Finally, there's a remastered edition of the original Mass Effect games which may be the single greatest video game trilogy ever made.
What is Mass Effect?
Originally released from 2007 to 2012, the Mass Effect trilogy is arguably BioWare's magnum opus. Taking place in the distant future, the games focus on a human named Commander Shepard as they try to unite the various alien races of the galaxy against the invasion of a race of sentient machines known as the Reapers. Throughout the games, you make friends, enemies, encounter bizarre alien creatures, fall in love, discover horrific secrets, and ultimately decide the fate of the Milky Way Galaxy. While this remaster isn't perfect by any means, it's a great starting point for anyone who has yet to play the Mass Effect games and a fitting nostalgia trip for anyone who already has.
The first Mass Effect can almost be compared to a pre-Disney Marvel Cinematic Universe film. It has a lot of great ideas, the characters are fun and interesting, and you want to see more of the universe and what the people behind it have planned for later. On the other hand, you'll also feel like the people in charge of it all didn't have the proper time, money, or experience to fully realize these ideas.
Therefore, I would personally describe Mass Effect as a flawed masterpiece that is all held together by sheer force of will via the world building elements and plot put together by lead writer Drew Karpyshyn. Right from the start, you're given an entire library of codex information that contains a massive wealth of information on this universe, the various races within it, and their relationships to one another. It manages to suck you in and quickly invests you in the galaxy with information that is thorough but not intimidatingly dense before you even have a meaningful conversation with any of the characters.
The main narrative is cleverly tied into the universe's greater lore involving the origins of the mass effect technology and the terrible secrets behind it. The plot follows Shepard as they attempt to take down a rogue government agent who is attempting to bring the Reapers back from the reaches of dark spaces so they might fulfill their mission of galactic genocide. Throughout the story, you take on a number of missions that provide more answers as to what the Reapers are as well as introduce additional mysteries that are scattered throughout the galaxy. It not only feels like you are answering questions that others had asked early on in the game but discovering new mysteries within the galaxy that may never be solved themselves. It also helps that the main story missions are fairly diverse in terms of what you encounter thus allowing you to make meaningful decisions that will affect the various characters and worlds in future games.
Along for the ride is a colorful cast of characters that includes humans as well as alien species who give you more insight into the points of views of the various races. The characters themselves are all immediately likable and charismatic in different ways with back-stories that range from disillusioned leaders to hard-nosed cops to enthusiastic kids. It's all coupled with a great voice cast that includes the likes of Keith David, Lance Henriksen, and Seth Green which would continue to expand and improve in the sequels.
The downside to it all is that the gameplay is an uneven mess with production values that feel a bit on the cheap side. Even for its time, the graphics were lackluster and some of the faces on the human characters look even more alien than those of the actual aliens. The voice acting isn't bad but it feels like many of the actors needed a few more takes to really perfect their performances.
Mass Effect also attempts to blend RPG elements with third-person shooter aspects with mixed results. The facial creation on Sheppard is incredibly underwhelming and the level-up system is overwhelmingly detailed. Likewise, inventory is an unruly mess with you getting more items than you'll ever possibly use. It just all feels like a bunch of ideas that were thrown into a gameplay melting pot that wasn't given enough time to properly cook. The combat feels stiff and awkward, too, as nothing about fighting feels fluid with all the characters being a bit more rigid than they should be. Both enemy and ally AI are not incredibly intelligent and most fights play out very quickly and messily; almost like a video game version of the basement scene in Inglourious Basterds.
However, the gameplay is saved by the writing as choices do seem to matter. While you may not necessarily like the combat, you'll still be more than willing to power through it to get to the next story beat and make decisions that will ultimately impact the narratives. Thankfully, all of these issues would be greatly improved upon in Mass Effect 2.
Mass Effect 2
Taking place 2 years after the events of the first game, the story finds Shepard allying themselves with a human supremacist group known as Cerberus, lead by the mysterious Illusive Man played by Martin Sheen. With their aid, he must assemble a team of warriors, scientists, and engineers in order to take down a group known as the Collectors who are targeting human colonies for unknown reasons.
Mass Effect 2 is often praised as one of the greatest sequels ever and is ranked as one of the best games of its generation. I'm not 100% sure I agree with all of this but from a sheer gameplay production standpoint, you could teach an entire class based on Mass Effect 2 for how to improve upon a predecessor. Just about every single aspect from the first Mass Effect is radically overhauled in the second: the combat is far smoother and feels like you have a lot more control over Shepard and both ally and enemy AIs are far more intelligent with allies actually capable of holding their own in a fight and enemies that have a chance of outsmarting you. Add to that a massive overhaul in the graphics department and you have a game that's fun to play and far more visually stimulating than its predecessor.
In addition, the characters all move around more when you talk to them and are livelier in cutscenes. The voice acting has also vastly improved with actors who deliver committed performances as well as having a lot more material to work with. It really seems like they fleshed out the scripts for these characters, allowing them to be three-dimensional people. It also helps that the majority of the main missions involve helping them with their personal baggage thus tying the character development into how the main narrative plays out.
The downside to it all is that the story just isn't as interesting this time around as it's held back by the typical middle chapter narrative problems. It doesn't feel as fresh as the first game with the main story lacking the same level of connection to the lore and history of the universe. Not to mention; trying to stop the robot bug people from kidnapping humans just lacks the same tension and stakes as directly stopping an invasion of unstoppable machines. Mass Effect 2 also ends up making the universe feel smaller in many ways. While the side missions in the first game could be a bit on the repetitive side, they gave you the impression you were part of a vast universe full of endless outlaw factions, cults, and rogue government groups. In Mass Effect 2, however, one of three mercenary gangs seems to be the center of all of the universe's problems and ultimately, that makes the game world feel much smaller.
