Mass Effect Legendary Edition review – space opera remastered

Mass Effect Legendary Edition – you’d never believe this was an Xbox 360 game (pic: EA)

GameCentral offers a final verdict on BioWare’s classic sci-fi trilogy, as all three games and their DLC get the full remaster treatment.

Although fans have long demanded remasters of the whole Mass Effect trilogy it never really seemed like something that was likely to happen. Add in all the DLC, which this compilation does, and you’re talking well over 100 hours of gameplay, with the oldest game being 14 years old. That creates a huge amount of work for anything more than merely upping the resolution and frame rate, but Mass Effect Legendary Edition goes well beyond that.

Given that EA sent out review copies only a couple of days before launch, there was no way to get a review done before now, but our initial review in progress already offers an overview of what Mass Effect is and its place in the evolution of action role-playing games. The short version though is that the games tell the story of Commander Shepard, the first human to be appointed as a Spectre (a sort of space cop with very little oversight), as you’re drawn into a galaxy-level threat involving the extermination of all organic life.

The three games all use the same save file, so that moral decisions you make in one are carried through to the next, as you slowly build up allies, on both a personal and political level, to take on a cadre of Lovecraftian machine creatures. The game is definitely a role-player but while it does have stats and skill trees, it’s the interactive dialogue that is the most interesting aspect, ably supported by some surprisingly good third person shooting.

As originally released, Mass Effect 1 was a substantially different game than its sequels, in that it focused far more on its role-playing elements – with many side missions all but impossible unless you were suitably levelled up. You can still play it that way, but the remaster offers the option to limit how much higher level an enemy can be than you, while also trying to bring the combat more in line with the other two games.

The latter is only partially successful though and while the action is certainly slicker than it was the first time round, it still feels jittery and unsatisfying. The pre-launch bugs have largely been fixed but even simply moving around has a disconcerting lack of friction. Similarly, while the controls for the Mako vehicle have been improved, they’re still fiddly and unpredictable… just less fiddly and unpredictable than they used to be.

Whether any of this is intentional, perhaps in an attempt to retain the feel of the original and show the progression across the series, is unclear but while Mass Effect 1 does have by far the weakest action, its dialogue options are arguably the best, with the chance to talk yourself out of even the final boss battle. Which stands in contrast to Mass Effect 2, whose final fight is more like something out of Contra.

The immediate lead-up to Mass Effect 2’s final battle is one of the best gameplay sequences of all-time though, and we mean that quite sincerely. Oddly, Mass Effect 2’s plot is almost a side-story, and could easily have been left out, but while some resented the increased focus on action, there’s no denying it’s handled very well – with third person shooting that makes the action in something like Fallout seem very amateurish.

However, the reason Mass Effect 2 is so beloved is not primarily because of its action but how it deepens your relationship with your crew and the influence and insight you have on their lives. The sequel increases the number of romantic options, including multiple gay relationships, but some are purely friends and you really do begin to feel an affection towards them – the new conversation options after a successful mission being as rewarding as anything else in the game.

The writing is often cliched, and filled with nerdy sci-fi references and tropes, but it’s earnest and even when it gets things wrong, such as a clumsy attempt to feature an autistic character, it’s clear BioWare were trying to do good.

This all culminates in the aforementioned ‘suicide run’ at the end of Mass Effect 2, whose outcome depends to a degree on your arcade skills but mostly on the relationships you’ve built up and the way you’ve inspired each character. It’s a wonderful use of the game’s various systems and it’s a real shame that Mass Effect 3 doesn’t feature anything quite as good.

Mass Effect 3 is most famous for its poorly received ending and that is one thing that has not changed here, but while disappointing and seemingly rushed – with your moral decisions amounting to disappointingly little – we’re not sure it counts as being quite as ruinous as something like Game of Thrones Season 8 or The Rise of Skywalker.

There is a sense of going through the motions with Mass Effect 3 though, as it cannot indulge in Mass Effect 2’s diversions and behind the scenes revelations suggest the whole nature of the background plot was changed considerably during the course of the trilogy. This leads to the motivations of the main villains ultimately making little sense and dealing with them reliant on a deflatingly uninteresting deus ex machina moment.

The combat’s the best it’s ever been though (so it’s a shame the multiplayer mode isn’t included) and while it never reaches the highs of Mass Effect 2, the third title is still a very solid game. If we were scoring these separately, Mass Effect 1 would be a seven, 2 a solid nine, and 3 a generous eight. Although you can’t buy them separately so it’s all or nothing.

Mass Effect Legendary Edition – roll on Mass Effect 3 (pic: EA)

Judged purely as a remaster this is an outstandingly good effort, that goes as far as it can without completely remaking the games. Brand new lighting effects have been added, plus better anti-aliasing, improved textures and character models, upgraded audio, faster loading, and interface changes. On a technical level it’s almost faultless, even if the improvements do make other lower tech elements, such as the artificial intelligence, stand out even more.

The changes go beyond even that though, with the reigning in of the original camera’s male gaze, which always had a thing for Miranda’s backside and was often less than flattering when it came to female Shepard (although in fairness that’s because FemShep was clearly an afterthought in the first game and it’s only in the sequels that Jennifer Hale’s excellent performance was properly recognised and brought the option to greater prominence).

The way the DLC is handled is odd though, as often it’s available out of chronological order and some missions clearly should have remained locked until you’ve completed the main story.

Nothing has changed about the plot though and it’s notable how some elements stand out as things that would probably not be given the greenlight today. The whole idea of the Asari being uniformly beautiful space amazons is fairly cringy, as is downloading the ship’s AI into a super sexy robot body and Jack’s lack of clothing. The odd way that anti-alien terrorist group Cerberus are portrayed also never quite worked, even though BioWare were clearly trying to show them as being in the wrong.

What also dates the game is the overly simplistic Paragon and Renegade system, which is something BioWare has already begun to move away from. Having your various decisions tip Shepard towards either good or evil makes sense in theory but in practice this means there’s too little nuance in the options and it often feels like you have no real choice at all unless you want to play Shepard as a straight sociopath.

Even worse are the moments where neither option aligns with anything you actually want to do, such as a famous sequence in Mass Effect 2 where you have to decide how to treat some inert Geth robots.

Despite the enormous amount of work that’s gone into remastering the games, this is very much a warts and all presentation, that never had a chance of raising everything to 2021 standards. It does get remarkably close though and after the failures of Mass Effect: Andromeda, this is a welcome reminder of just how good the original trilogy was. It is a product of its time though and the remasters highlight several issues that will hopefully be addressed in the promised new sequel.

Whether you’re playing the games for the first time or wanting to refresh your memory, Mass Effect Legendary Edition achieves almost everything it sets out to do, while also raising the standard for remasters in general. No amount of work can make a game this old feel brand new but there’s still several things Mass Effect does better than any other role-playing game and it’s been a pleasure to experience it all over again.

Mass Effect Legendary Edition review summary

In Short: The Mass Effect trilogy’s classic status is well deserved and while these remasters can’t iron out every problem, this is still a hugely entertaining and forward-thinking trio of action role-players.

Pros: An absolute mountain of content, almost all of which still stands up to scrutiny today. Great combat in 2 and 3, diverse and interesting cast of characters, and lots of meaningful decision making.

Cons: Mass Effect 1’s combat and vehicle controls are still not up to scratch. No story changes, which leaves in some questionable moments. Paragon/Renegade system is very simplistic. That ending.

Score: 8/10

Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Price: £59.99
Publisher: EA
Developer: BioWare
Release Date: 14th May 2021
Age Rating: 18

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