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Mass Effect Legendary Edition review-in-progress: Still slaps... but now in 4K

Mass Effect Legendary Edition
(Image credit: BioWare)

Mass Effect Legendary Edition seizes you exactly one minute into the first game, from the very moment the title card drops. The camera pans over an impressive view of Earth from space. The dulcet tones of Keith David provide Commander Shepard's backstory as you view your custom Shepard in three-quarter profile (and can't help but notice the improved skin and hair textures) while the iconic music swells. Fade to black and a brief bit of text provides context for this trilogy - which many of us already know. Try to quell the squiggles of excitement writhing around your stomach like a thresher maw. It's been almost 15 years, but the opening sequence still slaps - except now it slaps in 4K.

At the one-minute mark of the remastered Mass Effect 1, the title card appears with a crash, then a synthesizer plinks away as a lens flare winks and disappears behind Earth. By the time the Normandy sweeps onto the screen, your heart is beating at a cadence that could rival the music in Chora's Den. BioWare knows exactly what it's doing with Mass Effect Legendary Edition: it's giving many of us a chance to revisit a game we've loved for half of our lives and offering others an opportunity to delve into one of the greatest video game trilogies of all time. 

But how does Mass Effect Legendary Edition stack up, when the expectations surrounding it loom larger than an incoming Reaper? I've spent nearly 20 hours with it since the moment I received a review code, making it more than halfway through Mass Effect 1, and spending several hours in both 2 and 3. I can safely say that the flag bearers for Mass Effect will be pleased and newcomers to the trilogy will be more than satisfied - this remains my favorite game franchise in the galaxy. 

Calibrations 

Mass Effect Legendary Edition

(Image credit: BioWare)

Both BioWare and the community at large knew that Mass Effect 1's gameplay needed the most work when it was time for a trilogy-wide remaster. Released in 2007 on the heels of popular RPGs like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire, the original Mass Effect 1 features more traditional RPG mechanics, resulting in weapons often feeling unreliable and inaccurate. While there was a cover mechanic, it was tough to enter and exit cover - if you could manage to find it, as it was often scarce. The combat made some encounters (especially late-game boss battles) frustratingly difficult, and occasionally damn near impossible.

In a Gameplay Calibrations post on the official EA blog, BioWare details all the improvements it's made to bring Mass Effect 1's combat closer to Mass Effect 2 and 3 while maintaining some of that old-school charm. It's been a long time since I played Mass Effect 1, and while the combat in the Mass Effect Legendary Editions version of the first game has certainly improved from what I can remember, it's still pretty damn clunky. It's even more obvious how sticky and slow the combat is when you can easily exit out of Mass Effect 1 and jump right into Mass Effect 2, as all three games can be started from the same launcher. Perhaps overhauling the combat too much would have compromised the original game's scrappiness, but it'd be nice if Mass Effect 1's combat felt just like its sequels, especially when facing the lightning-fast Geth stalkers who flit from floor to ceiling to walls so rapidly it's almost impossible to get them in your sights. Even on the Normal difficulty setting, I'm easily felled by a roomful of stalkers or absolutely hammered by a swarm of Rachni soldiers.

Clunky combat aside, I'm happy to report that the Mako does indeed feel a helluva lot better than its OG version. Sure, it still slides around like a rear-wheel-drive car during a Long Island snowstorm, but now you can actually direct it where you want to go, and shooting things in your path is now a possibility rather than a pipe dream.

As far as Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 go, after spending 10 hours with the first game it's like hopping back on a bike after trying to ride a unicycle. There's an ease and comfort to the combat of the latter two games, and while they're far from third-person shooter standard-bearers, they feel fantastic when held up directly next to Mass Effect 1. Mass Effect 2 and 3 let you mantle over cover that's readily available and fairly easy to get behind, they offer up a fair amount of floor ammo rather than constantly overheating your weapon, forcing you to wait for a cooldown. And using your command wheel to queue up a barrage of biotic and tech abilities against your enemies may not sing like Andromeda, but it's certainly got better pitch than the first game.

Mass (Visual) Effects

Mass Effect Legendary Edition

(Image credit: BioWare)

BioWare is known for providing breathtaking visual landscapes that help convince you of the impressively large scope of its games, whether it's the nebulas of space or the expanse of the Exalted Plains. In Mass Effect, space is splashed with hyper-saturated watercolors and cut through with the reflective sheen of the Normandy's metallic hull. It's always been the stuff of desktop backgrounds and wall art, and Mass Effect Legendary Edition's space manages to look even better, with lens flares that would make JJ Abrams jealous, gorgeous lighting that winks and glows like Bladerunner 2049, and awe-inspiring vistas that make you feel as small as a Volus in the massive expanse of the universe.

