Nearly 15 years after the first game’s release, and almost 10 since the last entry in the trilogy, there’s still been no series quite like Mass Effect. Crafting galaxy-spanning hard sci-fi is a Herculean task in any medium, let alone an interactive one. Bringing a large-scale production like Mass Effect up to current-gen standards of graphical fidelity and expansiveness is even harder, something even the developers at BioWare found out when they broke themselves in half crafting the poor, misbegotten Mass Effect: Andromeda.
With that in mind, it can’t be understated just how big an ask it likely was for the Canadian video game developer to roll through the trilogy, raising the resolution of everything to 4K, completely recreating assets, tweaking mechanics, even replacing NPCs along the way, but that’s exactly what they’ve managed to accomplish with Mass Effect Legendary Edition. Visually, the ringing success of the results speak for themselves. The trilogy has undergone an absolutely stunning visual facelift, making the galaxy that players will be gallivanting across for over 90 hours feel so much more immersive, beautiful, and tangible-seeming.
If there are issues with this trilogy in its current state, they can be traced back to the original games. Facial animations are still a little too Punch and Judy-ish at times—especially in the jankier first game in the series. The skin textures and assets are of the present, but the facial animations are still “very 2007,” and the end result can look strange in motion. And while the first game’s gunplay finally feels your pulling a trigger rather than rolling dice, there’s still a stiffness to it that makes the whole thing feel inelegant compared to Mass Effect 2 and 3. But then, mechanically, the second and third games in the series were near-perfect right out of the box, which is why they’re mostly the same games here that they were before.
But the more pressing concern regarding the first game is that it’s re-releasing in a much different world than 2007. The series is operating in the same allegorical space as Star Trek, with a wisdom-seeking humanity looking to cooperate with non-human forms, only Commander Shepard and their crew aren’t explorers at the start. (The Milky Way of Mass Effect has already been charted, or at least probed; its sentient life has been discovered, and its spacefaring species fight to live in harmony.) The crew of the SSV Normandy are, lamentably, cops. More than that, Shepard themself is a Spectre, a cop with almost no accountability.
That’s a rather precarious state of being for a protagonist in 2021, especially when the game’s extensive moral choice system puts any number of galactic war crimes, ruthless capital punishments, and fierce rebukes of the democratic process right at your fingertips. Players having the choice to be that particular brand of cop hits differently today than it did in 2007, and the only reason we’re not talking about Mass Effect in the same embarrassed, nauseous terms that we use to talk about dehumanizing cop thrillers from the ’70s and ’80s is just how magnificent the experience still is when you choose to be better than that.
The first game fares the worst by making Shepard’s modus operandi feel like little more than a power trip. Shepard has a galactic council mandate to take down a rogue Spectre who intends to use a cosmic horror of a spaceship to strip away every sentient being’s free will. That’s a situation that demands a “by any means necessary” approach, but there’s so few other ways to deescalate situations in that game, as your options typically come down to just “shoot” or “don’t shoot.” There’s some lip service paid in the first game when it comes to trying to instill a respect for that position in the player, constant reminders of humanity’s place in the galaxy, and the importance of recognizing the rights of other beings. That’s mitigated by just how often the game pushes the idea that the ruling authorities doing so are fools, despite some mostly reasonable demands, and have to be defied or flat out ignored to get anything done.
It’s still possible to do a lot of good for the galaxy in the first Mass Effect, and defuse a lot of potential galactic incidents before they get worse, but too often it’s left to Shepard alone to decide that. In hindsight, that rankles a bit, though that’s less of a problem with Mass Effect specifically than it is with video games in general, given their propensity for peddling lone-wolf power fantasies. Luckily, you’re surrounded by a diverse and incredibly well-drawn cast of characters who provide Shepard perspective, insight, history, emotion, and, yes, even love. Saving people, hearing the varying ways life in space has created static, and using your choices to heal rifts feels righteous and exhilarating. It’s power wielded the way it could and should be—for the good of everyone rather than few. That might make it the most unrealistic part of Mass Effect, but that’s why it’s science fiction. It’s just that in Mass Effect, the balance shifts too far in favor of state power to solve the galaxy’s problems.
That imbalance is hugely remedied in the subsequent games—namely, with higher stakes and scenarios that actually demand a more militant approach, and the storylines and choices that demand empathy and diplomacy scale up appropriately. You’re no longer the galaxy’s sole protector, but one of a great many caretakers. There’s more of an onus on Shepard to answer for their decisions, and most impressive, and perhaps Mass Effect’s greatest achievement as a narrative, is the way in which even minute decisions karmically come back to haunt Shepard later. Choosing empathy can’t stop the terror that arrives over the course of these three games, or any of the moments of viciousness, ugliness, greed, and hate, but it does make for a universe capable of rising above its pettiness, moments of such grace, forgiveness, wonder, and power, and sheer determination the likes of which we do not see often in science fiction.
The greater emphasis on people choosing growth and forgiveness is the primary reason why Mass Effect 3’s infamous endings work. Knowing what we know about the universe, the galaxy demands a choice, a final statement of the worth and importance of being alive and among others who wish to live and become better. Forced to consider everything they’ve experienced in Mass Effect: Legendary Edition as a cohesive, single narrative, players are essentially being asked what they’ve learned and how best to apply that toward saving the galaxy.
Mass Effect 3 has one of the most powerfully written lines of dialogue in any written medium. The last surviving member of a dead alien race tells Shepard to “stand amongst the ashes of trillions, and ask the ghosts if honor matters.” The character states that “the silence is your answer,” but in reality, the enormity of experience granted to every player by the three games of this collection provide all the answers you need to make that final, unfathomable choice. Life among the stars is a messy, audacious experience in Mass Effect. It’s a true pleasure to have that experience as polished and preserved as it is right now.
This game was reviewed with a retail copy purchased by the reviewer.
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