Get Ready for Legendary Edition With This Mass Effect Retrospective
The original Mass Effect trilogy was and is A Big Deal for a lot of people. The game’s protagonist, Commander Shepard, is of a military rank called N7. Every year, November 7th is a hype day in the fan world, and the studio, BioWare, usually releases new gear and statements about the franchise on this day. And for good reason: Mass Effect (2007) helped launch BioWare into the (potentially struggling) powerhouse it is today.
At that time, BioWare was best known for making successful Xbox-era games by partnering on well-known IP franchises with Wizards of the Coast, the official makers of Dungeons & Dragons, on Baldur’s Gate (1998) and LucasFilm on Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003). The latter is still lauded by many as the best Star Wars game ever made. BioWare wanted to keep making its space epics, but free from the constraints of existing lore; so, they built their own world.
Mass Effect was released in 2007 on the Xbox 360 generation. It was a big year for BioWare; through a series of partnerships, they were formally acquired by EA (bing bing bing baggage alert). (Following suit with their D&D love, BioWare would go on to make their own fantasy world as well with their popular Dragon Age series, which began with the acclaimed 2009 title Dragon Age: Origins.) From there, Mass Effect continued to make history, waves, diehard fans, and enemies.
Even if you’re new to the games, you may have some preconceived ideas of Mass Effect (for example “2 is apparently the best,” “People hate the third one for some reason,” and “Was Andromeda really that bad?”), and for good reason—it’s been one of the most hotly discussed franchises for the last 10+ years, with commentary on its associated drama frequently appearing in mainstream news outlets. So, if you’re thinking of checking out Mass Effect: Legendary Edition (which I hope you do! And yes, I pre-ordered, perhaps like a fool???) when it comes out on May 14, you may be thinking, Jerry Seinfeld style, “What’s the deal with Mass Effect?” Allow me to assist you.
Here’s what you might want or need to know before going into Mass Effect: Legendary Edition (with no spoilers!):
An Introduction to Each Mass Effect Series Entry
Mass Effect: The Overachieving Firstborn Who Struggled
She tried so hard to be good for the family, and we will always love her for that. Mass Effect paved the way for the rest of the series (obviously) and empowered BioWare to build a unique intellectual property for over a decade. There are some truly stellar moments and levels in Mass Effect that hold up. I even wrote about how the opening choices made me cry. We’ll always have to give her credit for being the trailblazer, even though she’s definitely not perfect.
Mass Effect tried to do a lot, and it often struggled against the foundations of gaming that were available in 2007. The inventory system is generally understood to be Extremely Painful, and combat here is the roughest by far in any of the games (which makes it tough to recommend considering it’s a third-person shooter RPG by trade). There are dozens of infamous elevators that were conveniently used for the game to load, but these elevators could take a long time, and if you made the mistake of saving in one while you waited, your game could glitch permanently and lose your save file. The most hotly debated element of Mass Effect is the Mako: not the moody pretty boy from Korra unfortunately, but the name of a land rover that provided an element of car-driving that seemed a prerequisite for every game in the 2000s. Players would drive several minutes in the Mako over a planet from one location to another with nothing really happening. The Mako was so poorly received that it didn’t show up for the next two games. Speaking of which….
Mass Effect 2: The Golden Girl
Everybody loves her. She’s at the top of everyone’s lists (including our own forthcoming Xbox 360 Hall of Fame piece with Sam and David). She won the crown years ago and people still talk about her. Who is it? Who else can it be! Why do people still talk about Mass Effect 2, over 10 years later?
For one, it improved massively on its own legacy. Mass Effect 2 shook away a lot of the imperfections and unnecessary bits of its predecessor. The BioWare team honed in on what people. They built intense emotional backstories with an unprecedented focus on companions. This sequel featured a diverse array of quests and significant opportunities for freedom of choice.
Perhaps what’s most impressive is that the story team did something very clever at the beginning of Mass Effect 2 that made it easy for new players to start here without ever having played the first one. So, it can stand alone easily, but for anyone playing the series through, there are tons of thoughtful and exciting callback moments that resonate on a deeper level. If people have only played one Mass Effect, it’s this one. And if you’ve played every single one, like me, this is the one you always talk about.
Plus, without spoilers, Martin Sheen plays a significant character in this game and they even did face capture on him. Yeah, that Martin Sheen. I had no idea going into the game for the first time that he’d be in there lol.
Mass Effect 3: The Complicated One
People have a lot of feelings about this guy. He’s your friend that you know’s going to show up at the party, whether you invited him or not; sometimes he’s buying drinks for everyone, and sometimes he’s yelling at the center of the room for someone to pay attention to him and you’re apologizing to the rest of your friends. If you were in the gaming world in 2012, you would’ve heard from the angry fandom. There’s even a whole section of the game’s Wikipedia article about its controversy (don’t read it if you don’t want spoilers). I’ll boil it down for you.