What's even most impressive are the improvements made to the first game. Mass Effect Legendary Edition takes the visuals of Mass Effect 1 and so greatly improves them it's almost confusing - the 2007 game now looks so much like 2017's Mass Effect: Andromeda it's hard to remember that they're a decade apart. While vistas like Eden Prime may suffer stylistically due to Legendary Edition's more realistic visual approach, I can assure you that BioWare doesn't rob the first game of all its spice. I was particularly taken aback by how beautiful and crisp the Citadel looks - I spent several minutes staring at the splashing water of its fountains, transfixed by how refreshing they looked. And the interiors of Noveria, which are a flat blue-grey in the original game, get a stylistic green tinge that mimics the work of trendy Instagram photogs. 

Mass Effect Legendary Edition

(Image credit: BioWare)

While BioWare faces remain BioWare faces (there are still plenty of wayward eyes and accidentally hilarious facial reactions), the improvements made to skin and hair textures are jaw-droppingly good. Not only are there finally more Black skin tones, but the new hair customization choices give a few more options in the character creator (although I must emphasize, it's really just a few). As I play through Mass Effect 1, I find myself staring at Shepard's hair follicles and marvel at her makeup, which now looks more like Fenty Beauty lip shine and less like your gamgam's 40-year-old lipstick. Liara T'Soni's skin looks so lovely I want to ask for her skincare regime. At one point while being chastised by the council I can't help but zone out as I notice the Asari councilwoman has a pattern on her dress I can't recall ever being there. With so much time passing between the original release of this game and now, you'd be hard-pressed to find a fan of the original that isn't dumbstruck by the visual improvements.

Initially, I don't notice any major visual improvements when hopping into Mass Effect 2, but then Jacob Taylor appears, and I see imperfections on his skin suggesting he suffers from a bit of razor burn. I go back and restart the game, and gasp as Miranda Lawson struts through an LED-projected screen in the Illusive Man's lair that overlooks an intensely bright dying star. The colors are richer, the lighting is more sharp and realistic. Lens flares that I swear weren't originally there wink at me as if to say 'This game looks good, doesn't it?' And they're right - it does. The same can be said for Mass Effect 3, which needed the least visual improvements and yet, somehow, still looks better. 

Legacy

Mass Effect Legendary Edition

(Image credit: BioWare)

The Mass Effect trilogy is best-known for a handful of features: its engrossing (and tragic) story, its vibrant cast of characters, its generous DLC, and its bizarre glitches. Whether it's the iconic spinning Shepard head or something more obscure, you likely won't find a Mass Effect player who hasn't come across some bizarre or game-breaking glitch at one point or another. 

At this point in my playthrough, the only game that's given me any trouble is (perhaps unsurprisingly) Mass Effect 1. On Noveria, I encountered a bug in the Synthetic Insights office where no matter what I did, a door that was meant to be open remained locked. I cleared the room of enemies, searched every corner, and ultimately had to reload an old save - three times. Later in Noveria on Peak 15 when I was chasing the Matriarch Benezia, all of the enemy NPCs were sinking below the floor so that just their heads were visible. This went on for about 10 minutes, and while clearly a bug, certainly helped increase my chances of getting a headshot. On Feros, I glitched into a wall fighting a wave of Asari clones, and died late enough in a boss fight that I had to stop playing in order to cool down.

Mass Effect 2 hasn't had any frustrating gameplay bugs thus far (I'm about four hours in), but did have a very distracting visual and audio bug throughout the entire opening scene where Miranda Lawson and the Illusive Man were speaking, but their mouths weren't moving in sync. Mass Effect 3 has been as smooth as butter with a nary a glitchy NPC, stuttering side character, or locked door insight. 

Bugs aside, Mass Effect Legendary Edition seems well worth the money so far, offering a beautifully remastered version of a 14-year-old game and surprisingly refreshed visuals for the two newer titles. If you've played through the Mass Effect trilogy before and enjoyed it,  I can't see how you wouldn't love the Legendary Edition, as it brings back all of your favorite characters and worlds in 4K UHD. If you haven't played it, the story and improved visuals should carry you through the first game's still somewhat awkward combat. With all the DLC looped in, you'll have well over 100 hours of gorgeous, gut-wrenching gameplay ahead of you. Speaking of, I need to get to work. A full Mass Effect Legendary Edition review drops next week.

Played on PC with code provided by the publisher. 

Brooklyn-based Editor and mother of three rescue cats. I'm here to bring you piping hot news tea and in-depth features that include going drink-for-drink with Geralt in The Witcher 3. Find me  in the Tower in Destiny 2, buying you back in Warzone, and building Brooklyn brownstones in The Sims 4.