A colossal asteroid punches through the inky black, hurtling towards a thriving human colony. Millions will be eviscerated by the impact, countless others by choking on their ashes. An entire planet will wither from the upcoming catastrophe, unless the first human Spectre decides to ignore an intergalactic threat and take on the task of stopping Asteroid X57’s deadly descent. This is the slippery slope of a hero.
“Bring Down the Sky” is the first and only downloadable content for Mass Effect. It was released on Xbox LIVE Marketplace on March 10, 2008. Its story components read like fiction bred from a Hollywood scriptwriter. That may not have been the goal, but at least one BioWare technical director agrees with me.
“The story, to me, seems to have a very action movie-esque feel to it. Asteroid hurtling at a planet, the lives of millions on the edge, extremist terrorists, and a devastating moral choice: do you capture the terrorist, or save the lives of innocents,” Christina Norman asks. “We all know the traditional hero saves the lives of innocents, but in Mass Effect you don't have to be a traditional hero.”
Another layer. Asteroid X57 isn’t a cosmic freak, a space dart thrown blindly by the just hand of God. The rock is to become an orbital base for the colonists of Terra Nova. Before it can, a splinter group of batarians hijacks the rock and uses its goliath fusion thrusters to put the asteroid on a collision course.
This is a walkthrough with heavy developer commentary. Enjoy.
The Mako plummets from the sleek hull of the Normandy. The screen shakes. Debris swirls, then rests on Asteroid X57 again. A woman tells me via comm that people have attacked the rock and that I need to shut off the fusion torches propelling the asteroid towards Terra Nova. There are three torches spewing bright flame. Each of their kill switches is found on a console inside bland buildings. Kill the invaders. Smother the torches. Save a planet. This is “Bring Down the Sky” in all its glory.
Work on “Bring Down the Sky” began weeks after Mass Effect was finalized. BioWare employed six people to work on the content full-time. “A couple weeks after Mass Effect went gold,” Norman tells me, “a small team started working on it. By small team I mean six guys working full-time plus more people consulting on the project. I was the technical designer for the project, and we had a level artist, a character artist, a cinematic designer, a cinematic animator and a writer as well.”
“ ‘Bring Down the Sky’ was more than just a piece of DLC: it was us learning how to do DLC for Mass Effect and learning what we could do with a small team. Mass Effect was, of course, a huge-budget project with a huge team, but we were hoping we could produce DLC with a small team.”
The experiment failed, much like the batarian plot does upon completion of “Bring Down the Sky.” The small team couldn’t produce the kind of quality BioWare wanted. More team members were added and a lesson was learned.
“What we found was,” Norman continues, “the content we could produce with a small team in a short time just wasn't up to the standards we wanted to produce for DLC. We were able to produce more uncharted-world level content in a reasonable time, and that's what we originally envisioned ‘Bring Down The Sky’ as being, but in an early project review we just didn’t feel that it was measuring up to what we wanted from DLC.”
The content’s narrative ignites before the first torch is flicked off. Two sets of four squinting eyes lock onto the Renegade hero as he strides into the first fusion building’s warehouse-like belly. Batarians. Their deep brown, furrowed brows curve gently upwards on sloping skulls. Snub-nosed and razor-toothed as well, the batarians' disposition is as nasty as their appearance. Recently ousted by the Galactic Council, these aliens are looking for something more than slaving to survive in an increasingly close-knit intergalactic society.
The two batarians flash their teeth before sliding into attack positions. We fight and I find that they are no more harmful than a Geth grunt. Upon exiting the structure, I’m informed that the motivation for the hijacking is unknown.
The things I see while I play are familiar. The first torch building has the same look and build of every other lone space hut in the galaxy. The boxes and lockers are in their usual places. The space wolves, the guns and powers remain the same. I begin to think that everything has been recycled, that there isn’t anything to experience. I’m wrong -- BioWare did create more content. The batarians (and their animations) are new. Shepard’s dialogue is fresh and punchier. And the rest of structures are even fresher. The debris outside is a new effect. There are novel things to be found here.
“We re-used a lot of art assets from Mass Effect,” Norman tells me, “but we produced a lot of new art assets as well. For example, the batarian model was new, including his facial animations for the conversations. The skybox and floating debris assets were also all new, as was the level art for the last underground base. I would have liked to create new art for the first two bases as well, but we didn't have the budget for that.”
“All the design work was new as well. We created new creatures like the batarians, and the improved defensive turret. We utilized new combat scripting techniques that helped make the battles more challenging.”
Moving fast in the Mako. I find another fusion building. I smother its torch. The not-so-mysterious woman is shown in another cut-scene shortly after. She's accompanied by two batarian boss men: Balak and Charn. Balak is the leader of the hijacking. In a throaty voice, he demands to know who is shutting off the torches. The woman refuses to tell him and turns to face the camera. A pistol shot cracks. Balak kills her brother for the snub.
I seek the third fusion building.
