Saturday, January 1, 2011

Review: Overlord

Through Overlord, Bioware provides even more fantastic downloadable content for those who own a copy of Mass Effect 2. Without any recruitable squad members or exciting new weapons to recommend it, Overlord might give off a lacklustre vibe, at least initially. A misleading reading, because whatever Overlord is, lacklustre it definitely isn’t.

Overlord is based upon one of the most basic of artificial-intelligence doomsday scenarios there is – that of an advanced Artificial Intelligence trying to escape confinement to infect the internet and thus all technology. However, Bioware takes this common trope and turns it on its head, leaving a story that is as absolutely beautiful and heart wrenching as it is exciting and powerful.

The story starts once you’ve paid whatever price is necessary to access it.

Overlord will cost you the same amount as Kasumi – Stolen Memory, no matter your preferred platform. Xbox 360 owners can expect to pay 560 Microsoft Points for the privilege of helping Cerberus sort their shit out. Playstation 3 owners, meanwhile, can expect to lose nothing, bar perhaps a little sanity as they wait solemnly for Mass Effect 2’s Playstation 3 release later this month.

Whatever the cost, once Overlord is installed, the doomed planet Aite will appear as a new location the next time Commander Shepard accesses the Normandy’s galaxy map. Once you chose to undertake the Overlord mission, the Normandy will swoop in, cargo bay door open, dropping Commander Shepard and two Squad Members of his choosing in the M-44 Hammerhead. Introduced in the Firewalker Pack, free to Cerberus Network members, the Hammerhead is a light hover tank that replaces the Mako recon vehicle of the first Mass Effect. Thankfully, aside from a passing resemblance, the Hammerhead is nothing at all like the Mako, and actually handles like a hover tank, rather than a drunken caterpillar with busted pogo sticks for legs.

Aite is a beautiful planet, and that’s just when you’re viewing it from space. Delicate rings of crystal orbit Aite, both outlining and belying what must happen after you land. Certainly, you have a mission. Yet, once you’ve been dropped on the surface and actually get to exploring, you may find yourself tempted. You could destroy enemies and mission objectives if you wanted to. Or, you could spend a few hours cruising around to find more verdant pasture, more crystal lagoons to skim across, more fig-shadowed horizons to stare at, and even more six-limbed space cows to splatter with your reinforced bonnet.

There are even some puzzles you must solve using the Hammerhead, situations where you need to pretend you’re Crash Bandicoot, where you have to forget your training and cross rivers of liquid hot magma by jumping across floating rock platforms. Sometimes you need to trick otherwise indestructible enemies into shooting themselves in the proverbial foot. You can also harvest mineral deposits directly by parking over them and holding Y (on an Xbox controller, anyway) until a light panel on the rear of the Hammerhead blinks green. This is mildly confusing, because there’s no way anyone in the vehicle could possibly see this light panel to know harvesting was successful. Unless Cerberus also installed a periscope to let Shepard see what could easily have been a small holographic icon in the cockpit. Either way, it’s a case of human engineering at its best.

Eventually, though, after you’ve found the six hidden Cerberus data packets, after you’ve hunted a lumbering sapient species to extinction using a military vehicle, and realised the green light is just an unfortunate result of outsourcing, you’ll want more. You’ll want to actually get somewhere, to uncover some missing part of the story, to try and complete the mission. Sure, the space cows will forever remember you as the greatest blight of their peaceful civilisation’s short history, the man whom forced them to take up arms; but, mere exploration will only tide you over for so long. All you have to do then is find a Cerberus bunker, park correctly in a designated Cerberus personnel space, and walk right in through the front door.

At this point you’ll have to face wave upon wave of synthetic enemies: LOKI mechs, their morbidly obese and infinitely angry YMIR brethren, and Geth. Make sure you’re bringing tech-savvy squad members capable of AI Hacking and using Overload. If your Commander Shepard is an Infiltrator, Engineer or Sentinel you should also have a much easier time of it. If you’ve previously downloaded the Firepower Pack, make sure to break out the Geth Plasma Shotgun with Disruptor rounds. That is, if you feel like one-shot killing non-armoured synthetics from about thirty meters away, regardless of whether they’re shielded or not.

The combat component of Overlord is actually almost too easy, especially if you, like me, run an Infiltrator class with shotgun training. In that case, you just kill all easy targets with the Geth boomstick, incinerate the armour of big badass enemies, hack them. To take my own poor example, I hacked a Geth Destroyer and watched it turn its flamethrower upon its helpless former allies. After this, I spent a good five minutes giggling like a little boy who’d just heard his dog fart for the first time.

So, it’s not particularly difficult or time-consuming defeating the entirely-robotic enemies covering Aite; but that doesn’t stop Overlord from being a truckload of fun. Hell yeah I just disguised an obscenity.

Perhaps it’s better that the five missions that make up this little expansion aren’t all that hard. Otherwise, I might have gone insane as I feverishly attempted to uncover the secrets story of the Overlord in my race from the first to final bunker. Without giving too much away, I found what I encountered in that final bunker emotionally overwhelming, almost too difficult to deal with. Even after I finished the expansion, went back to the Normandy, saved two redundant files to be safe, and shut my Xbox 360 down, I felt my heart being twisted by what I’d uncovered. New Years Eve, and instead of grabbing another Rum with Dry and Lime whilst Daft Punk played through my headphones, I needed time to sit. I needed time to sit and think about what had happened.

After all the mindless ecstasy of speeding over lake, land, and lava in a hover tank, Bioware switched the mood, and immediately left me a thoughtful kind of morose.

That switch is what’s left me convinced that Overlord is so very brilliant, and so very worthy of the same respect I lavished upon the Kasumi – Stolen Memory expansion. While you don’t get another squad member or weapon out of it, Overlord certainly leaves you with something difficult to face and think about: for me, that is certainly worth 560 Microsoft points.