Mass Effect: Legendary Edition First Impressions: Less Than a Remake, but Much More Than a Basic Remaster
When work was first getting underway on Mass Effect: Legendary Edition, the new remastered collection due in May, BioWare had a conversation with Epic, creators of the Unreal Engine that Mass Effect 1-3 were built on. The team wanted to know if it would be feasible to use Unreal Engine 4 for the remasters, in effect rebuilding Mass Effect on modern technology. The possibilities were tantalizing — Unreal Engine 4 is a substantial step up from its predecessor — but ultimately BioWare opted to stick with the Unreal Engine 3 that underpinned the trilogy from its debut in 2007.
“[I]t very quickly became clear that level of jump would really change fundamentally what the series was; how it felt, how it played,” Director Mac Walters told IGN. “A really crisp example of that would be if you look at the Kismit scripting language, it’s a visual scripting language from [Unreal Engine 3], there’s no real copy-paste for that to go into Unreal Engine 4, meaning that every moment, every scene… everything would have had to essentially be redone from scratch. We knew at that point that we’d really sort of start to take away the essence and spirit of what the trilogy was.”
BioWare’s decision not to use Unreal Engine 4 is emblematic of its approach to Mass Effect: Legendary Edition, which aims to modernize the trilogy for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC without completely rebuilding it. It’s a collection that definitely makes some measurable improvements to the original games, but fights to keep its ambitions restrained and practical. If there’s one word to associate with Mass Effect: Legendary Edition, it would probably be “pragmatic” — a response, perhaps, to BioWare’s recent history of having some of its wilder ambitions backfire spectacularly.
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Still, while Mass Effect: Legendary Edition isn’t quite the giant leap that fans might have hoped for — that will likely have to wait until the announced-but-still-untitled Mass Effect 4 is ready for release — it’s also much more than your typical remaster. Some substantial changes are coming to the trilogy, particularly the original game, and they are changes that are in many instances long overdue.
Remaster vs. Remake
“The one thing you realize when you start to really dig into this is that there’s so many quite complex interconnected systems,” Lead Environmental Artist Kevin Meek tells IGN. Meek is further explaining BioWare’s decision to stick with Unreal Engine 3 rather than move to the more modern and powerful Unreal Engine 4.
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If BioWare had opted to go with Unreal Engine 4, he says, the team would have had to completely remake elements like the conversation trees, a process that Meek describes as “death by a thousand cuts.” Suffice it to say that recent experiences on that front have not been good for BioWare. A little less than two years ago — not long before work began on Mass Effect: Legendary Edition — BioWare released Anthem, a case study in a project’s ambitions running wild.
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Adding to BioWare’s determination to keep the project’s ambitions firmly under control was the Mass Effect trilogy being somewhat unique from a technological standpoint, particularly the original game. Meek talks about how the original Mass Effect’s big finale, in which Shepard fights across the exterior of the Citadel, would be a “significant undertaking” in Unreal Engine 4 or Frostbite. Much of the battle takes place in zero gravity, with Biotics being capable of flinging enemies into space as the whole level rotates at 90 degrees.
“I think especially with Mass Effect 1, there’s just this feeling that I think people were a little bit naive about it. It was the first time going into a new engine. A lot of the guys making these levels were relatively fresh out of school,” Meek says. “Sometimes the stuff they were able to pull off was because they kind of didn’t know any better, and just kind of went headstrong into something crazy. So taking the houseplans and completely rebuilding it again somewhere else, I think you end up losing a lot of that soul, that naivete that they might have had that made it so successful and gave it that atmosphere, that feeling.”
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With a total remake out of the question, BioWare instead turned to enhancing what was already there. An A.I. up-res program was used to enhance the texture resolution by as much as 16 times, whereupon BioWare went through and touched up virtually every enemy, gun, and piece of armor across the first two games, and much of the third. The team also unified the customization options across all three games, including the updated version of female Shepard introduced in Mass Effect 3, while adding new skin and hair options.
By BioWare standards, it’s come together rather quickly, with Walters crediting former General Manager and Mass Effect 1 Project Director Casey Hudson — who returned for a second stint with BioWare before departing again late last year — with helping to push it over the finish line. But the challenges of updating it have proven interesting, to say the least. Walters likens it to restoring a beautiful, beloved car that’s been buried in concrete, with the team constantly uncovering proprietary tools written specifically for one version of another. And with all three games being unified in one release, BioWare had to be careful about making wholesale changes to elements like animation, calling it a “house of cards that could affect every character across the game.”
Rebuilding the Original Mass Effect
The somewhat ramshackle nature of the original trilogy’s development is most evident in the original Mass Effect, which was first released on Xbox 360 all the way back in 2007. The original game was replete with bugs and framerate issues, and the human characters had glassy eyes that made them look like aliens. It was kind of miserable to play from a technical perspective even when it first came out, which was a big reason why the more polished sequel was so well received when it arrived a few years later.
If there was any one element that Mass Effect: Legendary Edition needed to get right, it was updating the original game, and it was to that task that BioWare devoted a large portion of its limited resources. Everything from the character models to stages like Eden Prime, which has gone from something akin to Star Trek’s Planet Hell to more of a verdant forest planet, has received updates. That includes the gameplay, which has been the subject of so much controversy over the years.
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It’s been a trickier task than most would imagine. The first Mass Effect still has its share of fervent supporters who feel that the sequels dispensed with too many of the RPG elements, such as stats-based gunplay, that defined the original. Pretty much everyone agrees that the first Mass Effect needs to be updated, but doing so in a way that doesn’t alienate one side or another is easier said than done.
