You've probably already heard that Mass Effect Legendary Edition looks good - but the purest way to enjoy its updated graphics is by spending hours in photo mode. It's there that you can pore over the updated textures and marvel at the beautifully re-done skyboxes. The photo mode is where you can quite literally take pause to notice how much better Mass Effect 1 looks, from the crisp, blindingly bright Citadel to the neon cutting through the dark corners of Chora's Den.
Our Mass Effect Legendary Edition review points out how great the trilogy looks now that BioWare has updated its graphics for new-gen consoles and graphics cards. What it doesn't tell you is that it took me nearly twice as long to get through Mass Effect 1 because I spent hours trying to get the perfect shot of a turian in front of a cherry blossom tree, or a geth floating up into space after Liara hit it with Singularity.
Mass Effect Legendary Edition looks beautiful, and there's no better lens through which to view its beauty than photo mode – especially when it comes to the planets you may have skipped over in your first Mass Effect 1 playthrough and the vibrant and diverse citizens of the Citadel.
The forgotten planets of Mass Effect 1
If you played Mass Effect 1 before the Legendary Edition, you may have skipped exploring the planets that didn't have main quests on them. With several points of interest on each planet and only the wonky Mako to get you there, traversing planets like Nepmos and Nodacrux were more of a chore than anything else.
Now, however, the updated Mako controls make struggling up a steep hill a more achievable feat and offer you less time spent upside down like a sad space turtle and more time spent hurtling through what are still mostly empty planets. While BioWare didn't add any more filler to these traversable worlds, the updated graphics extend to the skyboxes, which are truly a sight to behold.
When I landed on the first planet that wasn't part of the main campaign (Eletania), I immediately instructed the squad to exit the Mako and begin staging a photoshoot. The verdant terrain is beautifully contrasted against an impossibly blue sky that's dotted with pinpricks of starlight and brushed over with soft white cirrus clouds. A moon looms behind the clouds, and a streak of light slashes through the sky from the horizon line and upwards. While Mass Effect Legendary Edition's photo mode isn't groundbreaking and doesn't have any particularly good filters, it gets the job done. It's more about the subject matter than the equipment, anyway – especially for those of us who remember what Mass Effect 1 looked like back in 2007.
Eletania marks the beginning of what turns into an hours-long expedition to Mass Effect 1's forgotten planets, seen through the lens of the virtual camera. On Nodacrux, I feel the itch of a phantom allergy attack as pollen floats around Commander Shepard. I spent nearly half an hour trying to capture a specific lightning strike on Ontarom, where the blue sky is cut in half by ominous cumulonimbus clouds. On Klendagon's moon, Presrop, I stop and stare up in awe at the dry-looking, lifeless beige planet that seems close enough to touch. It's like staring up at Arrakis from a nearby moon in a Dune novel.
Every skybox in Mass Effect Legendary Edition has been beautified, but Mass Effect 1 is the only game that lets you freely explore planets on foot so that you can see these skyboxes from every possible vantage point. I find myself trying to capture the awe-inspiring skies from annoyingly difficult-to-reach spots, pushing my Mako doggedly up a hill until I can get out and walk Shepard to the precipice of a rocky cliff face. As you can see, it was worth the effort.
Citizens of the Citadel
It's not just the sterile beauty of landscapes that are amplified by the photo mode's digital lens, but the intimate allure of the inhabitants of Mass Effect's universe. Immediately after landing on the Citadel, I'm a little floored by what I find - the stark white of the cavernous plaza, and the splash of fountains nearby. I snap a few pictures of the architecture and the lush plants interspersing it, but am immediately distracted by a lone asari sitting on a bench overlooking a krogan statue emerging from the water.
I position the camera behind her and take a picture, marvelling at the white scale pattern on her head crests and how the sapphire of her skin stands out against her mustard-colored dress. Just steps away from her, a salarian leans against the railing of a bridge with all the swagger of a New York City street style icon. "Look at this guy!" I yell to my empty apartment before excitedly snapping a few shots. "This guy is a legend!
Then I remember Chora's Den, and rush there to take photos of the asari sex workers, who piqued my interest even when I was 17 and closeted. The deep, sensual hues of the club ricochet off their azure-tinted skin, and I get lost in snapping photos of the dancers and their onlookers. A human couple, the woman perched on the lap of the man, whisper surreptitiously as an asari dances just in front of them. A dancer atop the raised platform kneels, her legs splayed out behind her. The updated textures and lighting look amazing, but it's the free camera of the photo mode that makes everyone on the Citadel feel real.
I briefly jump into Mass Effect 2 to visit the new Citadel, which is where I notice that the asari hands glitch remains. Once I get over the hilarity of a mournful asari putting a human flesh-colored hand to her blue face, I begin snapping pictures of the Citadel's denizens, who look even better in the sequel. A salarian and a human stand back-to-back at opposite merchant kiosks, cast in neon blue light. An asari and a turian have what looks to be a heated argument in a quiet table at the corner of a bar. From behind the camera, I'm some sort of Citadel voyeur, peeking into unreal lives that have never felt more real.
If you're planning to jump into the trilogy for the first time or a return adventure, make sure that you take some time to step away from the mission at hand and appreciate the world and characters around you in photo mode. Mass Effect Legendary Edition looks beautiful, but never more beautiful than from behind the lens of a camera.