Republished on Wednesday 30th November 2022: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of December's PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.
One of gaming's most beloved trilogies is back, and quite frankly, it's better than ever. If you loved the intergalactic adventures of Commander Shepard the first time around, then you're obviously going to love Mass Effect Legendary Edition. And if you never had a chance to play the originals? This collection represents a perfect excuse to jump in and see what all the fuss was about.
In case you're totally out of the loop (or desire a quick refresher course), Legendary Edition includes three remastered games: Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2, and Mass Effect 3. The second and third entries are direct sequels, and back in the day, one of the trilogy's main selling points was that your role-playing choices carry over into subsequent games. By the time you get to Mass Effect 3, you'll have made numerous, hugely important decisions that alter the course of what is an epic sci-fi saga.
Throughout all three titles, you assume the role of Commander Shepard — a human military officer who's yours to customise. An overarching story of imminent galactic peril ties the trilogy together, with Shepard at the heart of everything that happens.
In this review, we'll be looking at each Mass Effect game individually, in order to better analyse what makes them tick. But before we get into specifics, we should talk about performance.
As a remastered package, Legendary Edition is just about everything that you could want. Visuals have been noticeably improved, with higher quality assets, textures, and an overhauled lighting engine. Everything runs a bit smoother, and the infamously long load times have been cut down to mere seconds.
On PlayStation 5 via backwards compatibility, Legendary Edition runs at a buttery smooth 60 frames-per-second, in 4K resolution. It makes for an impressively crisp experience, and is without a doubt the best way to play. But even on PS4, it's rock solid. On PS4 Pro, you get to choose between a higher resolution at 30fps, or 1080p at 60fps.
And for games like Mass Effect, that 60fps makes a big difference. When it comes to action, all three titles are essentially third-person, cover-based shooters — so having a smooth frame-rate is a real plus. If you've only ever played through the trilogy on PS3 — where the frame-rate had a tendency to stutter — then you'll definitely appreciate Legendary Edition's upgrade.
It's also worth pointing out that Legendary Edition bundles all of the DLC for all three games into the deal (aside from Mass Effect's Pinnacle Station DLC, which was apparently lost years ago). Additional weapons, armour, missions, and full-blown expansions are all included.
Even back when it first released in 2007, Mass Effect was a janky, awkward game. When it arrived on PS3 five years later (it was originally published by Microsoft before EA bought developer BioWare), it was nothing short of a chore to play. To be bearable in 2021, Mass Effect needed a lot of work — and BioWare has thankfully delivered.
The first Mass Effect has been overhauled quite dramatically in Legendary Edition. Entire environments have been rebuilt with better looking assets, and the gameplay has been tightened up considerably. The result is an RPG-shooter that actually feels okay to play, and trust us when we say that's a real achievement.
Mass Effect is where it all begins. Commander Shepard discovers a device that gives him or her premonitions of galactic destruction, and then you set off in search of salvation. The first game has you chase down a rogue agent named Saren — who's hellbent on bringing about the aforementioned apocalypse — but Shepard's mission is roadblocked by the galaxy's alien rulers. Humanity is the new kid on the block, and it's yet to earn the trust of its extra-terrestrial peers, who have been on the galactic scene for up to thousands of years.
This setup leads to a lot of political intrigue, and Mass Effect does a fantastic job of bringing you up to speed. The first game is all about setting the stage; it introduces you to the series' main alien races, all of whom are distinct and well developed. Mass Effect's world building is among the best in gaming, and although it does borrow a lot of concepts from various sci-fi media, it pulls everything together expertly.
Shepard's inaugural journey sees you visit several planets, each defined by a key quest or two. The Mass Effect series is linear in overall structure, but you're usually free to choose the order of your missions, along with the team that will accompany you. And this is where BioWare's sci-fi property excels; it's home to some of the most beloved and well written characters in video games.
Many of them are right here in the first Mass Effect. Shepard builds a diverse team of elite soldiers early on, and this gives the cast plenty of time to develop. Through the series' trademark dialogue wheel, you interact with your allies aboard the Normandy — Shepard's very own starship. You get to know their hopes and struggles, and each character adds to the already impressive world building, providing personal insights into the workings of this intergalactic future.
There's an old school charm to Mass Effect — a kind of whimsy that's mostly lost by the time Mass Effect 2 rolls around. That's not to say it isn't a serious game — it tackles a lot in-depth themes — but you can tell that it's been built on the back of the often goofy Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic — BioWare's previous RPG hit.
An inherent jankiness permeates the first Mass Effect, and at times it's hard to ignore — even with all of the work that's gone into Legendary Edition. Facial and body animations are so basic and stiff that cutscenes can come across as comical, and that stiffness bleeds into gameplay as well.
