Mass Effect: Legendary Edition Review

Debates will rage on for quite some time still as to whether remasters and remakes are good for the game industry, but one of the series that started to get called out for such treatment ever since the trend started was Mass Effect. Beloved by fans of RPGs, sci-fi, and blockbuster game storytelling all alike, many saw the clunky gameplay of the first game, and some iffy or downright infuriating (to some, at least - more on that later) elements of the second or third games to be ripe for someone to come in and re-do. But one question remained for many fans of the series - should the games be remastered, or do we trust EA to do even more? Can we trust our beloved trilogy in the hands of the studio and publisher that have faltered many times since? 

We have the answer to that question: Mass Effect: Legendary Edition is the product of choosing the less ambitious choice, and in this review I'll argue it was probably the right choice. It's not a remake - it's actually the same three games, modified, even still on the old, obsolete Unreal Engine 3 (although you've never seen a game on this old technology that looks quite this good) and simply brought forward as the beloved sci-fi trilogy all in one package, with nearly all DLC and modes along with 4K-friendly graphics and some solid gameplay improvements to round out the experience. The result is a sweet nostalgia trip for any veterans of the series and a fancy new showing for those who didn't catch this series the first time around. There are some bumps in the road, however, and a lot of it has to do with how the original games worked, so buckle up.

What makes a good Remaster?

One of the things I think is peculiar about the prospect of remastering an old game comes from just how our rose-tinted glasses will make a great game from yesteryear so much prettier and better in our heads. The graphics in our minds are always crisp, the memories that stick out from the game are usually the high points, and we often associate our memories playing with a more carefree time in our lives. I like to think that a good remaster tries to reinforce those points by improving a game to match that better version of the game that our memories hold dear. Generally, developers go in and try to do this by smoothing over any really ugly stuff, improving everything subtly, and focusing on giving players that positive nostalgia trip. If the diehards are satisfied, meaning that whatever drew people to the game in the first place is still there, and the improvements to the visuals stick, then even new players will come along and enjoy it too. 

As we've found a few times already, remastering and re-releasing a beloved game doesn't make everyone happy and some gamers will get very possessive and nitpicky about certain aspects that change, even if those changes are small. But the overall experience, if done well, should satisfy both new and veteran players. That has been achieved here, but by the end, many veterans won't notice or care about the Legendary Edition's improvements. They'll be focused instead on what didn't change. 

Overall Enhancements

Not only does Legendary Edition include the whole trilogy with all but one DLC (Pinnacle Station for ME1, due to the corruption of the original source code, but believe me when I say it's not much of a loss), but the game's visuals have been given a once-over with new textures that look crisp on 4K screens and some new visual effects that are sometimes subtle, sometimes overbearing, sometimes a bit better, sometimes a bit worse depending on the scene and your memory. 

Different aspects of gameplay have been updated too, usually in the direction of making the games easier, more consistent, and less annoying, and while I won't go down the entire list, I'll point out the big ones. 

Mass Effect 1

Mass Effect was BioWare's first blockbuster shooter/RPG, a sci-fi epic released in 2007 that combined real-time tactical gunplay with crunchy RPG mechanics initially on just the Xbox 360. Not only did we get a true RPG with fully-voiced conversations that included plenty of dialogue - something that was still relatively new for console gamers at that time - but its vaguely tactics-oriented real-time combat and biotic powers (basically, their new universe's version of The Force) gave the game a feel that is unique even to this day. With that said, many of the shooting aspects were clunky even for 2007, especially since at that point Xbox gamers were already playing Gears of War, Halo 1 and 2, and Crackdown, so it didn't wow everyone, but what the game lacked in satisfying gunplay, it made up for with excellent world-building and story - not to mention the RPG elements that even shooter fans could appreciate.

In Legendary Edition, the biggest makeovers arrive both visually and gameplay-wise. Early game, the differences are tremendous - the way the weapons would sway around wildly when aiming down them (especially the sniper rifles) for your starting, unskilled Commander Shepard has been completely overhauled, with points instead improving powers and overall damage. Your vehicle, the six-wheeled Mako, can kill more effectively and proves to be little less bouncy, and now sports a forward-boosting thruster to supply just a little extra speed and additional help getting up steep inclines. While it's still largely a pig to try and drive in highly uneven terrain, I have to say that as a Mako veteran who climbed even the highest mountain with perseverance and admittedly after spewing out quite a few cuss words, the new version is more convenient and satisfying in certain situations but it's still by no means easy. Overall, I'm happy because I came to love the stupid thing, challenges and all, and a new generation will hopefully feel the same with a modicum less frustration. But I get it if they don't.

