Mass Effect, Joker DLC Asterisks: Play Before You Play

I had played 29 hours and 56 minutes of Mass Effect, but last night I could not reach the new content in the game's add-on release, Pinnacle Station. I had forgotten one of the common complications of downloadable content.

In this era of common downloadable content releases for big games, it's worth remembering: You can't always play what you download, not right away, not without some work or play.

The fine print of Mass Effect: Pinnacle Station, the $5 expansion to BioWare's 2007 science fiction role-playing game, does provide the proper warning: "Required: you must achieve Spectre status before embarking on this mission."

The inside of the PlayStation 3's Batman: Arkham Asylum box — the box I made such a big deal about yesterday — explains that its additional Joker content can only be experienced on levels unlocked in the campaign.

So, last night, I was out of luck. My main Mass Effect save files was set in what would be the beginning of my second play-through of the game, last saved on June 1, 2008. My main character was leveled up from one tour of duty through the adventure. She was not yet a Spectre and won't be for at least another hour of gameplay that I'm not eager to re-play. But without earning that Spectre rank, she can't get her own spaceship and venture to wherever in the universe the Pinnacle Station is. I do have other save files, but they date back to the game's final sections, moments that occur after cataclysmic events make exploration of the universe no longer possible.

The Joker content will also be inaccessible to me for a while. Not having started the game, I have unlocked no levels of Batman: Arkham Asylum. So I can't be the Joker any time soon.

Mass Effect and Arkham Asylum aren't the only games that handle DLC like this. All of the downloadable content released for Fallout 3 required that the player have left the game's Vault, its opening section. Unlike Mass Effect, however, the player can never get too far into the game and not be able to access the DLC because they're locked in an end-game situation.

The standard in effect here is: Play some of the base game so you can play some of the DLC.

These are not the standards of multiplayer DLC. Additional multiplayer maps for Gears of War, Halo or Call of Duty can be accessed by anyone who plays the games, no matter where their single-player save files place them.

These are not even the standards of some single-player DLC releases. Bonus adventures for Grand Theft Auto IV and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed are available, once downloaded, through those games' front menus, no dues-playing required. In the case of Star Wars, that is despite the already-released new level of the game occurring between levels that originally shipped on the disc.

If you're excited about the Mass Effect or Joker DLC this week, do read the fine print. Or remember this post. You've got to play to play what you paid for.