Again, Mass Effect is essentially a cover-based shooter, but it incorporates special abilities that you can unleash in battle. Abilities work on a cooldown system, which gives combat an enjoyable ebb and flow. Well, when they decide to work, at least. The targeting in Mass Effect is unwieldy at best, and until you're used to the jank, you're going to be hitting a whole lot of nothing with your attacks. Coupled with some extreme gun recoil and horribly unreliable aiming reticules in the original release, it's no wonder Mass Effect could be so frustrating to play.
Thankfully, as mentioned, BioWare has improved gunplay immeasurably for Legendary Edition. There's now a tightness to aiming and shooting that simply didn't exist before, and it makes combat infinitely better. By today's standards, Mass Effect's gunfights are still incredibly basic and very static — but they no longer drag the experience down.
The Mako, on the other hand, is still a bit rubbish. Essentially a six-wheeled space tank that Shepard and co pilot across the surfaces of alien worlds, the Mako adds a sense of exploration to Mass Effect. You can use it to traverse numerous planets, many of which are optional destinations. However, these worlds are mostly barren wastelands with nice looking skyboxes. After a while, the size of these areas starts to feel like padding.
The Mako is also capable of defending itself, but vehicular combat is even more basic than Shepard's on-foot firefights. Armed with a big old cannon, you'll be blasting defence turrets and mowing down helpless infantry units in the Mako, but its sluggishness means that most battles devolve into hammering the trigger and not much else. Mass Effect's vehicular escapades do provide something different, but it's no real surprise that the Mako was dropped for Mass Effect 2 and 3.
With Legendary Edition, Mass Effect looks and plays better than ever, but the title's age still shows. In terms of gameplay, Mass Effect remains the weakest entry in the trilogy by some distance, but in its world building, characters, and writing, it's still a classic RPG.
Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect 2 was a leap forward for BioWare's series, and even with Mass Effect's Legendary Edition enhancements, it still feels like an evolution. Many would argue that Mass Effect 2 is the pinnacle of the franchise — and we'd probably agree.
Compared to the first game, Mass Effect 2 adopts a grittier tone. Shepard is no longer a cut-and-dry military man or woman — he or she is roped into working with Cerberus, a humanity-first extremist group that's out to protect mankind's colony worlds. Thousands of humans are going missing all across the galaxy, and Shepard is tasked with assembling an unmatched team of specialists in order to launch a suicide mission against this unknown threat.
Immediately, Mass Effect 2's setup is less about adventure, and more about personal stories. The title's overarching plot is told over the course of just a few missions, but the meat of Mass Effect 2 is building your squad. To do so, Shepard has to scour the galaxy for bounty hunters, assassins, and scientists, with each character having their own reasons for joining the Commander's crusade. For the main cast of a 40-or-so hour game, it's a long list of diverse personalities — but BioWare's snappy writing ensures that everyone has a place.
Every potential squadmate has their own recruitment mission, and once you get to know your new allies aboard the Normandy, you unlock their loyalty missions — personal tasks where Shepard earns the trust of his or her crew. Mass Effect 2 is very episodic in structure, and it works wonderfully. Each mission gives you something new to think about — a new perspective on the characters involved, or a new motivation. As such, the game's pacing feels fantastic — there's always something to look forward to, and there's very little downtime.
The pacing is a definite improvement over the first Mass Effect, and so is the level design. The environments of the sequel have a lot more detail and personality to them, with the likes of lawless asteroid Omega, with its thumping night clubs and dingy orange hue being particularly memorable. This advancement in level design also bolsters the game's combat scenarios. Mass Effect 2's encounters are much better realised, with more varied enemy types demanding more involved tactics.
Unlike its predecessor, Mass Effect 2's combat hasn't really been touched for Legendary Edition, but that's not necessarily a problem. While it does feel a bit dated and stunted here in 2021, it's still a solid third-person shooter, and character abilities have a lot more kick to them. Likewise, the guns themselves have a noticeable punchiness, giving most firefights a satisfying edge.
Mass Effect 2's many character-driven stories lead up to the all-important suicide mission — arguably the most impactful mission in all of Mass Effect. This is where the choices that you've made throughout the game come to a head. Squadmates can die if you're underprepared, and it can be a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. It's a great climax to a brilliant RPG.
But is it as much of an RPG as the first game? There's no question that with each instalment, Mass Effect has drifted further from its RPG roots — and Mass Effect 2 streamlines a lot of systems. On the one hand, this helps with the game's aforementioned episodic pacing — you're not dipping into the inventory menu every 30 seconds to equip newly acquired loot like in Mass Effect. But on the other, it feels like you have less control over who Shepard is.
In Mass Effect 2, player choice is completely skewed by the Paragon and Renegade system, which is even more restrictive than it was in the previous game. Basically, you're forced to pick one or the other. Paragon is the path of the war hero — the commander that will always save innocent lives over crushing the enemy. On the flip side, Renegade is the ruthlessly efficient leader who gets the job done, no matter the cost.