Let's get on with more gameplay enhancements - leveling has been changed to require only one playthrough to get near to the max level, a few combat encounters were tweaked in enemies or map design to smooth out the experience, getting in and out of cover is a little easier and more intuitive, and the inventory was given a few features (namely, sorting items and marking them as junk for quick disposal or sale) to make it more manageable. 

Overall, this is still Mass Effect, however, so those that hoped for BioWare to completely rework the combat to be like the later two games in the trilogy are going to be disappointed. It's still got its very clunky moments both inside and outside of combat and cutscenes, it reuses the same interior environments dozens of times with only minor changes constantly, and it can wear out its welcome quickly with some of the more tedious combat encounters. Even though the developers gave Mass Effect 1 the most attention of the three games in this remaster, it still has a long way to go to meet some of the standards many 2021 action-RPGs now comfortably sit at. 

Was it the right choice to not make even larger changes to Mass Effect? As a massive fan of the series and long-hauler that was right there loving Commander Shepard on day one, I'd say yes, it was probably best not to go too far. This first game does a lot of excellent world-building and really struck an interesting balance between action and RPG choices. It also was wildly popular despite its shortcomings and as I'll reiterate a few times here, I'm not sure the BioWare of today, had they redesigned a bunch of the game's combat and conversations, would have made a better game than what we have today. Many of the same key developers from those days are no longer at the studio, and it's just a different company (and many would argue, especially after disappointments with Mass Effect: Andromeda and Anthem, a worse one) than it was 15 years ago. For those reasons, it seems to have been best not to meddle too much.

Mass Effect 2

When ME2 was released towards the end of 2009, players couldn't help but love so much of this wonderful game, but a few little seeds of doubt started to pop into some veteran players' minds. Sure, Commander Shepard kicks ass in the most satisfying ways throughout this entire game, the characters are fantastic, the journey is satisfying, and the combat comes in vastly improved, but wait - there's no inventory to manage at all? No loot from enemies? You only get XP and credits at the end of a "mission" and not per-kill? And on top of that, nearly every time you go to work on a quest, you're locked into an area dedicated solely to that quest and have to complete it in a mostly linear fashion until that mission is "complete"? Beyond that, just hold on - there's a "mission complete" screen? That's not the kind of RPG I grew up with! These are the kinds of hot takes we saw after ME2 was released. 

Now to me, the most important element of an RPG is making difficult choices that have impact to the characters and story, with choices affecting combat slotting in a close second place - but those who were looking primarily for a traditional RPG and were happy with how ME1 played out were understandably disappointed here. I disagree with those sentiments overall, because ME2 still gives players plenty of traditional choices like what weapons to bring, talent points to assign to Shepard and squadmates, unlocking new guns and armor by spending credits and looting containers and such, and of course we made many decisions that satisfyingly have huge impact on friendly characters and enemies, but for some that just wasn't enough to make it an RPG.

And then there's the threat Commander Shepard faces, which in the first game revolved around learning about and repelling an attack from the Reapers - which, if you already know what they are, I don't need to describe it, and if you don't know, it's best to just play the games to understand what they are. But this second game, after a complete shocker of an intro, sends you to track down an entirely different threat, where you build a team of about 80% new squadmates and get much deeper into their stories than the first one did. In fact, a sizable majority of the game centers around building your team of squadmates and gaining their trust by helping them with their personal struggles. There is a tie-in to the Reaper threat eventually, but for many players disappointed in ME2's "team-building" structure, then for them that connection came too late in the story. (And considering the rather saddening statistic that most big-budget games' single player campaigns go unfinished by a majority of players, it sounds like this might have bitten BioWare in the quad here.)

