Fans got what they want: the original Mass Effect trilogy in one package. But how does the series fare in a modern landscape, and how much has been changed?
The legacy of Mass Effect is a shaky one. The first two games were universally acclaimed, with the second game in particular being hailed as one of the best games of all time, but the third game’s shock ending soured a lot of fans who had spent well over 150 hours in the game’s world. Andromeda, released in a buggy, unfinished form, was seemingly the first and final nail in the franchise’s gilded coffin. It seemed BioWare’s most popular IP, give or take Dragon Age, was now firmly a thing of the past.
It doesn’t help that the trilogy has been exclusively playable on last generation consoles, despite fans’ pleas for a remaster or even just a port. If you want to get into Mass Effect now, it’s not easy, and it’s pretty damn expensive. Not everybody wants to pay just south of $200 to play three old games, understandably so. That’s why the announcement of the Legendary Edition last year – along with a fifth entry in the franchise – was met with delight. Finally, fans could play all three games without having to dust off their old consoles or swap discs around. Despite the third game’s ending – a moment which didn’t just change Mass Effect but the gaming community for the worse – this is a series that fans love.
Mass Effect Legendary sits in that strange space between remaster (polishing up graphics, fixing bugs) and a complete remake (a complete recoding from the bottom up). While the second and third games, which pivoted the series away from its RPG roots and towards third person shooter, needed no fixing up, the first game was janky even when it came out in 2007. BioWare has updated the gameplay of the first to be closer in quality to the second and third, but it’s still the same story: You’re Commander Shepard, the leading hope of humanity, saving the galaxy against increasingly overwhelming odds, a ragtag rogue’s gallery of aliens and humans at your side.
The first game is where old fans will notice most of the changes, and where franchise newcomers will probably have the most difficulty getting into it. It flows easier than it did in 2007, but the cover mechanics are a far cry from what gamers would expect nowadays. While the games look better than they did, there’s still a bit of jankiness; the graphics have had a facelift; they haven’t been rebuilt from the ground up.
The aliens in particular look great, but the humans still look like putty, and the animations feel like flipping through a paper book. It’s a shame to see the moody lighting and darkness of the originals, a decision that came about from graphical limitations, give way to overlighting and a semblance of photorealism, but that’s a concession that the developers have clearly made to changing graphic trends. Why would you aim for looking like an oil painting when you can aim for, and achieve, looking like a photo? (Many, many reasons, obviously.)
But the graphics and gameplay aren’t why people come to the Mass Effect series, or any BioWare game. It’s not even the story, really, which is a few steps above rudimentary. What’s thrilling is the stupendous world-building, and the amount of agency that BioWare gives the player to participate in shaping that world across three games. There are the big choices, of course: do you let the rachni, who ravaged the galaxy hundreds of years ago, atone and live again, or do you wipe them out for good (and of course, do you let your Shepard wander the galaxy with bangs or with a shaved head)? But what impresses, after all this time, are the small choices, the little tweaks to the narrative here and there, that you only get to see and appreciate if you explore these worlds fully. The most notorious one is probably Conrad Verner, the Shepard superfan who shows up in all three games, and who becomes increasingly obsessed with or spurned by your hero.
Where the series is best, though, is in its acknowledgement of the time you’ve taken to know your companions and their various traumas. This is most evident in Mass Effect 2; a game which is entirely structured around building a team of the galaxy’s biggest badasses and going on what is explicitly called a suicide mission with them. You recruit them, you win their loyalty, and if you put in the time, one of them might even sing Gilbert & Sullivan for you. It’s one of the best examples ever of a game rewarding the effort the player puts in, and it should be the bar that other developers aim to meet.
There’s one part of the series that hits differently in 2021, beyond ever-so-slightly dated graphics and gameplay: you’re playing a rogue cop. Even if you play Commander Shepard as a good person (literally a “paragon”), you’re still playing a rogue cop, moulding the destiny of the galaxy according to your moral compass. This makes for great, empowering and immersive storytelling, but some of the actions you can take – up to and including genocide – might feel good as a player, but as a human being who thinks about these things a bit deeper? It’s uncomfortable. It doesn’t take an especially deep or broad reading of current affairs to understand that the relationship between the police and the public they serve is not what it was in 2007. Games are a reflection of the people who make them and the people who play them.If this game was made today, would Commander Shepard still be what is effectively a galactic cop? I’d hope not.
If you can put that aside – and millions will be able to, for better or worse – then what you’ve got is one of gaming’s greatest trilogies, readily available and accessible in a way they haven’t been for nearly a decade. This remaster, with all its improvements, proves that even after Andromeda, Mass Effect might be great again. And if it’s not? Then at least we’ve got these three games, better than they’ve ever been. That’s more than enough for me.
Mass Effect Legendary Edition is available on PC, PS4 and Xbox 360. It can also be played on PS5 and Xbox One.
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