Performing heroic actions and picking 'positive' dialogue options increases your Paragon rating; ruthless actions and choosing 'negative' dialogue options makes you more of a Renegade. The problem is, some key dialogue decisions are locked behind your Paragon and Renegade ratings — you need to have a certain amount of points in either rating to get what are effectively the best outcomes during main missions. In turn, this means that you have to stick to one path — Paragon or Renegade — in order to rack up the necessary points. Those looking for a true role-playing experience may find the two-pronged system frustrating.
Overall, though, Mass Effect 2 still stands as one of BioWare's best games. Memorable characters and memorable missions make for a stellar sequel.
Mass Effect 3
Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 are role-playing games with third-person shooter combat. Mass Effect 3, however, often feels more like a third-person shooter with RPG elements. The final instalment in the story of Commander Shepard, Mass Effect 3 is easily the trilogy's most divisive game. Its overall direction, the creative vision behind it, and its infamous ending have kept people talking about Mass Effect 3 for almost a decade.
But having played it again all these years later thanks to Legendary Edition, we're confident in saying that Mass Effect 3 is a great game. It's just a bit... Different.
Mass Effect 3 moves on from the character-driven stories of Mass Effect 2 and transforms itself into a full-blown wartime drama. The Reaper threat that Shepard's been fighting against for two whole games has finally emerged on a galactic scale — and seemingly nothing can stop it.
Right from the start, Mass Effect 3 leans into darker, more serious territory. Humans and the alien races that you've come to know over the course of the trilogy are flung headfirst into an apparently unwinnable war for survival. Billions of people are being slaughtered all across the galaxy, and the game reminds you of the doom and gloom constantly. It's quite a far cry from the almost comic book escapades of Mass Effect 2.
The stakes have never been higher, and with uncountable lives resting on Shepard's shoulders, the Commander is tasked with uniting the galaxy's most powerful militaries for one final assault. With absolutely everything on the line, it's no surprise that the game has an oppressive atmosphere, but there are still touching character moments dotted throughout, reminding Shepard of what he or she is fighting for.
Again, jumping from the swashbuckling charm of Mass Effect 2 to the outright apocalyptic vibes of Mass Effect 3 is jarring, but immerse yourself in Shepard's last stand and there are some truly gripping moments to be found in this finale.
Indeed, Mass Effect 3 features some of the very best missions in the trilogy, and it helps that the action is a drastic cut above. A significantly overhauled combat system grants Shepard some much needed agility. You sprint faster, you've got a dodge roll, and you can slip between cover with the push of a button. It all makes a massive difference, and when combined with much tighter gunplay, way more effective abilities, and an impressive amount of enemy variety, Mass Effect 3 is still fantastic fun to play.
Likewise, Mass Effect 3 marks a real evolution in BioWare's level design. Complete with some stunning skyboxes, the third game boasts some top tier environments, and fighting through them is largely a joy. Coming off the back of Mass Effect 2's rather static locations, Mass Effect 3's more open, more dynamic battlefields allow for a much greater sense of player agency — especially when it comes to tactical thinking.
But as alluded, this third instalment does step away from the series' role-playing roots — even when compared to Mass Effect 2. Most notably, Shepard's dialogue is far more automated. In the previous games, you're hit with a dialogue choice just about every other line, but here, you're lucky to get one or two choices per conversation.
In hindsight, it's perhaps a necessary limitation. It's easy to forget that Mass Effect 3 has to take all of your previous decisions into account — decisions that span three whole games. The permutations of Mass Effect 3's story can differ dramatically, and it's still seriously impressive to think about how everything feeds into the trilogy's final act. Nine years removed from the release of Mass Effect 3, and there's still nothing quite like it.
For the most part, Mass Effect 3 makes for a worthy finale, but there's just no getting away from that ending. We won't spoil it here, but there's a reason why it's still debated to this day. Considering how well the rest of the trilogy incorporates player choice and the consequences of your actions, the ending of Mass Effect 3 still feels like a total misstep. We certainly wouldn't go as far to say that it ruins the trilogy — not when all three games have such fantastic qualities — but it's still weak in the grand scheme of things.
Thankfully, Mass Effect 3 has the Citadel DLC, which is pretty much the last hurrah that the trilogy deserves. It brings the whole gang back together, and although a lot of it relies on pure fan service, it remains an outstanding slice of additional content. In fact, we'd go as far to say that Mass Effect 3's three expansions — Leviathan, Omega, and Citadel — elevate the experience to a very large degree.
Mass Effect Legendary Edition is the remastered collection that the trilogy deserves. Playing these games back-to-back showcases the immensely impressive scope of BioWare's series — an ambitious project the likes of which we haven't seen since. In some ways, all three titles are showing their age — but excellent character writing and exceptional world building make this a timeless trilogy. An emotional and truly memorable experience, from start to finish.