There are certain games that we go back to and replay, experiences that are as synonymous with our own history as they are a part of the larger picture called ‘videogames’. Like the warmth of a familiar and beloved film, the act of revisiting a world, its characters, its mechanics, can sit comfortably alongside the joy of a brand new adventure.
’s Mass Effect
trilogy is not only a milestone RPG epic released within a single hardware generation, but it’s also that game
or series many go back to.
For me though, it’s been a minute. The last time I played the original Mass Effect was prior to the release of Mass Effect 2
. Make no mistake, with the trilogy’s character and choice-driven tale spanning an entire galaxy, it was the sort of monumental journey that left a permanent and indelible impression. Put on the spot to rattle off the best sci-fi things across all mediums, I’d most likely throw in Mass Effect.
Stepping aboard the Normandy for the first time (again) in over a decade, enough time has passed that playing through the original (as found in the Mass Effect Legendary Edition
collection) feels different. A sensation that goes beyond the improved textures, new lighting, remastered audio, revamped controls and combat, and modern cinematic touches like depth-of-field and lens-flare effects.
Like the warmth of a familiar and beloved film, the act of revisiting a world, its characters, its mechanics, can sit comfortably alongside the joy of a brand new adventure.
Given enough time our perspectives change. Reactions to conversations, dialogue, combat, character progression, shifts in tone, the overall presentation. Familiarity recontextualised. As a remastered collection the Mass Effect Legendary Edition presents games that have been changed, modernised, and rightfully brought up to a 2021 sheen. 4K. 60fps. 120fps.
More importantly, we’ve changed.
So instead of listing all of the remastered updates and slapping on a 9 or a 10 on this and calling it a day, I’ll be reviewing the Mass Effect Legendary Edition as a singular and epic sci-fi RPG over the course of a long-overdue replay. And with that, let’s begin.
Mass Effect (Original Release - 2007)
The more involved the character creation is in an RPG, the more we view our controllable protagonist as a “blank-sheet”. Something that harkens back to the pen-and-paper days of the genre’s roots. The idea of a set in stone character -- with their own pre-defined look and back-story -- is more in line with a cinematic and linear tale, where RPG then morphs into action-RPG and character choice and customisation becomes limited to combat styles and a few narrative branches to traverse.
Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard follows a somewhat just like this set-in-stone path, a military commander that becomes the first human to become a Spectre. A one-person intergalactic Timothy Olyphant, of sorts, acting autonomously on behalf of the Galactic Council of races. With ancient alien artefacts, the return of a warring race of AI called the Geth, a rogue Spectre to hunt down, and a mystery that spans the very existence of sentient life in the Milky Way, the story isn’t exactly malleable. But Shepard is.
And there lies the genius of Mass Effect’s narrative, and BioWare’s deft hand at crafting RPG stories rooted in the genre’s pen-and-paper origins. It begins when you choose the gender, look, and backstory for your Shepard. And then over the course of dozens of hours you get to define and shape a hero, an antihero, or something in-between. Where interactions with characters both integral and peripheral create a personal journey within the scope of a truly expansive space opera.
The ‘Renegade’ and ‘Paragon’ paths offer an almost binary “either or” on paper, but the choice is ultimately yours. Like BioWare’s Light and Dark Side infused Star Wars
classic Knights of the Old Republic
there are big moments aplenty, deciding who lives or dies, who should benefit the most. Plus smaller ones too, like telling a reporter to get lost.
Interactions with characters both integral and peripheral create a personal journey within the scope of a truly expansive space opera.
And it’s here where differences in morality and demeanor become something that feels quite unlike any other game from this era. It’s hard to talk about Shepard and Mass Effect without referencing your own decisions and responses. On Feros, a remote planet under attack from the Geth that then sees its few remaining people under the thrall of a mysterious being -- the decision to avoid killing them was something that felt true to my Shepard. Noble sure, but that didn’t change the somewhat cold and calculated responses that were given to its survivors.
A character almost entirely focused on the big picture, listening to the plight of colonists on Feros took a back seat to stopping the Geth and tracking down Saren (the aforementioned rogue Spectre). Short and abrupt responses, yet underneath all of that someone who understands that “saving the galaxy” carries with it a far-reaching cost. Ultimately doing good, but being a harsh renegade along the way. A one-person intergalactic Timothy Olyphant.
