As Remasters go, the version of the original Mass Effect included in the new Legendary Edition trilogy re-release has to be one of the better ones around.
EA and BioWare rightly realized that the original Mass Effect was a creaky, awkward game in many respects – but also understood that many 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 constrained level design and Gears of War inspired cover shooting that also allowed the series to chase a satisfying veneer of cinematic authenticity also came with a cost.
As such, some of the first game’s stranger proclivities never returned, but to cut them out in the name of a ‘unified’ trilogy package would’ve been a mistake. To be fair, it also probably would’ve been more expensive than EA would’ve been willing to bear.
The Mass Effect Remaster that’s included with the Legendary Edition is carefully balanced and tweaked in minute ways; the changes add up to be more than the sum of their parts. Generally speaking the changes are smart, but the whole game whiffs of compromise – which is sure to be fine in the eyes of some fans and unacceptable to others. The discourse will no doubt be exhausting.
What do I mean by this? Well, take the core cast of characters, for instance. Character models haven’t been touched up so much as replaced with beautifully detailed, more intricate versions. Some of these models – more the aliens than the humans – probably wouldn’t even look that out of place in Mass Effect Andromeda, which arrived several years later on much more powerful hardware.
But BioWare developers admitted that any attempt to change the game’s animation would make the whole thing unravel, a single animation change breaking ten other things – so all of the game’s animations are the same.
Sometimes that leads to an uncanny feeling, like how female Shepard uses male Shepard’s animation rig despite slight differences in their proportions, which gives her a strange, bow-legged run. Other times, gorgeous looking squadmates that have PS4/XBO-quality models skate about in confused animation loops as they try to position themselves behind you as backup.
Another example of this sort of trade-off can be found in changes to the weapon system. For one, weapons are now governed much less by RPG stats – where you aim is where the bullet will go, regardless of stats. That’s something that was the case in ME2 and 3 but not the original. This is an improvement. Moment-to-moment the shooting feels roughly a hundred times better than the 2007 original – but at the same time this smart change scrapes and trades paint with the core systems and design of Mass Effect.
Mass Effect has you choose a class, with different classes trained in different weapons and abilities. But to open things up, the remaster allows every class to use every weapon. The idea is that a class trained in, say, Shotguns, will be better with them and have more options at their disposal than a class without the Shotgun specialty. But these two changes combine to mean I’ve been running around with a Sniper Rifle as a non-Sniper class popping fools like it’s nothing. This wasn’t possible before, and has also served to help make the game easier. I’m a series veteran, but I’ve been breezing through on the hardest ‘Insanity’ difficulty on my very first save.
This feels like the back-and-forth of this remaster. Nowhere is it more present than in the lighting. This is a gorgeous game with routinely-beautiful lighting, especially considering that it’s an older game still running on an older engine, just touched up. But the original Mass Effect had a very specific mood and tone, all film grain and more than a little bit grimy. Moreover, it was quite a dark game, with moody zones pierced by bright neon – and a whole lot of that is lost in this remaster.
Generally speaking, areas like the Citadel Presidium or some of the more earth-like uncharted worlds with plant life and greenery that were already pretty bright look great. These areas benefit most from the change, which feels as though the contrast has been lowered across the board. Locations that were darker and more foreboding in the original do feel like they’ve lost something, though.
The obvious location that’s been discussed at length pre-release is Eden Prime, the tutorial world where you’re dropped into an apocalyptic disaster. In the original, the sky is seared blood red, and everything is rather claustrophobic and nasty. The remaster has more smoke and fire effects, but the sky is clearer, with the sun flipped in the sky so it bears down on you as you forge onwards. It looks pretty, and there’s plenty of lens flare, but I think the original mood was superior.
This is always the question with remastering video games, of course. With where games sit at the intersection of art and technology, those remaking or sharpening an original work must ask: was that element the way it was because of hardware limitations, or was it an artistic choice? And as critics or end users, who are we to truly say what the original intent was, over the original studio? I don’t know where to draw those lines, but in this case I think it’s fair to say on a few occasions the artistic value of the original Mass Effect has here been supplanted by a desire to provide something more technically impressive and outright beautiful. If nothing else, this will give fans fuel for a ‘which is best’ debate that’ll last for years to come.
All of this isn’t to say 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 a crisp presentation on the platforms I tested, PC and Xbox Series X. The visual uplift might not always be 100% accurate to the original, but it’s always stunning and transformative.
It also does succeed in bringing the original closer to its successors – which in many ways might be part of the problem, as while excellent games, they were also far less interesting-looking.
None of this is going to stop this from becoming my new go-to version of this game, however. The other quality-of-life and performance changes are too good to ignore, and none of the visual changes are so problematic to be a deal breaker. This is a fabulous looking remaster, and quite an achievement – but I’ll still continue to hold a candle for certain elements of how the original release looked.