Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the Mass Effect series.
Rumours swirled for much of 2020 that the Mass Effect trilogy was to be remastered. The project was confirmed a couple of months ago – Mass Effect: Legendary Edition will be coming to PC, Xbox, and PlayStation in May. I didn’t cover the initial announcement, though, because there really wasn’t much to say. Electronic Arts and BioWare saw fit to publish only a brief teaser, and from that there was very little to gleam.
After a couple of months of waiting, however, we now finally have some details about Mass Effect: Legendary Edition, so I wanted to take a look at some of them and give my thoughts. Some games journalists were invited to a digital event for Mass Effect: Legendary Edition in which they were able to speak with developers and managers at BioWare, so in addition to the official trailer and announcement we also have some more details to look at. My invitation to that event must’ve got lost in the post!
Prior to the official announcement of Mass Effect: Legendary Edition, I wrote up a wishlist of things I’d like a remaster of the trilogy to include. Obviously not everything I hoped to see has been included, but some key things will be. I would reiterate a point I made in that article, though: it’s only been a few years since the trilogy wrapped up. The Mass Effect trilogy was released during the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 era, and, like many games from that generation, they still look pretty good today. I questioned the need for a remaster so soon, given that there hasn’t been that much of an increase in computing power and graphics technology in the intervening nine years.
And on that point, which is arguably the single biggest reason to remaster any game, I have to say that I’m not especially impressed with what I’ve seen of Mass Effect: Legendary Edition so far. There are some improvements, of course, and it can be hard to properly convey the scale of the changes made when dealing with compressed digital video on platforms like YouTube. But I have a decent 4K monitor, and when I looked at a number of scenes from the official trailer as well as high-resolution screenshots provided by BioWare, it was hard to see a significant improvement, especially when looking at scenes from Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3.
When Capcom remastered Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil 3 over the last couple of years, both games saw a colossal improvement from a visual standpoint. In fact I think it’s arguable that the remade versions of those games told their stories in a much better and more immersive way – except, of course, for the cut content from Resident Evil 3. Both titles were beloved by gamers of a certain age, but bringing them up-to-date allowed a whole new generation of players to experience the horror and excitement of Raccoon City. That won’t be the case with Mass Effect: Legendary Edition. Aside from the fact that the games have all been available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and even the Wii U, there just isn’t such a noticeable change in the way the games look, and while there have been tweaks and adjustments to gameplay, none of the games have seen a huge overhaul in the way the Resident Evil titles did.
So I come back to my original question from my first piece on the subject: is now the right time to remaster the Mass Effect trilogy? Although it seems mad to think ahead to the PlayStation 6 when we’ve literally just had the PlayStation 5’s launch, I would argue that waiting another five to ten years and another console generation would have allowed the Mass Effect trilogy to see much more of an improvement. The original games are good enough – especially the second and third titles – to stand on their own two feet. A re-release or a repackaging of all three titles would have been sufficient, and I don’t really see a significant advantage to what EA and BioWare are billing as a “remaster.”
This is not, by the way, a problem unique to the Mass Effect series. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was remastered in 2016, less than a decade after its release, and was similarly underwhelming. Partly this is psychological – we have a tendency to remember games looking better than they actually did. But in the case of many modern titles it’s also due to the fact that visuals and graphics have not improved in a huge way over the last decade when compared to earlier decades. So while Mass Effect: Legendary Edition looks decent, it’s not always easy to see – at least from the footage shown so far – that it’s substantially better than the original versions of its three constituent games.
The second point of criticism I have is that no action has been taken to change the story. As I wrote last time, I didn’t expect the ending of Mass Effect 3 to fundamentally change. That would require far too much effort for a project of this nature. The “pick-a-colour” ending of Mass Effect 3 is arguably the weakest part of the entire trilogy, and while it would be great to have seen that changed I knew it wouldn’t happen. So that isn’t what’s disappointing!
What is disappointing, though, is that the final third of Mass Effect 3 appears to be left unchanged. For me, the “pick-a-colour” ending was only one part of what let the game down; countless smaller decisions taken across the whole trilogy that should have mattered were either entirely ignored or only given the barest lip service in the story’s climactic final act. The most egregious example is that of the Quarians and Geth. To make a long story short, if players follow a specific path across all three games, it’s possible to save both the Geth and Quarians at a decisive moment where it looks as though it should only be possible to save one. This choice should matter; having both powerful fleets on side should be hugely impactful in the final battle against the Reapers. Yet it isn’t. Aside from a couple of seconds of cut-scene where both fleets warp in, and one line of dialogue, this massive choice fails to make any impact.
That may be the worst example; it’s certainly the one which stuck with me. But there are dozens of others, and the final third or so of Mass Effect 3 was undeniably rushed. Revisiting the project should have been an opportunity to right some of these wrongs, and to at the very least make a conscious effort to pay off, in a meaningful way, more of the player’s choices and efforts as the story reaches its conclusion.
The lack of payoff to some of these choices will be even more noticeable in Mass Effect: Legendary Edition than it was when we played Mass Effect 3 back in 2012. This is for the simple reason that Legendary Edition is actively inviting players to play all three titles back-to-back as one continuous story – a story whose lacklustre ending and underwhelming acknowledgement of significant moments will be all the more recognisable for it.
