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access_time June 29, 2021 at 10:00 AM in Reviews by Josh Boykin

Review | Mass Effect: Legendary Edition

Mass Effect was a landmark franchise for me when it originally released. Chronicling the adventures of Shepard and their crew, it broke many of my concepts of what a video game could be. Joshua Shepard was the first fully voiced Black character I ever played (designing my own personal Shepard). Over the course of three games, I got to know a crew of characters I regarded as a sort of family. I made romantic choices. I did the right thing to save the universe…and eventually, sometimes I didn’t. I still remember experiencing the more tragic parts of Mass Effect 3 for the first time, feeling the magnitude of the threat our little band faced together. I wore my real-life N7 hoodie with pride, thrilled whenever I saw other people wearing clothes with the insignia. There’s no denying the effect (ugh, pun, I guess) these games have had on my life.

It’s been nearly ten years since the release of Mass Effect 3, the conclusion of Shepard’s trilogy. After the less-than-stellar launch of Mass Effect: Andromeda, Mass Effect: Legendary Edition gives players a chance to play Shepard’s story on current-gen consoles. This comes with the expected updates: all three games in one package, including DLC, with 4K and HDR support. Sadly, Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer didn’t make the cut. The studio releasing the game, Bioware, even made subtle improvements, like changing the handling of the first game’s armored tank: the Mako. For those who are franchise devotees, scouring the internet for fanfiction, or who proudly showcase their Paragon/Renegade tattoos, there’s no doubt this release will be a welcome treat.

That said, I feel like this might be a different story for newcomers to the series. Or for people like myself, who, even though the games hold a special place in my heart, come to them now with nearly 10 years of new experiences (and new games) to compare them to. Mass Effect: Legendary Edition gives plenty to love in its 100+ hours of content, but that love comes with caveats.  And, even though I still have love for the franchise, it’s hard to look past some of the game’s more dated design decisions. 

Mass Effect is an epic space opera action-RPG. It takes you and your squad all over the galaxy chasing down threats to not just humanity, but life itself. As Shepard, a military hero turned galactic special agent (called a Spectre), you’ll deal with a host of plots and sub-plots, meeting party members from a range of species who contribute to your cause. The game lets you choose how you’ll save the galaxy though: are you a model citizen Paragon, or a ruthless, tough Renegade? Your dialog choices and gameplay sets the alignment of your character, changing everything from minor to major plot points. Along the way, you’ll also have the chance to find love by romancing party members, providing an extra personal touch (sometimes pun intended) on your journey.

It’s the storytelling and characters that make Mass Effect: Legendary Edition such a great opportunity. The combat does improve over time, especially after the first game in the series. Despite this, it feels in many ways like a rudimentary third-person shooter, especially in 2021. Enemies don’t recoil much from taking fire, assigning targets and combat actions to party members is a dice roll of effectiveness, and weapon/armor management can feel a bit fiddly. It’s the interactions with the fully voice-acted cast that make the real memories; going through what equates to years with these party members as you tackle challenges both large and small together. You can also talk to the crew on your ship, the Normandy, learning more about their histories and cement bonds. It’s those moments more than the gunplay that tend to stick in the head.

That said, the same storytelling and characters are part of what makes Mass Effect: Legendary Edition complicated in a modern context. Xenophobia and racism are big themes of the game, and Mass Effect does what many sci-fi/fantasy settings do: uses “space racism” as a substitute for discussions of real-life racism…and not always to great effect. It’s compounded by the Paragon/Renegade system, where many of the Renegade options are either outright racist or just…cartoonishly bad?

By the time Mass Effect 3 rolls around, some of those dialog choices feel more nuanced. Renegade feels less about being “bad” and more about doing good, but probably not a role model by conventional standards. If you’re new to the franchise and don’t know that though, it’s hard to feel like there’s actually “choice” in the dialog early on. I don’t remember these sticking out as issues for me when I first played the game in the late 2000s…but just like the series, I’ve aged as well.

In 2021, it’s hard not to think about how Shepard’s Spectre status allows them to kill people without impunity AND have it sanctioned by the government. It’s hard not to think about the moral implications of romancing (potentially multiple) subordinates in your command without clear discussions and disclosures. It’s hard not to see police and military powers going unchecked and not think about the ways similar power structures have had real-world consequences for many without that power. This is a triple-A, big-budget franchise that released in an era where white men with military-style buzz cuts were the default protagonist. “Dark and edgy” seemed to be the chief operating procedure, and those effects showed.

There’s at least a good thing about reflecting on the series now in 2021. It’s hard not to think about how Mass Effect set the stage for a host of great gaming to come. It provided (some) LGBT+ romance options that were incredibly meaningful for many players who might not have had them before. It created three games (and DLC) worth of drama and intrigue, weaving a complex world of characters that felt shaped by the player’s actions in meaningful ways (and we’re not going to talk about the original ending of ME3 here).

Most of all, it showed the power of genuine connection. Not just the large-scale successes, but the small moments: a scientist sharing a silly song. A friend lamenting the destruction of his hometown. A battle buddy finally opening up about some of their trauma. A first kiss from someone you’ve been pining after. Even with the flaws, Mass Effect still provides a space to understand and appreciate the humanity we carry in our lives. All this, even in situations and systems that can feel broken. Playing Mass Effect: Legendary Edition today shows that even though we’ve got a ways to go, we’ve come pretty far.

Honestly, I’m so appreciative that Bioware re-released this trilogy. It’s a landmark piece of gaming history. It makes me appreciate not just the franchise itself, but the ways the game industry’s grown as well. It’s great thinking about developers and indie titles inspired by Mass Effect. The same goes for the modern AAA games that matured in its wake. It may not be perfect, but neither are any of us. It’s a product of its time trying to make the space better, and it did quite the job.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

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