Version tested: Xbox 360
Ask any gymnast and they'll agree: you have to stick the landing. It doesn't matter how many perfect flips and somersaults you perform if you end up flat on your face at the end.
Arrival may not be the end of Mass Effect 2 in terms of narrative linearity, but by virtue of being the final piece of DLC for a beloved game it's taken on a significance beyond the usual downloadable sidequest.
From a title that openly suggests we'll witness the start of the Reaper invasion to the way screenshots have been doled out in teasing chunks, BioWare has certainly played up to the assumption that this is the first step towards Mass Effect 3. The stage is set for flips and somersaults.
Shame Arrival lands flat on its face.
The impact wouldn't sting quite so much if this DLC wasn't following Lair of the Shadow Broker. That was a fantastically paced and self-contained miniature adventure which showed just how these optional chapters can be compelling in their own right, while enhancing and enriching the larger story.
In contrast, Arrival harks back to the drab Bring Down The Sky, the solitary narrative add-on for the original game, with echoes of Dragon Age: Origins' weaker DLC offerings to boot.
Things start promisingly enough. You receive a communication from Admiral Hackett, the Lance Henriksen-voiced military man who has played a small but memorable background role in both Mass Effect adventures.
A friend of his, Dr. Kenson, has been arrested by Batarians in a remote system. He needs Shepard to investigate and bring her home safely.
It's a standard set-up but it does at least kick things off in a tense manner. While this isn't a stealth game, the opening moments do a decent job of allowing you to feel like you're being stealthy as you negotiate your way past guards, usually by looking around for not-very-hidden alternate routes.
Things sadly start to unravel once you find the doctor and, one clunky (and largely inexplicable) plot twist later, you're into the meat of the experience. Shooting. Lots and lots of shooting.
The final two thirds of this hardly-epic story are made up almost entirely of third-person cover-based shooting against the same handful of enemy types over and over again. You enter a room, they enter from the other side, you duck into a safe spot and keep chipping away at the shooting gallery until they stop coming.
There's no exploration, just a linear corridor of identical shoot-outs, broken up by obligatory PDAs and audio logs which dollop out the exposition, lazily explaining why key characters have behaved the way they have.
The truly annoying thing is that Mass Effect 2's combat is interesting enough to make such an action-centred experience work. At least that's the case when you're working with a full squad, able to draw on the full range of abilities and weaponry on offer. In Arrival Shepard is on his own, which means you're going to have to deal with every encounter in the exact same way - rather than using fluid team strategy to cope with different situations.
Hackett tries to come up with a compelling reason why this task has to be performed solo, but it doesn't really wash. Mass Effect 2 is a squad game. Players have spent over a year sculpting and developing their own preferred balance of powers, finding combinations that provide the best tactical options.
This DLC takes all that away, for no good reason, and leaves you clumsily exposed as a result. As the firefights thunder past, your enforced solitary status feels more and more like a technical contrivance to reduce the amount of voice work required rather than a narrative necessity.
These mechanical shortcomings are problematic, but pale alongside the way Arrival purposefully goes out of its way to avoid, and even undermine, the things that made Mass Effect 2 so thrillingly brilliant.
I counted a grand total of four conversations during my hour-and-a-bit Arrival experience. None of them lead the plot down different avenues, and none of them are able to breathe life into the stale storyline.
Worse still is the way the DLC handles the question of moral choice. This is a concept at the very heart of everything BioWare does these days. Did you save the Council? Did you hand Reaper technology over to Cerberus? More than any battle, it's these moments which truly matter and define your character's role in the world.
Arrival commits the cardinal sin of including an absolutely massive ethical conundrum, even overtly presenting it as an "Are you sure you want to do this?" question and then – right when you're mulling it over – makes Shepard's decision for you with a cut-scene. There was never a choice after all.
It's an outrageous piece of narrative chicanery from a developer that has succeeded in no small part by placing such pivotal choices in the hands of the player, and forcing us to live with the consequences. Arrival throws that out of the window in the bluntest fashion possible.
Without wishing to spoil anything the decision you're asked to make is the sort of quandary that makes Mass Effect work, where every player will have their own feelings as to how their Shepard will respond. But BioWare seizes control right when it's needed most, just because it's written itself into a corner and can't change the ending.
From that moment on, my disappointment with Arrival's mediocre staging curdled into something more personal. Trudging through rote combat is one thing. Forcing unpleasant decisions on my Shepard without permission feels uncomfortably like a betrayal of trust.
It's not even as if it all this narrative strong arming builds to a suitable climax. Much like Witch Hunt for Dragon Age: Origins, Arrival's core concept promises high drama but fails to deliver, doing little to advance the over-arcing story or to set the scene for future events.
It merely dangles an arbitrary countdown in front of you, and then finishes with a revelation of something that we all knew anyway: that the Reapers are coming. You finish right where you started, no wiser than you were before - which is the kiss of death for storytelling.
Throughout, it's hard not to see the ways this could have been made so much better. For all its controversy DLC is perfect for games like this, offering the chance to really capitalise on our organically evolving emotional investment with a sprawling fictional universe and its inhabitants; to provide a poignant bridge between one story and the next, an epilogue for adventures past and a promise of things to come.
Instead we get this perfunctory morsel, where the narrative treads water as the action goes in circles. With his final act looming, Shepard deserved better.
5 / 10