I do understand the argument that there wasn’t enough material left on the cutting room floor to reincorporate into the game. But unlike in cinema, video games use voice acting and with practically all of the principal voice actors from across the trilogy still alive, there’s no reason I can see why bringing some of them back into the studio to record new dialogue should have been impossible. The final act of Mass Effect 3 would be massively improved by as little as fifteen minutes’ worth of extra dialogue and cut-scenes, and while the Extended Edition DLC will be included in Legendary Edition, even that could stand to be improved.
So I think that covers my main criticisms of the project based on what I’ve seen and read. Now let’s get into the good points!
We’ll look at specific overhauls and changes in a moment, but first I wanted to acknowledge that, despite their reputation as a money-grubbing company, Electronic Arts is releasing Mass Effect: Legendary Edition as a single package. All three games, plus all of their DLC, are included. It doesn’t look like there are any pre-order exclusives, special editions, or anything of the sort, and while some critics will say that such behaviour should be the bare minimum, the reality is in this industry that it isn’t – so it is worthy of praise when companies do behave themselves! EA could have easily tried to split the project up and sell different parts of it, so the fact that the entire trilogy and all its DLC are part of one package for one price is great. I would argue that perhaps full price (£55 here in the UK, at least on PC) is a bit steep for games from 2007, 2010, and 2012, but I guess for the remastered version of all three I can’t really complain about that too much.
If you recall, Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 were early pioneers of cut-content DLC. Mass Effect 2 had a couple of its characters peeled off to be sold separately, and Mass Effect 3 had Javik, the series’ only Prothean character, sold as day-one DLC. So the series is no stranger to courting controversy with the way its games are sold, which is another reason to heap praise upon the decision not to do so with this version!
Now into some specifics. The character creator has been overhauled, and while we don’t know exactly what’s changed, BioWare have promised new hairstyles, faces, and customisation options for Commander Shepard. Even by Mass Effect 2, the limitations of the original character creator were becoming apparent, so this is one area that needed work. I’m glad to hear that changes have been made in this area, as a role-playing game needs a decent amount of customisation. Making Commander Shepard feel like a unique and personal character is part of the appeal of games like the Mass Effect series.
Mass Effect 1 is seeing a number of gameplay changes and tweaks in order to bring the experience more in line with the second and third entries. Of the three games, Mass Effect 1 is the only one which felt even close to being “outdated” in 2021, and considering the substantial gameplay improvements which debuted in Mass Effect 2, I’m glad to see EA and BioWare updating it.
Specifically BioWare mentioned changes to the heads-up display, the way the Mako vehicle handled, the hacking/slicing mini-games, the removal of class-based weapon loadouts (i.e. players will be allowed to use any of the game’s guns regardless of their character’s stats), changes to aiming to make lock-on better, the ability to skip the lift (elevator) scenes, as these were only in the game to begin with to hide loading times when transitioning between areas, and a higher level cap.
All of these sound good, and will update Mass Effect 1. However, BioWare has not mentioned weapon overheating, which was a difficult mechanic to get the hang of in the first game. Overheating was dropped in Mass Effect 2 in favour of “thermal clips,” which was just technobabble for ammo, and I’m surprised in a way that ammo isn’t coming to Mass Effect 1. Also unchanged is the game’s inventory system, which could be complicated and would quickly fill up with dozens of different tiers and categories of weapon upgrades and ammo options.
There will be other tweaks and rebalances across the three games, including to enemy and boss AI. The games will all run in 4K at 60fps, which is really the bare minimum that we should have expected from any AAA remaster in 2021! Finally, there are some PC-specific changes, including keyboard and mouse options and support for ultrawide monitors.
So that’s it. Mass Effect: Legendary Edition will bring some aesthetic changes to the table and some gameplay tweaks that will hopefully make the experience smoother and more enjoyable… but I’m still left with a sense best summed up thus: “what’s the point?” The second and third games are perfectly playable in their current form without being upgraded, and the offered upgrades seem minor, even from a visual standpoint.
Packaging all three titles together, along with their DLC, is admirable, but it would have been just as easy to re-release the trilogy with its DLC and spare the effort of “remastering” some of these already-decent looking scenes. It isn’t like any of the three Mass Effect games looked bad by today’s standards, and I can think of a lot of recent games that have been less impressive.
There was an opportunity to expand Mass Effect: Legendary Edition. By bringing back some of the original voice actors and adding a few extra scenes, particularly toward the end of Mass Effect 3, the remaster could have taken the story to new heights and genuinely improved the worst part of all three games. Even without a major rewrite of the ending, by adding more context and better paying off more choices and combinations of choices, Legendary Edition would have at least felt worthwhile. At the moment, it kind of doesn’t.
Bringing games from 2007-12 “up to date” is unnecessary. Maybe in another ten years we could argue that enough time had passed and enough technological improvements had been made that the games would feel new again, but everything I saw in the trailers has left me with the belief that they won’t feel new. A shiny coat of paint and throwing the entire story together in one package is really all you’ll get.
If you’ve never played the Mass Effect trilogy, go for it. Wait for Legendary Edition, which is due out in three months or so, and give it a try. The games are great, and while the ending is a bit of a let-down, if you go into the games with your expectations set you will at least know what you’re letting yourself in for. But if you’ve already played all three games, I feel like this is a hard sell. I was genuinely interested in Legendary Edition when it was announced, but having heard what’s included and seen the minor changes for myself, I’m probably going to give it a pass, especially for £55. Maybe if it goes on sale in a couple of years I’ll pick it up then.
Mass Effect: Legendary Edition will be released in May for PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation 5. The Mass Effect series is the copyright of Electronic Arts and BioWare. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.