The Mass Effect trilogy is to modern video games what its mass relays are to humanity. In the series' lore, tens of thousands of years ago an advanced alien race scattered mass relays around the Milky Way, which acted as bread crumbs leading humans to the galaxy's furthest stars. In 2007, Mass Effect was dropped into the cultural conversation by BioWare, and along with its successors, acted as a beacon for nearly every modern blockbuster game made in its impressive wake.
Whether it's the sprawling, lore-heavy world that envelops you like the vacuum of space, the vibrant and impressively large cast of characters that stays with you long after the credits, or the choices that threaten to rend your heart to shreds, there's ample reason why Mass Effect is widely considered the modern RPG touchstone. That's why reviewing Mass Effect Legendary Edition (the remastered collection of all three original Mass Effect titles) is so difficult.
Release date: May 14, 2021
Platform(s): PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox Series X, Xbox One
Consider the cavernous gap that spans the original trilogy and its re-release: there's a console generation and a half lying between the last game in the series and Mass Effect Legendary Edition (Mass Effect 3 originally released for Xbox 360 and PS3). Then there are 100+ hours of game time packed into Mass Effect Legendary Edition, which turns a review from time-consuming into all-consuming, especially for those of us who want to complete every side quest and chat up every alien in all the corners of the galaxy. That's why we published a Mass Effect Legendary Edition review-in-progress last week, to allow for more time to marinate in the shinier worlds of Mass Effect 1, 2, and 3. At around 40 hours across three games, I've got a lot left, but I've also got a great idea of how Mass Effect Legendary Edition stacks up.
The civilizations of the galaxies call it… Mass Effect
Mass Effect 1 came out in 2007, so the echoes of BioWare RPGs from that time resulted in unreliable weapons and clunky combat. The studio faced a unique dilemma when bringing its combat up to 2021 standards - go too far and you lose the game's original charm, but don't go far enough and you risk alienating new players (and frustrating old ones). The end result has a strange jankiness that's actually somewhat endearing.
Gone are the weapon restrictions that made it impossible for certain classes to use certain weapons - you'd take out a weapon you were untrained for and have better luck hucking it at a geth stalker's head than trying to shoot it. Now, however, Shepard can use any weapon in the game's arsenal, and firing those weapons feels notably better than it did in the original title. Despite this, you're still comically squishy, especially at higher difficulty levels. It's (somewhat) easier to go into cover and there's more cover available, but even these necessary tweaks won't save you from dying a whole lot. But that's what makes BioWare's approach to combat changes so brilliant. You get some of the smoothness of the newer Mass Effect titles along with the challenges you'd expect from a 14-year-old game.
As most players have pointed out, the all-terrain vehicle you use to explore every planet (the Mako) has gotten an overhaul, an imperative to ensure new players wouldn't hop in it, immediately turtle themselves, and never get back in it again. Don't worry - the Mako still sucks to drive, but now it sucks in a clear direction as opposed to bouncing around like a Kirby that swallowed an ATV.
There are some who believe the improvements to Mass Effect 1's lighting, textures, and overall graphics rob the game of its original style. But consider the prompt: BioWare had to improve the look of Mass Effect 1 enough that the adjustments felt substantial, especially in the era of new-gen. But what happens when you try too hard to maintain an original style while updating graphics for today's discerning eyeballs? You get the first look at Halo Infinite - and we all know how that went. Mass Effect 1's visual upgrades in the Legendary Edition strike a beautiful balance of old and new - it's so good I spent hours in photo mode.
Mass Effect 1 has the tightest and most succinct plot of the trilogy, but prior to the release of Mass Effect Legendary Edition, I told new players to skip it. "The combat is too rough," I'd warn. "The Mako will drive you mad," I'd say. Mass Effect Legendary Edition has made Mass Effect 1 unskippable.
Mass Effect 2 Fast 2 Furious
At first glance, it's harder to notice graphics changes in the sequel - a side effect of playing the game immediately after the impressively overhauled Mass Effect 1. But the more time I spend in Mass Effect 2 (arguably the best game of the trilogy), the more I notice how damn good it looks. While the yeoman aboard the Normandy, Kelly Chambers, gets a facial update that unfortunately robs her appearance of any sort of flavor, Miranda Lawson (famously a facial scan of The Handmaid's Tale's Yvonne Strahovski) looks more like a live human and less like an uncanny sex doll. Notably, Black skin tones look better here than in Mass Effect 1 (although the darker tones are often terribly lit, making it harder to read their expressions), with Captain Anderson's older skin texture looking far less ruddy.
