The Mass Effect “Legendary Edition” is one of the few remasters that deserves that title. With Game of the Year (GotY) labels doled out by media publications and dedicated award shows each year, it’s an easy option for publishers. Similarly, labels like “ultimate”, “extended”, and “enhanced” are subjective to a degree they are almost pointless without industry-defined standards.
What isn’t in doubt is how much impact the Mass Effect trilogy – consisting of Mass Effect (2006), Mass Effect 2 (2010), and Mass Effect 3 (2012) – had on both game design and gaming culture. For better, and often worse, each game in the trilogy records changing game design philosophies, highlights shifting business practices, and increased player engagement with developers and publishers through online platforms.
With the Mass Effect Legendary Edition having gone gold, and the launch less than 3-weeks away, I’ve been sifting through my memories and old articles to pick out some highlights from the storied history of Mass Effect (obviously sans Andromeda – but I’ve complained enough about that game here already).
Mass Effect attempted to be an RPG for everyone
Despite the first game carrying a lot of BioWare’s classic RPG baggage, a combination of real-time gunplay, the stylish and cinematic presentation, and a healthy marketing budget drew a lot of attention from gamers that would typically shy away from an RPG experience. The well-written dialogue was no longer limited to talking heads, every character had a voice actor, and there were detailed character models with quality lip-syncing (for the time). Jennifer Hale and Mark Meer had contributed voice work to BioWare games for years, but it was Mass Effect that would define their voice-acting careers going forward.
In-game combat animations felt impactful, not simply canned animations playing out while waiting on dice rolls. Epic, playable set-pieces – commonly reserved for third-person action games and first-person shooters – were present and accounted for. You could argue Mass Effect found itself in an awkward middle-ground, not enough role-playing for classic BioWare fans, but not mechanically polished enough for action fans. Regardless, millions of gamers were introduced to its hard sci-fi setting, the now-iconic companions, branching narrative paths, and several stunning set pieces that still impress 14-years later.
Mass Effect got the press in an uproar about alien sex
Mass Effect’s rudimentary romance subplots resulted in a cringe-worthy fade-to-black scene just before the final mission kicked off. When snippets of this scene found their way to the greater public, the claims that emerged were as fantastical as they were bull****. The most ridiculous was from a blogger, who claimed “the video game 'persons' hump in every form, format, multiple, gender-oriented possibility they can think of". It kicked off broader interest in the game and the news was soon picked up by other media outlets. The most famous was a Fox News host claiming players could "engage in full graphic sex" and the resulting scene "leaves nothing to the imagination".
It is almost quaint when looking back at this controversy, given we’ve had to endure dozens of graphic video game sex scenes from an industry that never stops trying (and failing) to implement them. It’s also hilarious given that Mass Effect was released with a “Mature” age rating. When compared to “mature” rated shows on HBO or Netflix these days – Game of Thrones and Altered Carbon come to mind – Mass Effect looks like a primary school sex-ed video.
Mass Effect 2 demonstrated RPG elements and action-oriented gameplay could coexist in harmony
Despite my current reservations about the genre-blending we see in so many “AAA” video games, Mass Effect 2 deserves credit for creating a compelling RPG that also incorporated a satisfying third-person shooter framework. It is frequently hailed as the pinnacle of the series, packed with complex companions, impactful character arcs, tough player decisions, amazing set-pieces, and the epic “suicide mission” finale.
I would argue Mass Effect 2 shifted the balance too far, making it far more of a third-person shooter with tactical abilities during combat, rather than a traditional stat-influenced RPG. However, the minute-to-minute gunplay – still the dominant part of any Mass Effect experience – played better than ever before, while the player could focus on branching dialogue and consequences. Player skill, rather than ability scores and dice rolls, felt more important. This led to a surge of action-oriented RPGs and RPG-lite systems making their way into other genres.
Mass Effect 2 still provided fantastic DLC as other games shifted towards microtransactions
Make no mistake, Mass Effect 2 was still packed with cosmetic- and weapon-pack microtransactions and pre-order bull****, but there were several excellent single-player DLC missions released (the same is true for Mass Effect 3). These fleshed out secondary characters and introduced novel gameplay mechanics. Kasumi - Stolen Memory introduced a new squad member, weapon class, and stealth-based sequences. Lair of the Shadow Broker allowed you to spend some quality time with Liara, battling through some truly memorable locations and epic set-pieces.
That said, we also got several notably less polished DLC, along with plot-critical missions locked behind a paywall. The Arrival DLC for Mass Effect 2 covers events leading into the opening of the sequel, a fact acknowledged whether you played it or not. Meanwhile, Mass Effect 3 has both an essential companion and lore-heavy Reaper encounter locked behind its season pass.
Mass Effect 3 proved if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is
Despite some weird structural decisions – namely the “Galaxy at War” multiplayer integration and throwaway side quests – Mass Effect 3 played out as an incredible series of emotional resolutions to galaxy-spanning conflicts. You could make peace between the Geth and their creators, cure the Krogan genophage that had decimated their species, and put the final nail in the coffin of the Cerberus faction. Unfortunately, it was all capped off by a nonsensical mind**** ending that’s hard not to fixate on.
In hindsight, having played through several classic cRPGs - many from BioWare – it’s obvious their ambitions and their budget was never going to allow for a truly branching end-game that would satisfy millions of fans. It was hard enough for BioWare to create branching outcomes in their prior RPGs – games that had significantly less cinematic aspirations and primarily revolved around unvoiced, talking-head dialogue. To do so in Mass Effect 3 would have required twice the development time and budget.
Mass Effect 3 proved a small vocal minority, with the right tools, can cause chaos
Some fans took to dissecting the disjointed final moments of Mass Effect 3 and sifted through every scrap of lore. They came up with some fantastic ending theories, much to the chagrin of BioWare writers. Unfortunately, many more simply wanted to lash out at BioWare staff and journalists that reviewed Mass Effect 3 positively. The internet of 2012 was significantly different from the internet of 2007. Fan engagement, whether through social media channels or publisher-hosted forums, had become massive.
This meant rabid “fans” had a direct line of communication with the development team. The “Retake Mass Effect” campaign was probably the most recognisable effort, but there were also false advertising lawsuits and direct attacks on any publicly active staff members. Further adding to the controversy was the “extended cut” ending, released as free DLC 3-months later, that altered several end-game cutscenes and fleshed out the ending sequences. This satisfied some, others pointed out ongoing inconsistencies, while others simply felt it was too little too late. Regardless, it was one of the first high-profile examples of developers directly influenced by external opinions – patching their game on a fundamental level.
Back to the present and what I look forward to most about the Mass Effect Legendary Edition – beyond gameplay improvement to the first game and visual improvements for the entire trilogy – is the ability to finally replay the trilogy as a complete package, enjoy the role-playing and combat, all in the absence of any surrounding controversy (assuming EA don't have anything idiotic planned). I honestly can’t wait for a chance to take my Shepard through the trilogy, reconnect with my old companions, enjoy every thrilling set-piece, and ultimately cringe once again when the credits roll.
Enjoys games with awesome stories and characters, along with new and interesting hardware. Dislikes day-one patches and driver updates.
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