As Remasters Go, the version of the original Mass effect The re-release of the Legendary Edition trilogy has to be one of the better ones.
EA and BioWare rightly recognized that the original Mass Effect was a creaky, cumbersome game in many ways – but they also understood that many of the aspects that made it so were also things that made it special and unique. Mass Effect 2 and 3 are great games, make no mistake – but the trend towards more limited level design and Gears of War inspired cover shoots that also allowed the series to pursue a satisfactory veneer of cinematic authenticity was too associated costs.
As a result, some of the weird tendencies of the first game never returned, but it would have been a mistake to cut them out in the name of a “unified” trilogy package. Also, to be fair, it would probably have been more expensive than EA would have been willing to put up with.
The Mass Effect Remaster included in the Legendary Edition is carefully balanced and optimized in the smallest of ways. The changes add up to more than the sum of their parts. In general, the changes are smart, but the whole game smells like compromise – which is sure to be fine in the eyes of some fans and unacceptable to others. The discourse will undoubtedly be exhausting.
What do I mean by that? Take the core cast of characters, for example. Character models weren’t even redesigned, but replaced with beautifully detailed, more intricate versions. Some of these models – the aliens more than the humans – probably wouldn’t even look that out of place in Mass Effect Andromeda, which hit much more powerful hardware a few years later.
However, the developers at BioWare admitted that any attempt to change the game’s animation would unravel the whole thing. A single change in animation would destroy ten other things – so all of the game’s animations are the same.
Sometimes this creates an eerie feeling like the female Shepard, despite slight differences in her proportions, is using the male Shepard’s animation rig, giving her a strange, bent-legged walk. In other cases, great looking squadmates with PS4 / XBO quality models are walking around in confused animation loops as they try to position themselves behind you as a backup.
Another example of this type of compromise is changes to the weapon system. For one, guns are now much less controlled by RPG stats – where you aim is where the bullet goes, regardless of the stats. That was the case in ME2 and 3, but not in the original. This is an improvement. From moment to moment, the shoot feels about a hundred times better than the original from 2007 – but at the same time, this intelligent change scratches and swaps color with the core systems and design of Mass Effect.
Mass Effect allows you to choose a class where different classes are trained with different weapons and skills. But to open things up, the remaster allows any class to use any weapon. The idea is that a class trained in shotguns, for example, will be better at using them and have more options than a class without the shotguns specialty. But those two changes taken together mean I ran around with a sniper rifle like it was a non-sniper class banging fools like it was nothing. This wasn’t possible before and has also helped make the game easier. I’m a serial veteran, but I prevailed on my first rescue on the most difficult difficulty level, “Insanity”.
It feels like the back and forth of this remaster. Nowhere is it as present as in lighting. This is a beautiful game with routinely nice lighting, especially considering it’s an older game that is still running on an older engine and has just been patched. But the original Mass Effect had a very specific mood and tone, all film grain and more than a little dirty. Plus, it was a pretty dark game with moody zones pierced by bright neon – and a lot of that is lost in this remaster.
In general, areas like the Citadel Presidium or some of the more Earth-like Unknown Worlds look great with plants and greenery that were already quite bright. These areas benefit most from the change, which gives the impression that the contrast has been decreased across the board. However, places that were darker and more foreboding in the original have the feeling that they have lost something.
The obvious place, which has been discussed extensively prior to its release, is Eden Prime, the tutorial world where you will find yourself in an apocalyptic disaster. In the original the sky is seared blood red and everything is pretty claustrophobic and nasty. The remaster has more smoke and fire effects, but the sky is clearer and the sun is in the sky so it falls on you as it cuts forward. It looks pretty and there is a lot of lens flare but I think the original vibe was superior.
Of course, this is always the question when remastering video games. When games are at the intersection of art and technology, those recreating or sharpening an original work must ask themselves: Was this element what it was due to hardware limitations, or was it an artistic choice? And who should we, as critics or end users, really say what the original intention was about the original studio? I don’t know where to draw those lines, but in this case, it’s fair to say that the artistic value of the original Mass Effect has on occasion been replaced here with a desire to do something more technically impressive and downright beautiful. If nothing else, this will fuel fans for a debate that will last the best of years.
All of this doesn’t mean that the Legendary Edition version of Mass Effect isn’t excellent. It’s by far the best-playing version of the original game, with silky smooth performance and razor-sharp presentation on the platforms I tested, PC and Xbox Series X. The visual enhancement may not always be 100% aligned with the original, but it’s always so breathtaking and transformative.
He also manages to bring the original closer to his successors – which in many ways could be part of the problem, as while they were excellent games they also looked far less interesting.
However, none of this is going to prevent this from becoming my new go-to version of this game. The other quality of life and performance changes are too good to ignore, and none of the visual changes are problematic enough to be a deal breaker. This is a fabulous looking remaster and quite a success – but I will continue to hold a candle for certain elements of what the original release looked like.