With all of that said, many gamers consider Mass Effect 2 to be the best game in the series (and for some, one of the best video games ever made) due to its fantastic story beats, wonderful cast of characters whose problems need Shepard's involvement to solve, and especially tight game design. In this Legendary Edition version, all of that holds up as the developers did not mess with any of what makes this game a winner. The developers made the wise decision to tweak very little gameplay-wise - mostly just a few under-the-hood changes to allow for a better ending to be achieved more easily - so the crisper visuals serve as the most obvious difference that you see throughout the game. With that all in mind, ME2 is still an utter joy to play, and coming from ME1 in the Legendary Edition, the unique powers for each of the six classes, improved gunplay, interesting level design, more tactical challenges brought in the higher difficulty modes, and very different approaches when making Paragon or Renegade choices all make for very welcome changes from the first game.

And that ending sequence in ME2, where completionism is rewarded and your ability to understand your squad is put to the ultimate test with deadly consequences looming - well, I cannot think of a better example of what an RPG means to me more than this. And yes, I love inventory screens too, but making permanent life-or-death choices for my team is always going to be more impactful to me than deciding on +9 health vs +6 damage.  

One complaint I want to stop and pick out is that the Vanguard's Biotic Charge ability is horribly buggy in ME2 on the Legendary Edition. It often refused to activate even with enemies standing out in the open in front of me, or sometimes it'd just fail to fire off and put me on cooldown anyway, or it'd fire and hit but then leave me back where I started. (Mostly it'd just refuse to work.) On Insanity difficulty, this left me with at least a hundred deaths caused entirely by a very janky Charge ability that frankly, I was stuck being committed to the moment I chose Vanguard at the start of the game. 

Mass Effect 3

This one requires a very careful hand to evaluate, because upon release, Mass Effect 3 caused a massive shitstorm of hatred and controversy that in many ways was unprecedented for a video game at the time, and has not been exceeded since. It also permanently changed, for the worse, how at least some gamers interact with people in the games industry. While the GamerGate controversy wasn't directly caused by ME3 as it did pre-date the whole thing by a couple years, I feel it opened the path for some very angry gamers to feel like they could abuse, shame, bully people in the games industry into doing something different and then if that didn't work, force them into hiding to escape doxxing and threats. 

The extreme reaction to ME3 showed us a preview of the anger that gamers suddenly wanted to use to lash out at people who make a living creating or working around video games. The game's ending was so maligned and hated that it resulted in death threats, developers quitting and leaving their careers behind, and leaving a lasting bitterness that continues today - all because people so deeply disliked the last 20-30 minutes of a video game. (I absolutely adore the Mass Effect series, but I don't see why someone should be organizing campaigns for or creating real-world plots over it.) To be clear, I'm not saying that people have no place to be upset, but there's upset and there's foaming-at-the-mouth rabid, and the reaction from far too many was more of the latter.

But by now you'll probably agree that I'm getting ahead of myself. By most accounts, including those who hated the ending, people generally were actually overwhelmingly approving of ME3 up until a point. The action is more polished than ever, biotic and tech abilities are more fun to use and can be "curved" around enemy cover, players get more abilities and more points to spend with additional choices to tweak the abilities, weapons can be improved and modded on top of being swapped out, and there is a system I haven't seen in any blockbuster game since, where the the weight of each gun is totaled up and characters running "heavy" are given longer cooldowns on tech and biotic abilities based on that weight. This challenged players to really think about what weapons they want to bring, including possibly weaker ones that weigh less.

With better visuals, smoother performance, and Shepard's return to facing the Reaper threat - and a tour of many important and a few familiar, beloved locations throughout the Milky Way - ME3 largely met expectations of being the epic that fans wanted out of the completion of this trilogy. The writing and voice acting remain on point, the truly blockbuster setpieces loom large, and the developers were able to properly show the galactic-level scale of war and what's at stake overall. There are a few controversies that did play out prior to the game's ending, like EA charging $10 for players to access an optional squadmate that offers massive implications for the galaxy's alien races and huge insight into the world-building and history of Mass Effect, as well as the inclusion of a new, highly annoying sub-villain that rubbed players the wrong way. 

But it was the ending that really did it. The sudden and off-putting nature exposition right at the end of the game, the contrived explanation for the Reapers' creation and ongoing motivations, the choices presented for how to deal with them, and the sameness of the cutscenes that followed - no matter the player's final choice - really set people over the edge. Many took to Reddit and social media to howl about the use of well-worn and frustrating sci-fi tropes and raged at the directors of the series (and at EA) for writing and delivering a game that may be only 10% "wrong", but it was very much the wrong 10% to be wrong about - if that makes any sense. And as I mentioned prior, this was the more reasonable of reactions, all things considered.