“With Mass Effect 1 gameplay we had people who said we should throw it out and bring in [Mass Effect: Andromeda] gameplay somehow, to people who said it was their favorite and we shouldn’t touch it at all,” Meek says. “What we’ve done is through a series of small changes is remove all that friction, where cameras will be tracking nicely behind you and interpolating your movement, or entering into cover a little bit easier. Being able to command your squadmates using your different keys where it needed to be. None of these move you too far away from the soul and what it was before, but it all starts to combine together to a point where going back to the original game to capture footage feels clunky, and hard to move around… it doesn’t feel nice in comparison. I think if we had thrown out the system, we would have definitely lost a lot of people on the ‘Mass Effect 1 is my favorite game’ side.”
The changes are indeed numerous. Improvements include an auto-aim system, more consistent auto save points, and refinements to some of the more frustrating boss encounters, like the fight with Benezia. The infamous elevator rides, which could take more than a minute in the original game, now take fewer than 15 seconds and can be skipped to boot. The once clumsy inventory system is now more in line with that of the PC version, and according to Walters features additional improvements that are designed to smooth away the rough edges without “tearing the whole thing down.”
The gunplay, another point of contention in the original game, has similarly seen major changes. Class-based aim penalties have been removed, meaning that a Vanguard can now effectively carry a sniper rifle. You still can’t train up weapons that aren’t in your class, but “at least you won’t feel completely useless,” Walters says. “The old one I always complained about was that you lined up someone dead to rights with your sniper rifle and yet you still missed,” an experience to which many Mass Effect fans can surely relate.
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Don’t worry though, the old aim cone is still there, it’s just “more generous than it used to be,” Walters says. “[I]t feels more like the aim expression is more tied to your ability, and less tied to some number you don’t see in the background. But for the most part all of the stats, leveling up, and managing your squadmates, we’ve kept true to that.”
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If there’s any reason to pick up Mass Effect: Legendary Edition, it may be to experience the original game again with fresh eyes. Certainly, this is the most attractive the original game has ever looked, running at up to 4K and 60fps with tonemapping, subsurface scattering, depth of field, bloom, and all manner of other enhancements. Even the clumsy Mako, so long the bane of major combat engagements, is getting updated physics, as well as improved controls.
According to Walters, more than a few playtesters say that the original Mass Effect is now their favorite game. No more firing up the old Genesis Comic to roll up a new character and move straight to Mass Effect 2. But of course, you can do that as well in Legendary Edition, if that’s what you really want.
The Problem of Multiplayer
On the flipside, the collection’s one really glaring omission is Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer, which remains popular with a small but dedicated group of fans. The original featured an extensive PvE mode in which up to four players could battle against waves of Reapers, Collectors, and other enemies. It included multiple character classes and races, and progress tied into the single-player campaign’s “Galactic Readiness” rating.
The decision to leave it out of the Legendary Edition was ultimately a matter of “knowing where to draw the line,” Walters says. “It obviously had a lot of challenges. Everything from what you do with crossplay, because that’s kind of an expectation now; what you do with people who are still playing multiplayer now — how do you honor that, how do you bring them in, can we somehow bridge that gap? And of course these aren’t insurmountable challenges, there are things that we can do to fix that problem and get multiplayer in there. But when you look at the amount of effort that it was going to take to do that, it was easily commensurate if not greater than uplifting all of Mass Effect 1, and I think our focus was on the single-player experience.”
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With the single-player comprising the bulk of the original trilogy’s appeal, it’s an understandable decision. Still, it’s a shame given that Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer is actually really good. The Legendary Edition was a great opportunity to bring the mode, which still holds up, back in a big way. Instead, it’s apt to fade out of memory, an increasingly obscure footnote in the overall history of the series.
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But like the decision to use Unreal Engine 3 instead of Unreal Engine 4, it speaks to BioWare’s priorities for the Legendary Edition. Multiplayer would have added a tremendous amount of weight to a project that the team wanted to be as lean and efficient as possible. It just wasn’t going to fit.
Will Mass Effect Still Be Legendary?
If there’s one thing that stands out about Mass Effect: Legendary Edition, it’s how much care BioWare takes to set expectations for this collection. It’s not a remake. It’s not being remastered in Unreal Engine 4. It won’t have multiplayer. It won’t immediately be on Switch, nor will it be available natively on next-gen consoles (“I think it’s just a bridge too far,” Walter says of the latter). It will, to be clear, run in compatibility mode on PS5 and Xbox Series X|S.
Asked why the team fought to keep the scope as narrow and defined as possible, Walters says, “I think it’s kind of what Kevin was getting at before in asking where you draw the line. I could really imagine us trying to chase the magic the first game had. […] Once you go beyond that, every question comes into play. If this scene is going to change anyway, why don’t we change the dialogue? I never really liked that actor, why don’t we get a different actor? At some point it’s not what we had originally, and at that point you do lose the magic of the original, in my opinion.”
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Ultimately, the success of Mass Effect: Legendary Edition will largely depend on how the original game turns out. If BioWare manages to navigate the equivalent of the debris field from famous Mass Effect 2’s Suicide Mission, the collection as a whole will probably be seen as a success. If it isn’t up to snuff, the Legendary Edition’s pragmatic approach will feel limited rather than smart.
One way or another, Shepard’s adventures have needed a modern update for a while now, and mods can only do so much. Mass Effect continues to be one of BioWare’s most enduring works, and it deserves to be experienced and appreciated in 2021. In that at least, the release Mass Effect: Legendary Edition is extremely welcome, no matter how pragmatic it might be.