The “Mass Effect” trilogy was originally released between Nov. 2007 and Mar. 2012. I didn’t play through the series for the first time until 2013. Despite jumping on to the franchise a little late at the time, “Mass Effect” almost immediately rose to prominence as one of my favorite games. I was drawn in by its stunningly realized world and compelling characters. After concluding the franchise, I joined many other fans, hungry for more. Unfortunately, 2017’s “Mass Effect: Andromeda,” which sought to begin a new story in the universe, failed to meet expectations. Expansions and sequels were scrapped and the series laid dormant for several years.
“Mass Effect Legendary Edition” is a remaster of all three original “Mass Effect” games; “Mass Effect,” “Mass Effect 2” and “Mass Effect 3.” The remaster improves visuals across all three games, it improves the character creation tool across all three games, and it overhauls the gameplay of the now quite dated 2007 original. It also features lots of quality of life improvements and other minor changes to camera angles and one character’s design that I won’t detail for spoiler concerns, but which are welcome.
“Mass Effect” puts players in control of their own Commander Shepard, who can be male or female, with a customizable appearance, as well as a chosen background. My Shepard is male, he has brown hair and a stubbly beard. He was born a spacer, spending most of his life aboard starships as humanity expanded across the galaxy. He led a squad of Alliance soldiers and held the line during the Skyllian Blitz against overwhelming odds. He is adept, exposed to element zero in the womb, and can now control mass effect fields to exert cool magical powers. My Shepard could have been a woman, a hacker who grew up in the slums on earth and was the lone survivor of a tragedy on the planet Akuze. My Shepard could have been someone else still.
The Shepard I created as I began the first “Mass Effect” for the first time in eight years will stick with me as I make my way back through the whole trilogy. His appearance, his decisions, and his relationships with other characters will carry from one game to the next. The importing of saves from game to game was revolutionary at the time, allowing for cohesive storytelling in a way unique to the medium of video games, but no one else has ever tried to do it.
So far, I’ve played around fifteen hours in the remastered first game. I estimate I’m around halfway through, and I plan to complete all three games again. Returning to the series I’m constantly reminded why I love it, how unique it is to this day, but I’m also seeing plenty of spots where it certainly shows its age.
The first Mass Effect does a remarkable job of establishing a massive science fiction world without drowning the player in too much exposition. Taking place only thirty years after first contact, humanity is struggling to adjust to life in a galactic community. The game tackles racism and xenophobia from its first moments, introducing many unique alien species, each with their own fully developed culture. All of these species and cultures come together in a massive space station called the citadel, where a group of representatives from only three of the many species govern the galaxy.
Gameplay in the “Mass Effect” franchise is in many ways secondary to its story and characters, more so than other games. There’s a whole lot of talking in this game, as players use a dialogue wheel to make decisions and decide the morality of their Shepard. The morality system suffers in how rigidly binary it is, as players generally have to commit to being good or bad early and stick to that choice or risk having morality stats too low to make important decisions later on. The shooting and driving feel a lot better than they did before, but they were never a focus of mine when I initially played the game.
The trilogy overall follows Commander Shepard, who discovers a warning that portends of an ancient race of synthetic beings coming to exterminate all intelligent life in the galaxy. It details Shepard’s efforts to combat the nebulous threat, building relationships and allies with people across all species leading up to a thrilling climax in “Mass Effect 3.” Every choice the player makes carries from game to game, and while there are only three primary final endings to the trilogy, characters and details turn back up in interesting ways from game to game.
In the first game, Commander Shepard is named a Spectre by the Citadel council, a kind of space cop who is given absolutely unlimited jurisdiction to act on their own initiative to preserve peace and balance in the galaxy. A game about becoming a super cool space cop who can do whatever they want with absolutely no oversight hits different in a modern lens during an ongoing reckoning with the role of police in our society. There is also a problematic portrayal of autism in one of the optional storylines in “Mass Effect 2.”
Despite a few instances of aged concepts and portrayals, which shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise in a 14-year-old game, “Mass Effect” totally holds up. The universe is still masterfully crafted, and the characters are still among my favorite in gaming. Newcomers to the franchise will never find a better time to jump on. BioWare announced in December that “Mass Effect will return for a fifth entry that returns to at least one of the characters who played a major role in all three original trilogy games. I’d advise any newcomers to stick out some growing pains in the first game, skipping side content to get through it faster if they really need to, but the later games in the franchise build so much on the foundation of the first game, and then rewards players who complete the trilogy, that it’s definitely worth the effort.