Mass Effect: Arrival DLC – will you like it?

If you’re familiar with my views on Mass Effect, you may wonder what I think of the new Arrival DLC. The reviews are mixed, in general, ranging from Gamespot’s controversial 5.0 to Destructoid’s effusive 8.5. Numbers, numbers everywhere. Obviously there are some gamers who like it a lot and some who were less pleased. The question is, how do you figure out which one you’re likely to be? That, rather than numerology, is the goal of this article.

I’m a strong believer in the Penny-Arcade philosophy of game reviews: focusing a review around a numerical value doesn’t help anyone know whether or not the game is for them, so I’m going to leave numbers out of this for now. (Unlike Gabe and Tycho, however, if someone wants me to sell out and start writing reviews under a numerical system, I’ll say “yes sir, do you want a true ten scale, or the traditional six-to-ten?” This is because I am a people-pleaser.)

Arrival allows you to play through an event that would otherwise presumably happen off-camera, between Mass Effect 2 and 3. The event will most likely be revealed or explained at the beginning of Mass Effect 3, and there seems to be no way to influence the outcome in any way. You play as Commander Shepard, on a solo mission to rescue a missing friend of Admiral Hackett. You don’t have access to any of your squad at any point in the mission, though there is an NPC who follows you for a while. The only significant NPC interactions are some exposition dumps with a relatively unremarkable scientist, and short, relatively shallow bookending conversations with Hackett.

I’m trying to avoid any real spoilers, so I’ll try not to go beyond anything already established by marketing materials. Suffice it to say, Shepard has to do something some players may find morally difficult in order to save the Galaxy. You cannot choose not to do this thing, though it is possible to start the DLC and let time run out before completing your mission, in which case you get an interesting easter-egg cutscene which shows you what is on the line here.

Shepard is also given precious little time to react to his circumstances and the actions he had to take. I was hoping for a robust conversation at the end, where I might be able to talk with Hackett about why he sent me on this mission, and argue about the possible repercussions. Instead, the ending conversation boils down to “Yep, you sure did that, now it’s time for some consequences,” with a few very brief possible reactions from Shepard.

If nothing I’ve mentioned so far raises any red flags, you’ll probably like Arrival. It has some very pretty environments and decent cover-shooting. Just watch out if you’re a Vanguard looking to play on one of the higher difficulty levels: I found charge a bit buggy in parts, and some insanity players have reported even more trouble. Otherwise, there is plenty of shooting and it is good. I don’t have a lot more to offer on that front, because I’m not the most experienced in the “shooting people in space” genres; don’t think I’m damning with faint praise. Shoot people. Good. All the rooms full of chest-high walls you can eat.

What arrival really offers is the opportunity to be present for a major event in the Mass Effect universe. One game design philosophy I encountered during GDC was “play, don’t show.” The oft-repeated conventional wisdom of storytelling is “show, don’t tell,” but games can take this to the next level: instead of showing a cutscene, developers can allow players to actually do the thing the cutscene is about. This is what arrival offers: the ability to play through an event in Shepard’s life that you would otherwise simply be shown. From a design perspective this is quite admirable, and in any other game I would have accepted such an opportunity as the gift that it is.

The problem here is one of expectations. When some players take control of Shepard, they expect to be able to shape the character in some way – if not through his actions, through his reactions. While Lair of the Shadow Broker (Mass Effect 2’s previous DLC) similarly offered no chance to alter the mission’s result, it afforded players deeper roleplaying decisions throughout, giving players an opportunity to process events through Shepard’s own emotional involvement. In Shadow Broker, you encountered an old friend and subtly changed the balance of power in the universe; Shepard’s reactions felt appropriately deep in relation to the circumstances. Many have complained that Arrival lacks a similar depth of reaction: players who were distressed over the plot’s key event felt that their characters would have been too, but the paucity of reactionary dialogue made them feel disconnected from the character and the content.

If you want to be present for a major event in the Mass Effect universe, see some sights, and shoot some people, you’ll probably like Arrival. If you would be disappointed by presence alone, without influence over the event or significant character growth, then it may not be for you.

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