In name alone, Arrival promises an enormous amount. This isn’t just the last instalment of Mass Effect 2’s DLC schedule, it seems to say; this signals the beginning of a new chapter, the next, presumably final in the turbulent tale of Commander [Insert Name Here] Shepard. In short, for fans of Bioware’s ambitious space opera, Arrival is what you might call a very big deal - it’s all right there in that title.
The need to deliver something special is intensified by what has gone before. The Lair Of The Shadow Broker was a compelling, self-contained adventure that managed to be one of the best examples of DLC since the concept gained momentum, and a note-perfect tribute to Mass Effect’s wonderful cast of characters. I was riveted by the varied gameplay, electrified by the implications the Shadow Broker’s new identity has for Mass Effect 3, and left just that little bit more in love with the universe Bioware created. My response to Arrival was very different.
The mission begins with a communication from Admiral Hackett, requesting that Shepard meet him to discuss the fate of one Dr. Kenson – a scientist who was arrested by a group of Batarians in some far-flung star-system. It seems that Kenson has discovered what she believes is a Reaper artefact, and Hackett is inclined to believe that she’s telling the truth. The fact that Hackett is voiced by the gravelly tones of B-movie legend Lance Henriksen made me inclined to agree.
As always, things aren’t quite what they seem, but the appeal of Arrival’s plot seems to rely upon the audience not knowing that a Reaper invasion is imminent, and that their principal target is Earth. The first part of that proposition was made unmistakably clear by the finale of Mass Effect 2, the second by the Mass Effect 3 trailer released at the Spike VGAs last December.
The general tone suggests that Bioware sees Shepard’s task in Arrival as being heavy with meaning and portent, but in truth it feels somewhat perfunctory, even pointless. There’s nothing here that teases the events of Mass Effect 3 as effectively as the resolution of Lair Of The Shadow Broker, for example, and to a large extent Arrival is actually about the events of Mass Effect 3.
But even without a vital and compelling shard of narrative to chew on, a game as multi-faceted as Mass Effect 2 should have other means of holding your attention: a tense fire-fight, an engaging conversation, an agonising choice or three; on all counts the answer is nope, nope, and not a sausage.
For contrived reasons that I won’t attempt to describe, Shepard is forced to tackle this mission on his own, stripping the combat of the team aspect that forms the foundation of its appeal, and raising the difficulty level significantly. Insult is piled on top of injury by the paltry amount of talking to break up the shooting, and a complete absence of any meaningful choices.
There is a moment where it seems like Arrival is about to give you the power of life or death over a colony of Batarians, and I can’t describe the feeling of disappointment I felt when Shepard made the call on his own. Mass Effect is defined by the level of agency it grants the player – Arrival makes you into a cuckold.
In my estimation, Arrival fails to deliver on almost any of Mass Effect 2’s better qualities, and left me feeling less enthusiastic about the series than when I started playing. As the final piece of DLC before the launch of Mass Effect 3, this lapse isn’t easy to forgive, particularly when Lair Of The Shadow Broker is so resoundingly successful in doing exactly the same thing. Arrival feels poorly conceived and rushed, like the work of a studio with a little too much on its plate to give it the proper attention. Unless you're a tirelss completist, the only suitable response is to not give it yours.
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