One of the biggest tragedies of the last generation of consoles is that it only saw a single Mass Effect game – Mass Effect Andromeda – which was received tepidly at best.
That’s set to change with Mass Effect Legendary Edition, a remaster of the original three games in the Mass Effect trilogy for PS4 and Xbox One – and, by extension, Xbox Series X and PS5 by the virtue of those consoles being backward-compatible.
For those that missed BioWare's space opera action-RPG with beloved romanceable characters and frenetic, varied combat, Legendary Edition will apply a new coat of paint to the game with 4K textures and lighting effects, as well as add significantly more customization options for the trilogy’s protagonist, Commander Shepard.
But what about folks who have already traveled the Milky Way to fight off the Reapers? For us, Legendary Edition's lack of substantial new content and features like Dolby Atmos spatial audio, ray-tracing or Tempest Audio support on PS5 might mean that, like Andromeda, the remastered trilogy may not have the gravitational mass to pull us back in for another tour of duty.
Rebuilding Shepard for the second time
One of the pivotal points in the original series is Shepard’s rebirth at the start of Mass Effect 2, which allowed the creators to take a second stab at the game’s graphics and gameplay. The second game, the one many fondly remember as the series' best, had better, smoother combat and more varied skill trees, which thrived by refining the slower-moving awkward combat of the original.
It's a story that really echoes with the ethos the team is bringing to Legendary Edition – which feels like rebuilding this beloved trilogy around modern technology now that they've had some space apart. According to Crystal McCord, the game’s producer, the development team met with modders, cosplayers and superfans of the franchise to see what improvements they wanted and tried to implement them.
The result are environments that have god rays and particle effects plus new customization options for Shepard that add more hair patterns and skin tones to better match the game’s wide fan base, as well as faster elevators (you don’t remember but they were damn slow). To add to the list of gameplay improvements, there's better enemy AI, improved cover mechanics, in-scope aim smoothing, better camera controls and a more consistent auto-save that won't accidentally trap you in bad situations.
There’s a solid 60 frames-per-second framerate on Xbox One X and PS4 Pro and re-rendered cutscenes with slightly more realistic – but still dated by today’s standards – character models for all of Shepard's shipmates. Still, every cutscene we were shown had a fresh coat of paint on it, and McCord tells us that every piece of story DLC and most of the DLC weapons available in the game as well – additions that should make avid completionists happy.
To a certain extent, Legendary Edition is the definitive edition of the trilogy refined for last-gen consoles... but, in a post-Final Fantasy 7 Remake world, is a 4K repaint good enough to warrant shelling out $60/£50 more for?
Still more ‘Legend,’ than ‘Legendary’
The real bad news? Because the game is being designed for last-gen consoles, the Xbox One and PS4, there’s not much in the way of new features.
It’s great that some lingering issues – like the awkward movement from Mass Effect 1 – have been fixed, but it would’ve meant more had Bioare added things like ray-tracing, Dolby Atmos audio or PS5 Tempest Audio support as well.
Instead, it’s just the original trilogy but prettier and smoother.
Part of the problem is that BioWare and EA decided to keep with the older Unreal Engine 3 instead of porting the game over to the more robust, feature-rich Unreal Engine 4 that would’ve allowed the team to add current-gen features. The game does its best, McCord and project director Mac Walters say, to push the engine to its limits, but it’s still the same engine that the games used when they were in development more than 15 years ago.
The results, from what we saw during a one-hour online preview event, look much like you’d expect: the same exact characters and environments you saw a decade ago, now with fewer jagged edges and higher framerates. To that point, there’s no never-before-seen cutting room floor content here or real incentive for folks who played the originals to come back, unless it’s just to admire the new character and environment models.
More than anything this feels like a missed opportunity – not just to incorporate some new features, but to give players a bit more content from the trilogy. We're not necessarily expecting a new new ending, but that would've made Legendary Edition really feel like the must-own collection for fans of the series. What could’ve been a monumental overhaul of the systems, features and overall look of the game to match the legacy of the games feels... underwhelming.
The latter would’ve required much more work, obviously (just look at how long it’s taken Square Enix to create parts one and two of Final Fantasy 7 Remake) but that would’ve made for a much more compelling collection, in our opinion.
Our first steps into a larger world
At this point we’ve only seen a small portion of what Mass Effect Legendary Edition will offer. We’ve seen the character models, the environmental art and some quick gameplay – but we’ve yet to feel how smooth it is in our hands.
That, of course, could change how we feel dramatically.
Just telling us how different Mass Effect 2 was going to be from the original really didn't click until we played it for ourselves, and the same could be true for Legendary Edition when it comes out on May 14 on PC via Origin and Steam, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
Even if it doesn’t, Mass Effect Legendary Edition could serve as a way to rally the team at BioWare Edmonton ahead of the future Mass Effect game that’s been teased by the studio. Spending so much time with the originals after nearly a decade could allow the team to rediscover the characters and settings that made the franchise so successful.
How or even if the new entry is tied to this original trilogy remains a mystery – BioWare didn’t give us any clues at our recent demo, either – but what we can say for sure is that they’ll be worked on by the same team. That, in and of itself, has us hopeful for whatever comes next.