BioWare built its reputation due to the sort of story and choices you find in Mass Effect. There’s a backstory, a history, but through relationships with your diverse crew - Wrex, Garrus, Tali, and Liara, to name a few - there’s also a concerted effort to present multiple viewpoints and perspectives surrounding just about every narrative beat in an effort to expand and grow your Shepard into something more.
Surprisingly BioWare manages to do quite a lot with very few lengthy set pieces, and by that I mean Garrus and Wrex and Tali are able to convey reams of information about themselves and the history of the universe whilst also featuring clearly defined, memorable, and above all endearing personalities. Playing Mass Effect again is very much like getting reacquainted with old friends.
And from that the tools to forge your own path emerge -- seamlessly and without the sort of bumps and sudden movements that come from driving around in the game’s all-terrain vehicle, the Mako.
As a remaster Mass Effect has never looked this good, the new textures and lighting and detail add a modern sheen that feels essential to the experience. As do the several improvements made to the combat and levelling and other elements to elevate the real-time action. That said, playing Mass Effect in 2021, even in 4K and with a hefty dose of Abrams-style sci-fi lens-flare, still has the air of an Xbox 360 era release.
Garrus and Wrex and Tali are able to convey reams of information about themselves and the history of the universe whilst also presenting clearly defined, memorable, and above all endearing personalities. Playing Mass Effect again is very much like getting reacquainted with old friends.
Outside of the still very-weird decision to explore rough and unpredictable planetary surfaces with a land vehicle instead of hovering above in a small spaceship (thankfully, the Mako controls are vastly improved here), there’s no denying that a full-blown remake ala Square Enix’s Final Fantasy VII
would have opened the door to greater immersion.
Granted, a full-blown remake would be a massive multi-year project that would require a team of hundreds. That’s merely put out there as a means to highlight that even with all of the very-welcome additional remastered detail, some scope has been lost in the decade and change since the game’s original debut.
With the Citadel serving as a Galactic Hub housing millions of beings from all corners of the galaxy, seeing very few NPCs walking about or markets lacking the bustle of a densely populated hub -- it’s less filling in the gaps with 2007 imagination than it is imagining what the Citadel it might look like with 2021 videogame detail. And with that some awe is lost, which extends to planetary exploration where buildings and mines and even freighters you can board all feature the exact same layout. There’s a clunkiness to the AI that feels dated too, with odd behaviour and cover-mechanics that are functional at best.
Choosing and shaping your combat style, be it Tech, Biotic, or straight-up firearm action, still feels robust -- yet the weird decision to allow all classes to equip all weapons is a strange one. Even though it makes sense that someone who could wield a Shotgun should be able to wield an Assault Rifle, with the original limiting the latter to the Soldier class, the superior fire-power made up for the lack of Throw, Lift, and other Biotic abilities. In the remastered Mass Effect the balance feels off when you can essentially become a Biotic sniper. Again, the remaster improves quite a lot when it comes to the real-time action, taking into account your own accuracy over dice-rolls is a better fit.
Through it all the narrative still stands as tall as it ever has, matched by the overall sense of wonder that comes from exploring the Mass Effect universe. Opening up the ‘Galaxy Map’ and getting to read about different systems and planets is as humbling and awe inspiring as ever. This is bolstered by one of the best in-game Codexes in the history of the medium, thanks in part to the iconic nature of the universe BioWare has created. Learning more about the different races and moments in time adds real context to the decisions you’ll make as Shepard.
The narrative still stands as tall as it ever has, matched by the overall sense of wonder that comes from exploring the Mass Effect universe.
Mass Effect presents technology, alien races, conflicts, and thousands of years of history as fantastical and believable science fiction -- a foundation rich enough to serve as the basis for countless spin-offs, side-stories, and adventures both large and small. It does all of this by putting you in the space shoes of one Commander Shepard, your Shepard. It’s a cinematic tale to savour, and with that alone this remaster effort is not only essential for fans but the industry at large.
Keeping the sublight engines of the Normandy on and ready for anyone to jump into the Commander’s seat.