BioWare Edmonton’s Mass Effect trilogy was a huge part of my high school experience, stunning me with its incredible sci-fi characters and universe. In many ways, it was gaming’s answer to the original Star Wars trilogy, only far bigger and denser, and I’ve gone back to it many times over the years.
That’s why it’s so exciting that BioWare has finally brought its first three ME games and (nearly) all of their single-player downloadable content (DLC) together in an expansive remaster collection called Mass Effect Legendary Edition. But rather than simply bundling more than 100 hours of content and calling it a day, BioWare has also made an impressive amount of clever visual and gameplay tweaks across all three of the third-person shooter RPGs, making Legendary Edition the absolute best way to experience the greatest trilogy in gaming.
Lookin’ good, Shep
For the uninitiated, though, Mass Effect tells the story of Commander Shepard, a human soldier who must save the galaxy from the Reapers, a mysterious advanced machine race bent on causing mass extinction across the galaxy. You can create your own custom male or female Shepard (voiced by Canada’s own Mark Meer and Jennifer Hale, respectively) and make decisions that shape the outcome of the entire trilogy.
This was a novel concept when the trilogy originally ran from 2007 to 2012, and even to this day, no gaming series has captured branching narrative on such a massive and intricate scale. Likewise, few games have since featured such a rich and diverse cast of well-written and acted characters, including the ever-loyal badass bro Garrus, the quirky but troubled geneticist Mordin and the philosophical AI Legion.
That’s a big part of what makes Legendary Edition so great: having the three games together means newcomers and fans alike can seamlessly run through Shepard’s entire story, no save imports or years-long waits between games required. Further, BioWare has integrated the DLC into each game so players can experience it all at a more natural pace. The biggest of these is ME3‘s Extended Cut DLC, which offers an expanded epilogue after the original ending proved divisive among fans. Beyond high-stakes decisions that can result in entire characters dying and being unavailable in later games, the trilogy also factors in seemingly minor choices made in the DLCs (or smaller sidequests), which means that new players in Legendary Edition will constantly be pleasantly surprised to see how everything carries over across the trilogy.
It should be noted, however, that one piece of DLC isn’t included due to lost source code: ME1‘s Pinnacle Station, which offered various combat training programs on a remote facility. That said, Pinnacle Station was a woefully uninspired add-on with minimal story elements, dull shootouts and recycled environments even for 2009, so it’s definitely not missed here. ME3‘s surprisingly solid co-op multiplayer suite is also not included, which is admittedly somewhat disappointing, but it’s nonetheless easy to understand why BioWare focused its resources on the single-player content.
That effort clearly didn’t go to waste, since all of the content just looks and feels so much better now. Altogether, BioWare says it’s improved more than 30,000 individual textures, and you can absolutely tell, especially on the character models. Little pores and blushes on characters’ faces are much more pronounced, as are the sheen and scuff marks on armour. Environments are also much more detailed thanks to greener foliage, more natural lighting, upgraded particle effects and more. And while some fans feel the glow-ups have hurt the games’ atmosphere, I never felt this way as I played. In fact, I’d argue that some areas are now even more atmospheric, like the frozen terrestrial world of Noveria, which has new snow and wind effects to enhance the feeling of dread as you trek towards its eerie mountainous research labs. The bigger issue (which understandably couldn’t be fixed in a remaster) surrounds the stiff animations, especially in the first ME, which are very much a product of their time.
And while the visual improvements are far more evident in the original ME (it is nearly 15-years-old, after all), 2 and 3 still look much better overall. In particular, I appreciate the attention to detail that BioWare’s had with these games, such as removing the distasteful butt-focused camera angles on ME2‘s normally cold Miranda as she gets candid about her troubled childhood or replacing a bizarre edited stock image with an updated face model for the ever-lovable suited alien Tali in Mass Effect 3.
For context, I played on PS5, where Legendary Edition supports a satisfying 4K/60fps. This is also featured on Xbox Series X alongside an option to go up to 120fps at the cost of 1440p resolution (Series S offers 4K/30 or 1440p/120fps). Base PS4 and Xbox One owners, meanwhile, are able to play in 1080p/60fps. Load times are also improved across the board, so you can choose to skip ME1‘s hilariously awkward elevator rides. And as a nice touch, BioWare’s even added a photo mode in all three games.
Much-needed gameplay improvements, with some caveats
But Legendary Edition‘s biggest changes are to the gameplay in the first Mass Effect, which feels borderline archaic on Xbox 360/PS3 by modern standards. That’s not an issue in Legendary Edition, though, with each gun in ME1 offering smoother targeting while no longer having penalties depending on which class you started with. Other much-needed tweaks include a dedicated melee button (rather than spotty, context-specific hits with the same trigger you use to fire), a streamlined gear system, all relevant enemies taking headshot damage and the ability to sprint outside of combat. The cover-based shooting is undeniably still much tighter in ME2 and especially ME3, but it’s at least a lot more consistent now in ME1.
Alongside the refined gunplay, BioWare has mercifully improved ME1‘s infamous Mako, the ATV that Shepard’s party takes on excursions to alien planets. In the original game, the Mako was woefully clunky and janky, feeling more like a toy car than a responsive military vehicle. But Legendary Edition wisely makes the vehicle feel weightier with improved handling, which means it won’t randomly careen anymore. On top of that, BioWare’s added rear thrusters to give you an extra boost when trying to ascend cliffs, which is an absolute godsend.
Keep in mind, though, that previous issues like bumpy planetary terrain and reused interior environments are still present. And while the Mako is infinitely better this time around, I wish that BioWare made some improvements to other aspects of galaxy traversal throughout Legendary Edition. For one, it’s baffling that ME1 — the most exploration-heavy game in the trilogy — didn’t receive a progress tracker for the systems and planets in Legendary Edition, especially since the second and third games have one. It made it difficult to track where I’d already been, especially if I unlocked new sidequests that took me to previously visited systems. Beyond that, it would have been nice if ME2‘s mind-numbingly dull planet probing (through which you acquire resources to purchase essential upgrades to help you get the best ending) could have been streamlined in some way.
My favourite remaster on the Citadel
Whatever issues Legendary Edition has are all minor in the grand scheme of things, though. What BioWare accomplished with the original trilogy was already groundbreaking, and it’s made even better in the remaster. In the day and age of underwhelming remasters that offer the bare minimum in terms of enhancements (looking at you, Super Mario 3D All-Stars), it’s clear that BioWare put a lot of love into its Mass Effect trilogy overhaul from both a graphical and gameplay perspective. Commander Shepard’s journey is one of the most compelling in all of gaming, and now, we all have the perfect way to play it.
Mass Effect Legendary Edition is now available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC, plus PS5 and Xbox Series X/S (with enhancements) via backward compatibility.
Image credit: EA
Update 23/05/2021 at 4:25pm ET: This review has been updated to clarify that ME1‘s Pinnacle Station was not included due to lost source code.