Why Arrival Could've Outdone Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect 3 has come and gone, and while I enjoyed the game up to its conclusion (I finished it before the extended cut) many of the people in my social circle have soured on Bioware at large over how ME3 and retroactively, Mass Effect 2 continued the promise of the original. After lengthy discussions, we came to two conclusions.

First, that the Giant Bomb GOTY for 2010 – Mass Effect 2 – forced the Bioware writers into a corner. Second, that Bioware came achingly close to a plot that could’ve given the franchise more momentum into Mass Effect 3. I could speak volumes for the virtues and sins of ME3, but that’s another post and many have already covered that subject. For now, I plan on focusing on these two assertions.

Up until Mass Effect 2, Bioware made its reputation off of compelling storytelling and fairly memorable characters, and what largely changed from game to game was the balance struck between those two ideas. What the original Mass Effect had in a core storyline that was genuinely thrilling, it lacked in strong characters that made its previous games memorable. The characters of ME1 did not get much characterization, though some of that may be at fault for saving developments for later installments. Indeed, the one party member who was a dynamic character in the original game gets killed off in the ‘default’ character histories for Shepard.

Mass Effect 2 was a hard swerve into creating memorable characters. This isn’t inherently bad, since the focus on characterization gave the community some of the most compelling characters in years. Mordin Solus. The Illusive Man. Legion. The loyalty missions that colored in who your new party was were some of the best missions in the game. Most of the surviving Mass Effect cast finally started to jump off the page too – Garrus and Tali were different people than in the original. Liara showed up as not the same archeologist, and the Shadow Broker DLC sold her as a fleshed out character. And of course, the characterizations paid off during the final mission of the game. The entire game was billed as a lead-in to a suicide mission. Seeing that suicide mission have effects on your party and crew was an emotional wake-up call to how grave the stakes were for the conclusion of the trilogy.

This could have been a lot more...
This could have been a lot more...

At the same time, that suicide mission may have been what started to write Bioware into a corner on Mass Effect 3. Bioware was able to write out the surviving Mass Effect 1 cast effectively enough, but for Mass Effect 3 they were faced with writing for dead members of both games. The urge for players to see all of Mass Effect 3 may have led to the Mass Effect 2 cast being relegated to mostly side-missions and not rejoining the party, while only a few Mass Effect 1 characters that might’ve died based on decisions in Mass Effect 2 are allowed to return.

While asking for all of the characters to return would be unrealistic, asking for them to join on a temporary basis in the field would not have been. Bioware wrote in replacement characters for Legion, Tali, and Mordin for key story moments, and even replaced some of the cast for the side missions like Grunt. Why not have Garrus’s father join you in case Garrus snuffed it? There are many ‘why not’ questions related to the Mass Effect 2 cast that boggle the mind, especially since Garrus and Tali – and the Virmire survivor, depending on your play – are allowed back into the Mass Effect 3 cast.

All of this leads into the key problem with Mass Effect 2. None of it feels like it matters. Shepard is brought back from the dead to fight the Collectors, who... are kidnapping colonists on the fringes of the galaxy. It’s said during the Collector Ship mission that they could have enough pods to take Earth, but the game never makes that a driving issue. The disappearance of the colonists doesn’t feel important in the grand scheme of things, and neither do the Collectors themselves because of it. Harbinger never approached the same level of threat of Sovereign.

When Mass Effect 3 rolls, the Collectors are barely mentioned. No one in the galaxy proper knows what you did, and those that do barely talk about it. Not only because no one wanted to pay attention, but because the Collectors themselves never did anything to warrant it.

Assuming control... of the plot.
Assuming control... of the plot.

This is part of why it’s frustrating to see the existence of the Arrival DLC for Mass Effect 2. It’s a clear indication of what could have been. The entire DLC revolves around blowing up a mass effect relay to prevent the Reapers from entering the galaxy and killing everyone early. That makes for a more compelling core narrative than the critical path of its own game.

Because of that, I’m left to wonder just how much better Mass Effect 2 could have been if something like Arrival had been more vital to the story. If the Collectors had been using their abductions as a ruse to get the Reapers into the galaxy early, and the only way to stop it is to blow up that relay and then to take out the Collector Base to stop them from trying again. There’s not even that much that would’ve had to be changed about the actual game. Most of the game could go as scheduled, with Arrival being the mission that Shepard goes on while the Normandy is attacked by the Collectors.

Arrival always felt like a mission that should have been in the core game, or a concept that was more important than its place as DLC warranted. Now I’m left wondering how much things could have really changed if the writing staff had gone in that direction.