Game review: Mass Effect (Legendary)

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A gathering of Mass Effect 2 fans at the Penny Arcade Expo. Wikipedia Commons

Edmonton studio Bioware’s remaster of the Mass Effect series serves up sweet nostalgia, but fails to shock.

Over the past 14 months, between unemployment, COVID restrictions, and a dreadful mix of boredom and existential uncertainty, I spent most of my time either exploring the internet, buying stuff online, or numbing my dull existence by latching onto any form of audio-visual stimuli within reach. Well, here I am, 40 pounds heavier, significantly more broke, and with nothing but a bunch of random stuff in my apartment to show for it. Until a remastered version of one of gaming’s beloved trilogies, Mass Effect: Legendary Edition, was released to shuffle up my regular routine!

For those who don’t know, Mass Effect is a sci-fi RPG videogame series from the Edmonton based game studio Bioware, first released for the Xbox 360 in 2007. To oversimplify things, you play as a Human Alliance commander named Shepard aboard the S.S.V. Normandy, and travel around the galaxy interacting with a variety of alien species while making friends with your crew mates, shooting stuff, and making important decisions throughout the entire series. The initial trilogy ended in 2013 with the final DLC release for ME 3, after which a spin-off, Mass Effect Andromeda, was developed by a new team and eventually released as a complete disaster in early 2017. During the 2020 Game Awards, Bioware (or what was left of it) released a teaser trailer for a new Mass Effect game to the surprise of basically everyone before announcing a remastered version of the original trilogy for PS4, Xbox One, and PC, titled “Legendary Edition”.

My history with the franchise started in 2010, after I bought the PS3 version of ME 2. At the time, I was a 14-year-old pubescent who spent almost all of his free time in his parent’s basement playing video games, so naturally I took to Mass Effect like an 80’s glam-rocker to cocaine. A year and a half later, I pre-ordered the collector’s edition of ME 3, played it for almost a week straight, and like many others was met with sheer disappointment upon reaching the end. Still, even with the abysmal ending, I held mostly fond memories of the games going into my recent playthrough of LE, and in all honesty, that fondness has only grown.

So, how do the games stack up 13 years later? Out of the trilogy, the first game has received the most TLC and overall improvements from this round of remastering. While the graphics are acceptable, the gameplay and exploration components have been sharpened to a fine point, and the overall writing and story elements (while clunky at times) still largely hold up. ME 1 has the most traditional RPG elements out of the three, as looting equipment and managing your team’s weapons, armor, and special abilities are all core parts of the game. You’re also constantly flooded by a billion side quests throughout the entire game which vary widely in terms of enjoyment from fun, to repetitive, to a tad drawn out. Overall, the game holds up as an enjoyable, unique experience filled with hours of great content, a fantastic musical score, a memorable bastard of a villain, and a great ensemble of side characters.

While many, including myself, held ME 2 up as a shining masterpiece and the uncontested best in the series years ago, upon replaying it I can certainly say that attitude has changed. The dialogue, banter, and crewmates are all extremely well-written and performed, yet the story itself is somewhat lackluster. The villain(s), while serviceable, aren’t especially awe-inspiring and lack any real charisma or memorability, and the story beats are disjointedly mediocre. The crew, however, along with their loyalty missions, are arguably the best part of the entire series, and are the glue which hold the rest of the game together. The gameplay, unfortunately, has aged very poorly, and is the barest bones example of seventh-generation third-person shooter I can think of. This isn’t helped by the fact that combat sections are much more frequent and are an absolute slog to get through from start to finish. Compared to the first game, ME 2 has received relatively little attention in the way of remastering, and a few details aside is basically just a slightly shinier port of the original game.

ME 3 is bit of an odd entity. The gameplay is easily the best of the three, as it strikes a nice balance between ME 2’s cover-based shooting and ME 1’s RPG elements. The combat overall has been refined to a sharp edge – it’s fast-paced enough to keep from becoming a drag and includes a wide enough range of enemy types and weaponry to stay interesting. Crew members, character dialogue, and mission-stages are all incredibly well done, even if the overall experience is somewhat narrow and incomplete. There is no online component this time around, though, which is a bit of a shame but not entirely surprising. Overall, ME 3 is probably the best of the trilogy, with a rather good plot; except that Legendary Edition opts to retain the original ending of the series. Which, frankly, is absolute garbage even nine years later.

To oversimplify things again, my month-long journey with Legendary Edition, while marred occasionally by aged mechanics, distracting quirks, and a total lack of narrative catharsis, was still a pretty fun jaunt through memory lane. Revisiting the fictional universe I had fallen in love with as a teenager proved a solid experience, and the developers put enough elbow grease into the remaster to make Mass Effect worth another go for old-timers and newcomers alike. The characters you meet along the way remain as iconic as ever, and the overarching story is still compelling and effective, even if the conclusion is as trash as it is. Mass Effect: Legendary Edition made me harken back to all those after school hours I spent with a Dualshock 3 in my hands and has revitalized my appreciation for the experience Bioware first gave me 11 years back. In short, I still like Mass Effect, and for the first time in a decade I’m actually interested to see where the future takes this series. Andromeda, though, is still terrible.  

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