Two entries in, the Mass Effect franchise is proving to be one of the most interesting storytelling experiences in modern video games. Part of that comes from the unique customization that comes from how you play and the choices you make at all those crucial moments in the main games. Your Commander Shepard avatar is singularly your own as a result of that. But the other emerging element of that storytelling experience comes from the way the downloadable content for Mass Effect is rolling out. The DLC packs work to pull you back into this specific fictional construct.
More than that, though, the DLC seems to allow Bioware the chance to create tonal experiments within the Mass Effect universe. When I wrote about the Kasumi DLC, I mentioned how it nodded at lots of James Bond tropes. Similarly, Overlord goes for a bit of a sci-fi horror vibe. Sequences in the two ME games have flirted with this tone before but not as heavily as in this DLC pack.
The mission has Shepard going to the tropical planet Aite, where a Cereberus research station’s dropped out of contact. Shepard goes to investigate the site, where experiments were being done trying to wire a human intelligence into the hivemind of the malevolent machine race called the Geth. The trials with virtual intelligence go awry, creating a self-aware malevolent presence that proceeds to run amok. By the time you get there, the only human left alive is chief scientist Gavin Archer. Maybe those tests with live Geth weren’t such a good idea after all?
In true Mass Effect fashion, there’s a family connection to this saga. Archer’s brother David was the one who, um, volunteered for the Project Overlord tests and when Shepard and crew land, his humanity appears to be totally lost. Now, he/it wants to upload itself off the remote paradise and threaten the universe at large. The motivations for these experiments tie back into the larger ME uber-story. In ME1, the big bad Saren controlled an army of Geth, despite being a non-machine. Archer and his team started their efforts after realizing the Geth would follow an organic lifeform. Touches like this make the Overlord DLC feel like less of an add-on and more like a new chapter of a longer, serialized story.
The eerily quiet moments of Overlord feel like an homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, but those get mixed with a digital haunted house story. One of the sections of this mission happens on a derelict Geth ship and the VI’s creepy monitor-green visage peers out from monitors that he/it controls and you’ll find yourself a lot more jumpy than you would be on other Mass Effect missions.
But overall, there aren’t any huge gameplay wrinkles in Overlord. No new powers, party members or weapons await you on Aite. (You will get two new achievements and can buff your stats and resources with stuff you find on-planet.) The biggest change is that the Hammerhead hover-tank returns in Overlord, transporting Shepard and crew to multiple points on the planet. There are some fun platforming and vehicular combat sequences with the Hammerhead but, again, no major surprises.
Overlord delivers the dark humor, philosophical dilemmas and emotional poignancy that make Mass Effect a standout series. But, most tantalizingly, it seems to seed some ideas about how the larger uber-story might progress. Will there be some kind of alliance with the Geth? How will your decisions in this chapter affect that if there is? Like a soap opera or any good episodic narrative, these questions leave you hungry for the next piece of Mass Effect story. That, of course, is exactly the point.