As a huge, huge fan of the video game series Mass Effect, produced by Bioware, I feel it necessary to go in depth with my thoughts on the games and their recent “remastering”. The trilogy went through a lot, and changed a great deal between games, and today there is still division between fans as to which game is better.
But in saying that, the whole trilogy works. It has great writing, great characters, and a very realized and functional universe as its setting.
As much as publisher Electronic Arts tried to ruin it.
The Legendary Edition is a neat, all-in-one package containing the three games made over a decade. The technology behind each game is quite different, and upscaling each game could not have been easy. Difficulties come from places you would not expect.
Having played the original trilogy on Xbox 360 multiple times (the first game six times, the second game four times, and the third game three times) making for immeasurable hours, well into the hundreds, I feel some obligated to write my observations and opinions down.
For a start, the first game Mass Effect (released in 2007) is perhaps the most benefited from the upscale. The first game has been lovingly improved with better textures and better lighting.
By comparison, its sequel Mass Effect 2 (2010) was rife with glitches; from animation to AI pathfinding glitches. These were not present in the original release. You would remember enemies simply not moving as you shoot them to death, or your allies being mown down by enemy fire within seconds of combat beginning. Or an NPC’s head coming off. That was alarming. Mass Effect 2 was also the one game that crashed during my time playing, at the end of the game no less! If it weren’t for a handy autosave, this would have been extremely frustrating.
Mass Effect 3 appears to be affected the least from the transfer. As to be expected from the most recent entry. It certainly was the easiest of the three games. Bizarrely. I completed all three on Insanity difficulty (again) and found the third game a breeze.
The second game though… ouch. Not so much.
Mass Effect (2007)
Mass Effect was developer Bioware’s last game before games publisher conglomerate EA bought them and their properties. It is a strategic sci-fi shooter roleplaying game. That’s a mouthful. You play as Commander Shepard, a soldier in the human Alliance military who is quickly wrapped up in interplanetary politics as a secret agent goes rogue by attacking distant colonies. Shepard is alone in their fight; as an alien beacon gives them visions and omens of a terrible galactic invasion. The Reapers.
The first game is still a delight, even today. While it has portents of devastation to come, it has overall very optimistic, almost Star Trek vibes. The player creates their own character, and is thrust into a situation that has many disparate alien races working together to chase down a calculating villain with mysterious goals.
It is a chase, with a very clear objective: stop Saren Arterius. But the game does not railroad you. In fact, the game lets you out into the vastness of space with absolute freedom; you can go anywhere, land on planets and drive around in your Mako vehicle. You have a ship, which you populate with party members that you can speak to and learn from (and romance) while the Citadel (the heart of Council space) is a vast explorable area with people to talk to, tasks to complete, and shops to visit.
It feels very lived in, despite how overly vast and sometimes empty the areas can feel. There’s a real sense of hugeness to the galaxy as you potter around on desolate planets in your tank, looking for relics or valuable minerals. Even the missions you must complete to finish the game feel vast, often including vehicular sections that build atmosphere and tension before the real objectives are reached.
The galactic community is introduced to you very methodically, with your party members representing the different core races and their personalities.
The gameplay itself is quite rigid, and perhaps by comparison to its slicker, faster sequels, would be its downfall in the eyes of many players. The cover-based shooting is not perfect, but functional. The enemies attack in very basic formations, often barely moving, or moving in a very easy-to-define pattern. This makes for gun battles a matter of waiting and shooting from a distant, with little pressure.
Your squad mates, of which you can take two on missions, have very basic AI. You can tell them where to take cover and where to move, as well as use their unique powers and abilities, but targeting those abilities is extremely hit-or-miss. Often you will be in cover, task an ally to hit an enemy in the distance, but instead their power hits the cover that you are behind.
The party members are mostly interchangeable for their powers, although at times they do have unique dialogues depending on which mission you take them on.
A lot of players take issue with the game’s inventory system. The game is far too generous in giving you items, with 90% of the drops being worse than what you already have equipped. This makes for long periods of going through all of your items, comparing, selling, equipping, upgrading.
In some ways this is more believable than in the sequels; they operate by having you find a singular weapon, only for your entire squad to also magically equip it.
Graphically, the Legendary Edition has done wonders for 2007’s Mass Effect, and the story and characters are still wonderful. There is a victorious optimism left behind after playing this game, where you feel that your squad members are your friends and allies, your ship is your salvation, and your Mako is your rock.