There are obvious visual upgrades that were noticeable back in 2010 but get some added oomph in 2021: the colors are more vibrant (lots of bisexual lighting), the area maps are far more detailed, and newer character models are impressive (I couldn't stop staring at the weave on Tali Zorah's hood). Overall, playing the sequel shortly after the original (a luxury we can now afford thanks to the Legendary Edition) will offer vistas that wow players who have never hung out with the Normandy crew before. For those of us who have been there before, I can't imagine anyone will watch Mass Effect 2's iconic opening scene and not sit mouth agape at the new graphics on display.
While some may lament the loss of exploration (there's no more Mako, just scanning planets for minerals and landing directly at mission points), others will be delighted by the unwieldy beast's absence. As far as combat goes, if you're new to the trilogy and make it through the clunkiness of the remastered original, you'll be rewarded. You can now mantle over cover, sprint, and reload your weapons (instead of suffering their overheating). Overall, it's far smoother than the original title, though shooter fans may struggle with it. But combat in Mass Effect 2 sings in its own manner, adding much more chatter amongst your squadmates that will have you smiling even when a giant mech is shooting rockets at your face.
Because the Legendary Edition comes jam-packed with nearly all the trilogy's DLC, my first recruited squadmate in this playthrough is Kasumi Goto, a character I never had in the original version. Fighting through much of the early game with her by my side had me occasionally bursting out in laughter, as one of her abilities blinks her behind an enemy to attack them with a flourish. Every so often, I'd watch Kasumi appear behind someone firing at me, punch their lights out, and utter a very cocky "haha".
Mass Effect 2 is more of everything the first game does so well: more squadmates with more personality, more stories, more side quests, and more playable hours. Oh, and more consequences if you don't give those hours their due diligence - so set aside a nice chunk of time this summer.
Mass Effect 3: the finale
From the moment you jump into Mass Effect 3, it's clear that it's an absolute unit, a blockbuster of epic proportions with 50 hours of content jammed into it. I distinctly remember the movie-like marketing campaign leading up to its 2012 release: Bioware had us vote for a default Fem Shep (now the default female Shepard across all three games in Legendary Edition) and launched copies of the game into space fitted with GPS devices so players could find them when they fell to Earth. I was a senior in college and made my dad drive all over Long Island to find me a store that had the N7 Collector's Edition. It was monumental.
I'm in the minority when it comes to those who played the original Mass Effect 3 ending: I liked it. Even though it renders many of the choices you make over all the three games moot, I've always believed it captures the true essence of the story Mass Effect is trying to tell - it's depressing, for sure, but these are depressing games. No matter how you feel about the original ending, Mass Effect Legendary Edition has the Extended Cut version, which famously adds additional scenes in order to give more context to the final chapter in Shepard's story.
But the ending is nothing without the journey, and while Mass Effect 3 may falter a bit when held up against Mass Effect 2, the Legendary Edition is a reminder of just how damn good this game is. The combat is tightest in Mass Effect 3 (it feels the most like Mass Effect: Andromeda), with seamless transitions between cutscenes and action and an especially satisfying cover system that makes popping up and firing off a sniper shot sickeningly satisfying. I always play as a vanguard which means I can use biotic powers and they feel especially deadly here - you truly feel like you carry the power that comes with Commander Shepard's reputation. The combat is so good in Mass Effect 3 they made multiplayer for it - except you can't play that because it's not included in the remakes. For that, and almost that alone, I've deducted half a star.
The removal of Mass Effect 3 multiplayer stings not only because it robs us of the chance to jump into a horde-based co-op match as a two-foot-tall volus, but because playing multiplayer used to affect your Galactic Readiness when facing off against the Reapers. Now, however, your progress in both Mass Effect 1 and 2 will affect your Galactic Readiness level - if you skip both games and jump straight into 3, you'll need to complete nearly all of the content available. This isn't a bad way to adjust the Galactic Readiness by any means, it just makes the lack of multiplayer sting a bit more.
Visually, Mass Effect 3 will stun you into silence. The opening scene where Reapers descend upon Earth and Shepard must run within their hulking shadows to get to the Normandy will have you frequently pausing to take photos. A dust storm on Mars nearly brings me to bizarre, existential tears. This game (wonky facial animations aside) is beautiful, both visually and thematically. It will take you some time to get to it, but the wait is well worth it.
The final word
Mass Effect Legendary Edition strikes the difficult balance of appealing to both long-time lovers of the series and people who have never played a minute of it. The changes to Mass Effect 1 make it playable in a modern game world, while visual upgrades massage the eyes and lightning-fast load screens ease the wait throughout all three titles. I encountered a few glitches (mainly early on in Mass Effect 1), but none of them were bothersome enough to put me off.
BioWare knows these games look good, and the photo mode - while simple - will take up hours of your time. There is just so much to do in these three games, so many things to see and aliens to meet and lives to save (or not), that charging $60/£55 for the collection seems like a damn steal. Get it, play it, let it consume you. It's absolutely worth it.
Played on PC with code provided by the publisher.