thought the same thing and put out this expansion. Of course, I should point out that the plot of this game involves your new player character going against the player character from Mechwarrior 4, who has, somehow, gone crazy and is evil. After leading planetary liberation only to become a murdering psychopath it seems a bit of a jarring transition, even if this is sometimes the norm for the Battletech universe. However it’s actually done in a way that doesn’t feel hamfisted and as such I tend to not get overworked about it.

Anyway the story. You are Lt. Eric McClair, a lance commander in the Black Legion-
No not that Black Legion.

There we go. Actually it’s the Black Knight Legion but the Knight tends to get omitted a lot for some reason. In any event you are given missions by Colonel Lawhorn, who pilots the titular battlemech (and it’s not something they made up for the game itself so don’t worry), which go from helping fend off pirates from a mining facility to eventually being the vanguard of an attack on Kentares IV, the site of the previous game’s story. While you’re working for House Steiner initially, political intrigue soon catches the Legion in a tangled web. See apparently, Ian Dresari (the player character from the last game) murdered his sister and seized power for himself (which flies in the face of both endings to MW4 but whatever). This has led some of his advisors to split from his side and form a resistance movement. Eventually your own work backs Ian into a corner and you get betrayed by your Steiner employer. This is actually a shock of sorts to me, since at the time, with the FedCom Civil War raging, the idea of Steiner striking a deal with a House Davion supporter like Dresari seemed impossible. So the second half of the game becomes a roaring rampage of revenge as you fight to avenge most of the Legion and exact payment on those who betrayed you.

In addition to the campaign (which also introduced a market trading system that would later be expanded upon in Mechwarrior 4: Mercenaries) the expansion pack also added 5 new mechs (Black Knight, Sunder, Ryoken, Wolfhound, and Uller). The Black Knight and the Wolfhound being of particular note because I don’t think either had ever been in a Mechwarrior game before. You also got a slew of new weapons including Cluster Bombs, X-Pulse Lasers, and others. There were also some new multiplayer modes added but I was on a 56k connection at the time and never really experienced that.

The game is also very challenging, so it feels especially rewarding when it’s finally all over and the wrongs have been set right.

1.Yeah, It's the Juggernaut...bitch
Command And Conquer Tiberian Sun: Firestorm
Release Date: 2000

Now I liked Tiberian Sun but I have to admit it was lacking in a lot of places. The expansion however, more than made up for it. In addition to the new units each side got the campaign also became something amazing, with both sides campaigns overlapping each other and having the same goal in mind The GDI campaign starts off with a bang as an ion storm downs the Kodiak, which was the flying command center from the first game. After recovering The Tacitus (some sort of macguffin that might be able to figure out how to stop the spread of Tiberium across the globe), you then have to deal with rioting members of The Forgotten (Tiberium-exposed humans) after the assassination of their leader, Tratos. But after that, well that’s when things really kick into gear. In order to properly analyze the Tacitus, GDI command at Southern Cross (currently the only on-Earth base in constant contact because of the Ion Storms) decides that they need to steal CABAL, NOD’s powerful AI that was designed with the Tacitus in mind. CABAL informs you that you need to recover a missing piece of The Tacitus before it can be used, and after doing that he then, perhaps predictably, springs a trap on you. Whether by design or because he’s truly mad, CABAL plans to turn humans into Cyborgs and exterminate anybody who gets in his way. So yeah it’s a bit Terminator-esque but there’s no nuclear weapons involved. Eventually GDI and NOD strike a deal (NOD having their own problems after CABAL went nuts and killed almost all their leaders save for Anton Slavik, perhaps the last sane person in NOD) to take down CABAL, which culminates in a tense final battle at CABAL’s core which comes down to your entire army against a nearly-indestructible giant robot.

As the first campaign in the “Tiberium” universe to not directly involve Kane in any way, the campaign in Firestorm is simply astounding. Sure it pinches a lot of stuff from other properties but it’s just done so well, and the final battle is just so intense (I managed to blow up CABAL’s core moments before the Core Defender, the aforementioned giant robot, reached my base) that it’s hard to fault it for that. The new units are also welcome, including a fix for jump-jet infantry that was sorely needed.

Firestorm pretty much resolidified my faith in the Command & Conquer series, something that was pretty much chipped away at once EA got their hands on it, but it’s still there.

Honorable Mention

Mechwarrior 3: Pirate’s Moon
Release Date: 1999

Pirate’s Moon is a lot like Black Knight in that both introduced new weapons, mechs, and a whole new campaign to the game. However in Pirate’s Moon you’re continuing the story of the Eridani Light Horse lance you commanded in the first game, complete with the player character getting a voiceover finally. The story places you on a barren rock as you defend miners from pirate attacks, and then eventually attacks from House Steiner loyalists after the FedCom Civil War kicks off. It’s done very well and you get a true sense of being isolated, much like you were in Mechwarrior 3, as you and your lance are pretty much the only thing stopping the attackers from running over everything. The only problem with this expansion pack is that some of the missions, including the first, are so disproportionately hard it defies expectation. Other than that though it’s still very good and if my new computer could run it I’d play it in an instant.

Hmm I just realized only one of these expansion packs came out in the 90s. Oh well, whatever.



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