It is far, far from just being a run-and-gun shooter. One minute you will be trying to decide on the fate of an entire species, or disarming a nuclear bomb, the next minute you will be helping a local law enforcer by telling a jellyfish it is stupid.
Of all three games, this one has some of the greyest choices that the player can make, allowing for a nuanced Shepard character. I doubt many playthroughs of Mass Effect are exactly the same.
It makes me sad that EA and Bioware tried to “summarize” Mass Effect into a digital graphic novel when the sequel arrived, so that people didn’t have to play it. That is missing out so much of what makes this franchise.
Mass Effect 2 (2010)
Electronic Arts were fully invested in Bioware’s future by this point, and Mass Effect 2 is perhaps the last hurrah for the studio forevermore.
My opinion for Mass Effect 2 is personal, and perhaps different from the majority. I was hyped for this. Similar levels of hype as with the Matrix Reloaded. I got my copy on day one, first thing in the morning. New story! New aliens! New teammates! More Mass Effect!
What I said about Mass Effect having an air of optimism and almost classic Star Trek vibes? All of that is gone in the sequel.
While in the first game, we were (unless your character behaved differently) a clean-cut Alliance officer out saving the galaxy. You had full agency and freedom of movement as a council Spectre. Now you have a retainer, Cerberus, a pro-human secret organization that we fought multiple times in Mass Effect. They task you to stop the Collectors, a race of creatures that have been abducting entire human colonies.
Now, in playing Legendary Edition, and experiencing all of this heartache again, and having to follow Cerberus leader The Illusive Man’s orders, the transition was less offensive this time. Listening to the Illusive Man’s initial intentions again, they feel more genuine and believable.
And there’s nothing wrong with drama in storytelling! This upends your Shepard’s story, forcing you to reconsider your character’s beliefs and challenging all of their faculties and intentions. What was once a “renegade” Shepard in Mass Effect, could become a Cerberus crony, while a “paragon” Shepard, normally so righteous and determined, becomes angry and embittered.
Whether intentional or not, this factors into your romance options from Mass Effect. Not to totally spoil anything, but the sequel does a number on Shepard in this regard!
The final act of this game is sublime, a roaring success and perhaps even more victorious than the first game. But the lead up to it is literally a shopping list: Get this person. Get this person. Get this upgrade. Go to this system, do this.
This is compounded by how systematic and closed-off everything feels. Missions do not involve traversal in the Mako or similar vehicles, you just get dropped into tiny instances, metres away from the objective. This is no doubt in response to making everything look beautiful (and it certainly does) by limiting the amount the developers need to create, but there’s still a claustrophobic sense to everything. It is paradoxically less immersive.
The “systematic” element is how, for example, you know combat is about to occur as levels become infested with loads of crates and convenient “chest-high” obstructions for your party to take cover behind. Mass Effect 1 and 3 have more immersive, believable level design.
Also disappointing is the total removal of planet exploration. Now we just “scan” planets from orbit. Which involves dragging a cursor around the screen for hours. Even the DLC in which they added vehicle sections (the Hammerhead vehicle) are also very boring, and involved “scanning”.
But it is far, far from bad! The ending act is incredible, as already stated. The game is graphically far superior to the first game, and the combat is exceptionally better. The party members are now more diverse in combat too; they have personality that makes them perhaps take cover, or run forward into the fray.
There are more characters too, as well as “loyalty” missions for each which improve their attitude towards you. The party members are fleshed-out, and they feel more alive now than before, and they even speak to each other on board the larger, more decked-out Normandy.
The missions are full of moments that allow for player decisions, between paragon and renegade choices. (No more sleeping through cutscenes! You need to pay attention now!) There are also different types of mini-games that Bioware added to simulate hacking computers and opening locked doors. These give a nice break from the intense shooter gameplay.
It is also privy to one of the best DLCs the franchise has: The Shadow Broker DLC.
Mass Effect 2 may have been the glitchiest game in the Legendary Edition remaster, but it is also the hardest game in the franchise. There are several missions that involve literally endless waves of enemies, with the objective being for you to force your way to their source. These sections are merciless, and require total understanding of your party composition and ability usage.
Overall, Mass Effect 2 isn’t the sequel I had expected, but the characters and the drama involved more than make up for it.
Mass Effect 3 (2012)
Perhaps the most divisive of them all. Just like most movie trilogies, the third part is often thrown under the bus by fans.
