When it comes to DLC BioWare have spoiled Mass Effect 2 players something rotten with the high quality of its narrative offerings. Zaeed: The Price of Revenge and Kasumi’s Stolen Memory were nice free additions to an already great game, and Overlord was an enjoyable mix of gameplay elements bound together by a strong and emotionally-engaging narrative. Lair of the Shadow Broker, however, practically redefined what DLC should be by the sheer volume of quality seeping from its pores. It was so bloody brilliant that owning it should be a legal obligation, like compulsory military service is in Sweden. Players’ expectations for Arrival, Mass Effect 2’s final piece of additional content, were therefore so high they were practically in orbit. Now that Arrival has finally, um, arrived, how does it shape up?
Let me make one thing clear from the outset: Arrival is not another Lair of the Shadow Broker and its price reflects this, costing the same amount of Microsoft Moon-shekels as ME2’s Overlord DLC. While Overlord gave us new vehicle sections, an emotionally-engaging story and a planet’s surface to explore however, Arrival has more in common with the Bring Down the Sky expansion for Mass Effect 1, and not just because it has Batarians in it. The core gameplay mechanics of Mass Effect 2 are present in all their cover-based shooty glory and are as enjoyable as usual, but Arrival brings nothing unique to the table like Overlord’s planetary exploration sections or Lair of the Shadow Broker’s hovercar chase. There’s a fun moment where you directly control a security mech to destroy your enemies but this and other interesting segments are isolated by long stretches of solo combat, like juicy mouthfuls of cake between wearying marathons.
Arrival starts promisingly enough with Admiral Hackett, voiced by craggy-faced Hollywood veteran Lance Henriksen, contacting Shepard directly with a personal request to rescue an old friend of his, Dr Kenson, from a top secret Batarian prison. Now whenever Admiral Hackett asked me to do something for him in Mass Effect 1 I bloody well did it, so it was a real treat to hear his polite gravelly voice again and to finally see his face, hinting at a significant role for him in Mass Effect 3. Whereas Hackett’s previous requests always assumed you would bring a pair of heavily-armed arse-kickers along with you, in this case that simply isn’t an option. Dr Kenson happens to be a covert Alliance operative, and relations between the human Systems Alliance and the Batarian Hegemony are pretty tense right now so a full raid on the facility would be the excuse the Batarians need to start a war with the human race. Precisely the last thing the galaxy needs with the species-munching Reapers on their way over for dinner.
So Shepard is forced to go solo on this job, which as excuses go is pretty flimsy and contrived but I went along with it because I always damn-well do what Admiral Hackett politely asks me to. It initially brings a unique change of pace to the proceedings and allows for a small element of stealth in the opening segment, something you couldn’t do rolling with a hormonal Krogan warrior or a screaming Sinead O’Connor lookalike who can kill people with her brain. Sadly you’re soon thrown back into regular firefights with no-one to cover your back and, thusly, no tactical flexibility in combat engagements. If you’re playing a soldier Shepard like I did then expect to change your ammo type more often than a bed-wetter changes their sheets, because it’s the only tactical option you’ll have available. There are moments where you feel like the galaxy’s baddest of asses as you gun down entire squads single-handed, but having no team mates verbally high-fiving you for your awesomeness makes the thrill of it ring hollow.
Having your comrades along for the ride in this case would have diluted the narrative punch of Arrival’s story, which was compelling enough to keep me playing for the hour and a half I took to complete it. Arrival’s main theme is about an individual forced by circumstance to make a very difficult moral decision, with no time to properly consider it, and bear the sole responsibility for its consequences. There is nobody else to consult, receive guidance from or explain to you the possible outcomes of each choice; the final decision is yours and yours alone, and it’s a bold move on BioWare’s part to place such a weighty dilemma squarely on the player’s shoulders. At least it would have been had they not chosen to snatch all responsibility away from the player at the very last second. Arrival, it turns out, is a strictly linear narrative where your only real freedom is how you rationalise the outcome it forces upon you. Fortunately for me it happened to be in-character for my particular Commander Shepard, but some players may feel betrayed by BioWare for what Arrival makes their own Commander Shepard do.
Lair of the Shadow Broker set an almost impossibly high standard for expansion content in terms of production values, writing, characterisation, and variety, so expecting Arrival to even approach that level of quality was perhaps unfair of me. Arrival is a decent enough piece of content, just not up to the standard I’ve come to expect from BioWare. If Mass Effect 2 were a TV series then Arrival would be an enjoyable filler episode, Overlord a really memorable one, and Lair of the Shadow Broker a fantastic feature-length special with car chases, major character development and significant plot advancement that fans talk about for years to come.
If you only get one bit of DLC for Mass Effect 2 then get Lair of the Shadow Broker and be engulfed in its absolute brilliance. If you can stretch to another then buy Overlord, play through it and then immediately get Lair of the Shadow Broker. Only get Arrival if you’re a completionist, already have the other two, are desperate for the tiniest glimpse of what Mass Effect 3 has in store and want 50 extra achievement points, or if Lance Henriksen politely asks you to.