To Mass Effect 2's credit, the main narrative does have a solid theme spread throughout its length. The main mission in any Mass Effect game is to convince all the races in the universe to let go of their petty squabbles and unite against a greater threat. While Mass Effect 2 lacks the apocalyptic scale of the other 2 games, it serves as a microcosm for what the universe will ultimately need to survive. Your team will consist of rival races, people with opposing interests, and you ultimately have to make them all get along if you want to have any chance of surviving your attack on the Collector base; an idea which would be adapted to a galactic scale for Mass Effect 3.
Mass Effect 3
Okay; let's address the elephant in the room: yes, the original ending to Mass Effect 3 was absolutely horrid. The developers effectively lied to fans and journalists about how the ending was going to play out and if memory serves correct, they were extremely defensive about said ending. The extended cut of the ending would eventually smooth some of this over but still amounted to an A-B-C-type ending and remains one of the most botched finales of all time. That being said, right up until those last 20 minutes or so, it is arguably the best game that BioWare ever made.
From a purely technical standpoint, Mass Effect 3 is by far the best in the trilogy. The graphics once again take a massive leap in quality, showing details that were otherwise lacking in the previous 2 games. Enemies and allies have once again leaped forward and made characters on both sides seem more alive and real than ever before. It also managed to more successfully blend the RPG third-person shooter elements that the first Mass Effect tried and arguably failed at and what Mass Effect 2 just seemed to abandon. It gives you a number of options with your powers and abilities but lacks the sheer overwhelming number of skills that the first game had. In addition, Mass Effect 3 also gives you a huge number of weapons to select from that all have their own strengths and weaknesses along with a number of mods to upgrade them. It all truly does feel like the game that BioWare wanted the first Mass Effect to be.
Taking place roughly 6 months after the end of Mass Effect 2, Mass Effect 3 finds Shepard once again in command of the Normandy. The Reapers have launched a full-scale invasion against the races of the Milky Way Galaxy with Earth being their primary target. It's up to Shepard to convince the various alien races to put aside their differences and unite against the Reapers before they are all wiped out by their overwhelming power as Cerberus creeps in the background, interfering with your mission at every given opportunity.
The main plot is one that I have almost nothing but praise for as it has nearly everything you could want in a good story. It features the tense apocalyptic stakes of the first game along with the three dimensional writing of the second while actually improving on both. There is a massive degree of tension in all of the main missions and you feel like one wrong move could potentially cause it all to fall apart. Some of the races have literally been fighting for centuries and getting them to corporate is no easy task. It also manages to do this without framing any one of the factions as the "bad guys" and manages to make all the characters involved in this seem... well... human.
Mass Effect 3 is once again bolstered by a fantastic cast of characters. The voice acting has been improved even further and the people behind the characters all sound better than ever. They are all livelier, move around in cutscenes more, and even travel around the ship to talk to one another. It really feels like you're interacting with friends and comrades in ways that few other games had before or since. It loads it all up with moments and interactions that range from badass to tear-jerking. I genuinely cannot recall the last time interaction with a video game character made me laugh and cheer or cry like a baby the way I did when I played Mass Effect 3.
The delicious topping to it all is that your decisions in the previous games actually matter. Most RPGs that transfer characters and saves over from previous games typically limit the scope of this as often, these decisions will usually only amount to a few token mentions and are otherwise so removed from the previous entries that the decisions in them hardly matter. Decisions made in Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 will often completely alter the way missions in Mass Effect 3 play out and you actually will feel the consequences of your actions throughout the campaign for better and for worse.
The downside to this is that while the scope of the story has gotten bigger, it feels like the universe has once again become smaller. Throughout Mass Effect 3, you only ever seem to fight Cerberus and Reaper forces which lacks the feeling of diversity that even Mass Effect 2 had with its mercenary gangs. It also has to be said that this is clearly a game from the early 2010s with every female being dolled-up to an almost absurd extent and of course, you still have the ending which kind of sours the whole experience regardless.
Mass Effect Legendary Edition
I would of course be neglectful if I failed to mention that this is technically a review of a remastered trilogy and not a mere nostalgia piece. So, the short version of it is this: the further you get into the trilogy, the buggier it becomes.
The various loading time issues of the first Mass Effect were basically fixed and the developers managed to put the game in a higher aspect ratio without it looking like garbage. Mass Effect 2 seems to have just been a port job which is fine but you'll notice that Shepard's hand never touches their ear when they're talking to someone over the radio. Odd issues like that continue into Mass Effect 3 with characters appearing to float while lying in their beds and hover above ground when they're sitting. Also, cutscenes will often have awkward pauses between lines of dialogue that go on just long enough for you to feel slightly uncomfortable.
Larger audio/video desyncing issues also pop up and seem to happen the more your decisions from the previous games affect the main story and this will ruin a dramatic scene. It's quite odd that a studio with such a high profile remaster and a reputation to rebuild after several botched projects would drop the ball on so many seemingly minor but noticeable issues.
Despite its flaws, Mass Effect Legendary Edition acts a great excuse for long-time fans to revisit the franchise as well as a solid place for newcomers to dive in. You'll laugh, cheer, cry, and have a great time. Older design and narrative problems remain and this remaster could have worked out the bugs more but you'll still be blown away by everything that Mass Effect Legendary Edition has to offer.
- + Fantastic cast of memorable characters
- + Incredible story that immediately pulls you in and keeps you coming back for more
- + Great combat in the latter 2 games
- - Original narrative and design shortcomings remain an issue
- - Game becomes buggier the further you progress into the trilogy