It’s been 14 years since the release of the first Mass Effect game, now re-released in remastered form in Mass Effect Legendary Edition, along with its two follow-ups.
Booting up the game, the nostalgia hits you hard. Right from the menu, Earth slowly rotates as those synth pads chime with the promise of the space opera to come. It’s enough to give you chills.
But what’s been tweaked in this version? And does the game still hold up?
The first thing to know is this is a remaster, not a remake from the ground up. That means that while there have been visual enhancements and some tweaks to gameplay, Mass Effect in many ways still feels and plays like the 2007 Xbox 360 game that it is.
But what an improvement the visuals have had. Along with a much smoother framerate, textures have been sharpened and lighting and reflection effects have been added. It doesn’t quite bring the game up to modern standards, but it gets close. That’s largely because character models and animations remain the same, from poor lip synching to dodgy running. The new visuals are dressing on old bones.
Those sharpened visuals do add extra clarity that shifts some of the mood and atmosphere from the original, which was generally darker and more mysterious. But Mass Effect still thrives on its atmosphere. At times it really leans into horror with its alien worlds and disturbing twists and turns.
It’s the story of Mass Effect and its iconic characters that still thrives. It might lean on familiar sci-fi tropes in its story of Commander Shepard leading a team of humans and aliens to uncover a conspiracy with world-ending consequences, but it comes off as the ultimate sci-fi story. From alien racism to rogue AIs, corrupt space politics and technological space magic combat, Mass Effect has it all.
And the cast of memorable characters are made all the more special for the game’s Game of Thrones style decision making. This is a game where your choices have genuine consequences. Mass Effect balances the need for tight cinematic storytelling with customisation in the way the player interacts with the world as Commander Shepard and shapes the outcome of the story. This is its greatest strength.
It’s a shame, then, that the romances haven’t been updated. Entering relationships with your crewmates helps make the game that bit more special, but this first game includes only one LGBT+ option in Liara T’Soni – as an Asari, she is technically agender, though female presenting. And it’s all too easy to fall accidentally into a relationship with Liara by default. It’s disappointingly archaic when later games (and other Bioware games) have been more openly diverse.
Combat, however, is certainly weaker than you might remember. Unlike later games that thrive on fluid shooter mechanics, Mass Effect is an RPG first and foremost. Combat is clunky by today’s standards: hiding behind cover is temperamental, powers must be selected individually from a wheel that pauses the action, controls aren’t always intuitive.
Bioware has made plenty of tweaks to combat, from updating the UI to allowing headshot damage, amending the aiming reticule, and the ability to offer separate commands to your two crewmates. Yet it still feels decidedly stiff and undermines the sci-fi power fantasy the narrative offers.
What can’t be changed are the monotonous side quests. The game still requires you to scan and visit identikit and empty planets that are soulless and a chore to explore. And while the mako vehicle you explore in has seen some changes to its physics, it’s still awful.
There are other elements that should’ve been amended and haven’t been. Enemy AI is often laughable as they either cower behind cover or simply run at you. There are plenty of bugs and glitches, from control errors to sound and visual issues. And while the inventory system has been tweaked, it remains horribly unintuitive.
There’s an old school charm to Mass Effect, though. It’s often long winded, from its (now reduced) lift scenes originally meant to hide loading screens, to its lengthy conversations and the awkwardness of travelling between worlds. This only adds to the immersive realism of the game.
The Mass Effect Legendary Edition does just enough to revise the game into how you remember it before, with a handful of quality of life improvements. A total remake would do the game wonders, but Commander Shepard, the crew of the Normandy and the utopian Citadel have never looked better. It feels good to be back.
And if you’ve never played the series before? You’ve got a historical treat to look forward to.
To purchase the game on PC, Xbox and PS4 go to Amazon here.
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