The second and third fusion structures have a different feel. It’s not in my head. The floor plans are distinctive, a result of BioWare learning how to fiddle with existing assets and hosting a competition. “In producing any videogame, content creators are constantly learning how to do things better and better,” Norman says. “In most games, content is locked down 3-4 months before the game hits the shelves, and only bug fixing is being done. Even while you’re just doing bug fixing, you’re learning, but at that point you can’t just re-implement sections of the game -- you’re limited to fixing bugs.”
“With ‘Bring Down the Sky’ -- because we started work on it after Mass Effect went gold -- we were able to apply all the lessons we’d learned about doing interior layouts. We actually had one designer working on each torch [building], and there was a bit of a friendly competition to try and make the ‘best’ torch given the limitation we had of using the same basic art layout.”
Balak’s lackey, Charn, and I meet after the third torch is extinguished. I choose to fight before he can explain the batarian motivation -- one of those great moral choice moments. The fight ends as quickly the dialogue choice was made. I’m an intergalactic Christ, dispensing penance with a live body armed to the teeth with pew pew and explosives.
I find a key on Charn’s body that opens the facility in the center of Asteroid X57. It’s a bright, circular place that soon becomes a rotunda of death. After a conversation with Balak, batarians flow out of every corridor. There are enemies on top of me, enemies below me, and enemies firing from my sides. For the first time in Mass Effect, I stop to think about my health bar.
“With the final base we consciously wanted to create a big indoor space to fight in. Up to this point,” Norman says, “there weren’t really any huge indoor spaces, though there were some huge outdoor spaces. We also wanted to leverage multi-level combat, which we’d done a little of, but never to this scale.”
“In general we put a lot of time into trying to create novel combats. The first torch was consciously familiar, but torch two, torch three, and the final base all had combats that weren’t like anything else in Mass Effect. Of course, there’s limits to what you can do in DLC, but given what we had to work with, I think we created some pretty cool and challenging experiences.”
One other thing that’s nice about DLC is you can assume that people who buy it are probably a little more hardcore than the average consumer, so you can up the difficulty of combat challenge.”
Before the death, Balak presents me with options: allow him to go free and unpunished for his actions, or choose to fight him at the price of the woman and her crew. Like a Bond villain, Balak has chosen to use his time crafting an elaborate trap instead of escaping. He is imprisoning the woman and her crew next to explosives. If we fight, he detonates the devices.
I choose to kill, whatever the cost. The crew dies and so does Balak.
The moral choice is a complicated one, but not as compelling as it could be. Allowing Asteroid X57 to smash into Terra Nova is the larger choice, left unexplored. Shepard has bigger concerns -- the Geth are moving and Saron is chasing down ancient technology for a nefarious purpose. Sacrifice the few for the many. It’s a point that I believe was presented to me with the Balak confrontation: allow Balak to walk and he could do this all over again.
This minor moral option is presented because of BioWare’s view of Shepard. “Commander Shepard is a hero,” Norman says. “The choice between the Paragon and Renegade path is one of compassion, versus ruthlessness. A compassionate Shepard will try to minimize the negative impact on innocents. A ruthless Shepard minimizes risk on his mission, even if there’s some collateral damage. Both paragon and renegade Shepard share the same desire to succeed in their mission, though, and Shepard’s mission is always heroic. There’s no option to walk away and let everyone die, because Shepard just wouldn’t do that.”
“We consciously present choices this way in the Mass Effect universe. Shepard’s choices are important, and have far-reaching consequences, but every choice fits his heroic story.”
Asteroid X57 plunges towards the planet Terra Nova. An entire planet -- its ecosystem, its core, and its denizens -- doesn’t die. I save almost everything. The four-eyed terrorists are dead as well. Commander Shepard, the hero.
There’s no pretty bow to wrap “Bring Down the Sky” up with. It’s a constricted, linear piece of content that doesn’t add anything to the core narrative of Mass Effect or build any of its characters. An interesting moral choice presents itself along the way, but it seems flimsy, almost inconsequential. I’m left with questions that only future content can answer. (a) Why does the DLC act as a sidebar and dismiss the elements of the core Mass Effect storyline? (b) Do development time and bigger teams lead to better content? (c) Will every piece of Mass Effect DLC have the same components? (d) Will my response to this have any effect on Mass Effect 2’s sub-plot?
I can answer this question: did BioWare learn anything from “Bring Down the Sky”?
BioWare learned. Small teams can’t deliver the kind of quality the studio requires in a timely manner. By the time BioWare puts out another piece of Mass Effect DLC -- yes, more DLC is coming -- Bethesda will have released five DLC packs for their RPG Fallout 3. The formula hasn’t been ironed out yet, but the timing doesn’t really matter in the greater scope of things. BioWare is focused on giving players good and fresh content, and they’re aware that people won’t continue to buy if it’s a lackluster effort.
“The next DLC for Mass Effect is really nothing like ‘Bring Down the Sky,’ or any other content in Mass Effect,” Norman tells me. “Many people enjoyed the content, but we wanted to try something completely different. It’s taken a while, but I hope in the end fans will really enjoy it! I think combat-focused gamers in particular will like it.”