For my part, no amount of rage made much sense in response to this, but I agree with the frustration to some extent. Still, considering that the game takes the player through conclusions to storylines involving the Krogan, Geth and Quarians, and Shepard's personal relationships that started in the first game, I see basically the entire last two thirds of Mass Effect 3 to be one big ending - not to this one game, but to the entire trilogy. And from that perspective, taking in the conclusion to the bigger storylines along with Shepard's own, then overall I will say I like the ending, as long as we include the ending to all of the storylines that this game wraps up. 

Sure, there are parts of the last 20 minutes that I also find lazy and contrived, but at least one of the endings in my mind had some interesting implications for the future. And while BioWare did go back and add content to those last few minutes in a sort of free apology DLC that was originally called Extended Cut (which is included in the Legendary Edition and is just a part of the ending, period), it didn't exactly answer any burning questions I had, nor does it seem to get to the core of what people disliked so much. It did appease a few, but mostly this DLC didn't really do much to fix things.

None of that is changed here in the Legendary Edition. Extended Cut is included, and otherwise it's unchanged. So overall, aside from some minor tweaks and better texture quality, ME3 is largely the same game as it was in 2012, ending included. I should point out that yes, all the rest of the DLC is here too, and that means the decent Omega DLC and the absolutely wonderful Citadel DLC storyline. That optional squadmate I mentioned is also in, along with all of the Collector's Edition bonuses and such. 

What is missing is the multiplayer mode. The announcement of this mode for the original game was a big surprise considering that basically nobody was asking for it at the time, so expectations were in the gutter. But when ME3 launched, the community found that the added cooperative multiplayer mode was surprisingly fun and satisfying to jump into for short bursts - even if it was also laden with some of EA's earliest shameless lootbox mechanics as well, although they can be entirely avoided too. This mode has not been reproduced in this Legendary package and while that could change later, I am not counting on it nor do I really think going back in to add it will have the impact it did, or be as satisfying as it was, back when ME3 was released in 2012. 

Wrapping it all up

It's clear that BioWare didn't want to revolutionize or fully remake the Mass Effect trilogy going into this re-release. They spent the most time and effort on the first game and largely left the second and third as they were, with only higher quality visuals (mostly in the way of improving texture resolution) as the main method of calling this a remaster. And who can blame them? All three games were runaway successes, and as I mentioned, it may not have been the best move to trust BioWare to try and dig deeper to re-work entire gameplay systems or backport ME3's superior action into either of the first two games - not without causing more problems than they would fix. 

The simple fact is that this package best serves a few gamer segments: 1) diehard Mass Effect fans who were going to replay the series anyway, 2) gamers who never got around to finishing the trilogy and now want to experience it on the newest consoles, and 3) people that are entirely new to the series and never got to play it the first time around. But, for those who turned sour on the trilogy due to the changing mechanics, uneven story elements across the trilogy, watering down of traditional CRPG elements, or the highly frustrating last half-hour - basically anyone that completed the trilogy and thinks poorly of it overall - I don't think that Legendary Edition will erase those bad memories with the inclusion of stuff like a Mako turret that can now fire downwards a bit, or with a shinier set of textures on the Normandy. For those folks that the problems with the original trilogy lost, getting them back as fans at this point is probably a lost cause, and I completely understand if that is the case. The best I can say in that regard is that we'll see how BioWare does on the next Mass Effect, which has been announced to be in development but with no name and only one trailer showing a few interesting but mysterious details. 

But I will say this as a huge fan of BioWare: the studio has made several major missteps in the last decade. EA has closed whole studios, fired the teams, and swallowed the associated IP - never to be seen again - for vastly fewer failures and controversies than BioWare has gone through recently. I suspect that EA is looking very closely at how this next Mass Effect is received, and it's highly possible that BioWare may not survive, and Mass Effect may never return or at the least may never be the same, if they don't knock it out of the park with their next release.

Note that the score I give below reflects the remaster more than the scores of the individual games themselves - the games to me are 9/10, 9/10, and 8/10 respectively. The remaster does well, but BioWare certainly could've done more with it.