Developer Bioware fractured after the release of Mass Effect 3, leading to a understaffed Mass Effect: Andromeda, and a misfiring game called Anthem. It is clear that they weren’t given the time required for the third part of the trilogy, and the game (although beautifully made throughout) starts to struggle towards the end. Both narratively and in design.
The Reapers are here!
Commander Shepard, freed from house arrest after their bout with Cerberus, finds the Reaper invasion underway across the galaxy. It is an immediate race to band all of the feuding races together to fight this common enemy. But this means righting wrongs and fixing aggressions centuries in the making between other alien races.
And seeing Shepard’s own journey accumulate to a heroic finale.
I don’t dislike Mass Effect 3. There, I said it.
Even its original ending wasn’t a deal breaker for me at the time. Playing everything again with a new Shepard, this game still gets me emotional towards the end, despite having done it three times before.
It is far more cinematic than the previous entries, with clear tentpole moments that struggle to outdo each other in epic size and scale. Certainly, how do you fight skyscaper-sized enemies in a third-person shooter? While some solutions are a bit contrived, most are pretty sensational and – at least for the first playthrough – immensely satisfying.
“Cinematic” though could also apply to the dialogue, which has been woefully cut back in this entry. Except for perhaps one or two conversations, almost all dialogue with other characters has your responses stripped back to one of two options, and these options are clearly your Paragon and Renegade choices. This is an insidious change, which turns any morally-grey Shepard into either a saint or the worst person imaginable.
Another issue with this third and final part, is that it often disrespects the player’s choices throughout the trilogy. This is perhaps the most well documented issue upon release. But an example being that in Mass Effect 1 the player can choose to exterminate an entire race. Unsurprisingly, it is one of the heaviest decisions in the franchise. Yet, Mass Effect 3 blunders in and says: “Oh, hey, they aren’t all dead!”
The game’s ending however was the most egregious amongst fans, which prompted Bioware/EA to update the game with a new ending. Admittedly, the changes are very welcome, and do make for very subtle differences when before there were little to no difference in what choice you made.
Another, very subtle issue I found in replaying the games, is Mass Effect 3’s quest log. My word, it is terrible! It is extremely difficult to use as it doesn’t update as you work through quests. The game also bombards you with side quests very quickly, and even gives you quests you can’t actively do until later (when certain systems become available to visit). How does that make any sense? The previous games would, for example, tell you to return to the quest giver at [location] to complete the mission? Not here… You have to remember where that person was!
But outside of the negatives, Mass Effect 3 has some exceptional qualities. The combat is immensely better than before. Weapons are diverse and unique, there are dozens of different powers and abilities, and while there may be less characters (no Krogan party member!?) to use, they feel very unique and fit to purpose. You will want to take certain characters on certain missions if you want to succeed.
Also, the DLC content (which is included in Legendary Edition) is exceptional. We have Omega, which is a great tie-in with events and characters from Mass Effect 2, as well as being a hefty storyline. We have Leviathan, which is perhaps the shortest, but is absolutely vital for the lore of the trilogy. From Ashes, which introduces another party member who changes the feel of the entire game with his presence. Finally, we have Citadel, which is an immeasurable amount of fan-service, but it is incredibly fun to do and you can tell that the voice actors were having a tremendous time.
The game’s design is much better than in Mass Effect 2. It is more like Mass Effect 1; with the player being let loose on the galaxy. Battlefields and missions feel bigger and more natural, with chest-high walls being more organically placed, and the scale of the Reaper attack making for big scale vistas almost every mission.
It is an incredibly bittersweet experience, and not even for the development problems behind the scenes. The story takes some grim turns, with our Shepard being beaten down and tired, becoming the singular hope for billions of lives. I approve of the tone of the final part of the trilogy, as anything else would seem cheap or convenient given the scale of events unfolding.
However, it does feel like a rapid acceleration from the events of the second game. Namely for Cerberus. The moral grey area in the second game allowed for Shepards to evolve differently, but in the final act, Cerberus is the enemy, 100%. They are virtually monsters. There’s a lot less investment/diversity for a renegade Shepard here. It feels like there are missing stories between the two games, to flesh out this escalation.
But, the characters are still a joy; the writing and voice acting is consistent, the universe is still incredible and immersive. For what it does wrong, mostly due to time constraints, it doesn’t lose its charm or its effectiveness as a conclusion to a trilogy that certainly went places.