Unsurprisingly, EA’s 4K remaster of the first Mass Effect is a night-and-day difference from the 2007 original. One look at a side-by-side comparison tells you most of what you need to know about this upgrade: textures, character models, and effects have been retrofitted and everything runs at 60 frames per second or more, though animations show their age in places, especially on human faces. But to find out how this famed but notoriously uneven game plays in 2021, factoring in the gameplay tweaks in the Legendary Edition, I spent 30 hours on a full playthrough. Revisiting an RPG I hadn’t played since 2008 turned out to be a fantastic refresher on one of gaming’s best original science-fiction universes, and also a reminder of the mechanical weaknesses a lot of us were willing to overlook at the time because of how revolutionary Mass Effect was back then.
In general, Mass Effect looks good at 4K. (I played on Xbox Series X.) Environments are a tad on the sparse side when it comes to how spread out everything is, but textures are sharp and detailed and the lighting effects look respectably modern. Its biggest weakness – visually – is its facial animations, which are hard to ignore considering how much you see of them. In contrast to their detailed and well-lit skin, a lot of human characters look like their faces are paralyzed between their upper lip and their eyes. Sometimes those eyes have an uncomfortable, unblinking gaze. It’s not terrible but it definitely stands out next to current games. However, the nice thing about aliens is that they’re immune to the uncanny valley effect because for all we know that’s how their faces are supposed to look – so they mostly look excellent.
(The new photo mode is a nice addition, though I don’t know if the original Mass Effect – even after its 4K upgrade – is a good-enough looking game to inspire a lot of photographers who could just as easily be practicing their craft in a game that originated in this decade.)
The story of Commander Shepard and the crew of the Normandy working to stop the rogue Specter Saren from jumpstarting an ancient cycle of galactic genocide hasn’t missed a step in the past 14 years, and neither have its unforgettable alien companion characters. To be fair, there’s nothing terribly wrong with your human crewmates, Kaiden and Ashley – they just pale in comparison to the four aliens who’ve earned their reputation as some of the best companions in RPG history. Wrex, Liara, Tali, and Garrus’ personalities come through strongly in their voice acting and dialogue, like when Garrus needs to be talked down from his shoot-the-hostages style of law enforcement. It’s legitimately tough to decide which two characters to take with me on each mission because I want to hear how they’ll interact.
Meanwhile, Saren is a strong villain who comes across as both a monstrous traitor and at times somewhat sympathetic. He’s certainly evil from the jump, but as you learn more about him you find that he has beliefs that drive him and an argument to support them – even if it’s one that no sane person would get on board with. (I remember the first time I played, which was relatively soon after Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, I was annoyed that Shepard couldn’t choose to accept Saren’s offer to join him. In hindsight, I can see how that might’ve been an issue for the sequels.)
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Of course, just about every major world you visit contains at least one weighty, life-or-death decision that we know will have repercussions in Mass Effect 2 and 3, including the fates of major characters and even entire species. Behind all of that is Mass Effect’s signature morality system, which lets you choose to play Shepard as a truth and justice-style Paragon or a Renegade who gets the job done by their own rules. It’s still a pretty great roleplaying mechanism that rewards consistency with more persuasive conversation options. And it’s not too rigid: I didn’t feel penalized for making my generally law-abiding Shepard knock a few heads or even work outside the law on a few side quests when it felt appropriate.Combat isn’t much of a highlight. To its credit, The Legendary Edition has smoothed things out a bit with improved aiming, shorter ability cooldowns, a revamped interface, and the ability to direct your two squad members individually. You do get some moments of intensity when you’re being pinned down by enemy fire and taking potshots at them. Also, Shepard can now use any weapon regardless of your class, which occasionally comes in handy. But the AI is barely there, to the point where you’ll see certain enemies moving in clearly predefined patterns, so they’re not exactly tactically interesting fights that really require you to make use of all of your squad’s abilities. As long as you’re periodically updating your squad’s gear with the slightly improved but still slow and clunky inventory system there aren’t many battles that are likely to slow you down much on normal difficulty.
Inventory management remains a drag on the pacing without a lot of upsides. You can now mark a bunch of items as junk and sell them all at once when you reach a store, which certainly is a big increase in convenience, but other than that it’s a lot of slowly scrolling through tons of items to find what you want. One thing that constantly gets on my nerves, given that you have the ability to swap out your weapon ammo mods on the fly, is that you’re effectively encouraged to do it whenever you need to counter a new enemy with a shield or other resistance. The problem is that in order to do that you have to pause, select the menu item next to the one where you change your graphics options, find the right character and weapon, then scroll through your list to find what you need. It’s just a lot when you’re in the middle of a gunfight, and it makes the shift to the ability-based ammo system in Mass Effect 2 feel like a great idea.
Another highlighted change in the Legendary Edition is the adjustments to the way the Mako landing vehicle drives. And sure, I appreciate that it’s less annoyingly bouncy and not as prone to instant deaths… but that just made me realize that the real problem with the Mako is that nothing you do in it is fun. Combat is incredibly bland because most enemies basically just sit there and shoot at you while you pick them off with two boring weapons, and the rest of it is just driving from point A to point B on the large, open, and mostly empty world maps you can land on and explore. Small adjustments to make it less punishing can’t save it, and it’s easy to see why BioWare mothballed the Mako in the next two games.