Mass Effect 3 comes to its final resting place as it was always meant to after years of thoughtful storytelling. As it goes toward its inevitable end, there is one final choice that gives the player one of three, fairly similar, epilogues about how the world turns out. And people really, really, really, really, really did not like this. Fans’ main beef is that the game has been marketed for years as one of Choice with a capital c, and that this final choice is a lie and reduces the quality of the overall experience.
This had a meta impact on the game world at large. As a result of fan outrage, BioWare created a free update that added tons of new content to the last few hours of the game and then also dropped (in my opinion, its best) DLC that can be played before the final battle for a stellar emotional crescendo. Many industry folx point to this moment as one that changed the relationship between developers and fans forever. It showed that fans could wield collective power, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.
I came to the Mass Effect series late, and so when I finished ME3 (complete with the free update and DLC already), I was slightly disoriented and sad when it ended. So, I went online to read about it and reviewed the fallout. I’ve thought about ME3 and its controversy a lot over the last few years, and here’s my take…
Mass Effect 3 is a good game. In many ways, I would even say it’s a great game. BioWare fixed so many issues of the first and built upon excellences from the second. The combat is the best in the trilogy. The character writing is phenomenal; I legit cried at one character’s death, and laughed at another’s jokes. There are some amazing, giant set-pieces and battles in this game. Life comes full circle in this one. Mass Effect 3 is the end of an epic. It was always going to have to end, and in the world we live in, much less the world of Mass Effect, there are no easy happy endings. I think Mass Effect 3, with its incorporated content and DLC, ultimately sticks its landing.
We won’t know for sure what’s been changed for Legendary Edition until it’s released; the easiest fix I can imagine would be to rearrange some quest ordering to make the last third of the game feel more nuanced and natural. But even if ME3 is incorporated exactly as it was when it was originally released nine years ago, I still think it’s a worthwhile game. For me, the series, much less this installment, is no way ruined by five minutes of the ending that a lot of people felt was an injustice. More than anything, I felt grateful for this enrapturing game that had come into my life for $5 in a used bin at a GameStop in Rhode Island.
Mass Effect: Andromeda: The Stepchild
This is that gif of Jay-Z opening the door and making that “oooph” face and turning away. The announcement of Mass Effect: Andromeda came out of the blue for a lot of fans in 2017, five years after the fateful ME3 debacle, and people were freaking out. They were calling it ME4 (spoiler alert: They do not call it that anymore). The game cleverly takes place in another galaxy (i.e., Andromeda, hence the name) and so this game is not affiliated with any issues around a “canon” ending of Mass Effect 3. It was built by a spin-off studio, BioWare Montreal (why, you ask? I’ll tell you in a minute).
Mass Effect: Andromeda never had a chance. The game was absolutely blasted in early reviews for clunky facial animations and pretty lame/poorly built quests. Furthermore, there were several odd choices on characterization that angered series fans: BioWare, normally pretty inclusive, had underwhelming queer romances especially around characters that seemed coded to be queer (which happened in ME2, also) and a trans NPC had a questionable line about their journey. BioWare worked hard to address and handle all of these issues as they came up, but it couldn’t stem the tides of Mass Effect: Andromeda being called “the year’s biggest disappointment” in several gaming outlets. It was dead on arrival with a damning Metacritic score in the low 70s.
I don’t think it’s a completely garbage game. One of the planets is exceptionally beautiful with a sort of purple rainforest dinosaur flavor, there’s some fun crewmates-hanging-out-on-the-spaceship dialogue a la Firefly (though I think The Outer Worlds does this better), and Kumail Nanjiani does some excellent voice acting as an NPC. I’ll just come out and say it: Mass Effect: Andromeda is just fine.
Mass Effect: Andromeda is a salad you order to be healthy as it doesn’t have goat cheese or croutons or anything fun but it’s not wilty or covered in bad dressing. It’s the used IKEA bookshelf you buy on Craigslist that’s got a few scratches and smells faintly of cat pee but hey you know it does hold books. It’s the game you play because you bought it so you could have anything of the world you used to love, and you take what it gives you: some genuinely fun combat, a reintroduction to the Mako you didn’t need, and one really cool bad guy, Reyes Vidal, who needed more airtime. But you will never, ever replay this game, and given the other games that came out in 2017 (Horizon: Zero Dawn, Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, Cuphead), you can understand why no one besides diehard fans went out of their way to play it in the first place.
Anthem: The Messy Cousin
You might say to yourself, “But Amanda, this game doesn’t have the phrase ‘Mass Effect’ in the title?” Trust me, Dear Reader, I know, and I wish it wasn’t this way. Anthem is your old school buddy who’s in town and invites you to a party, promises you it’ll be “lit af,” and then uh, it’s super not lit and you feel extremely awkward for coming through and you don’t want to leave because he keeps coming up to you and saying, “You’re having fun, right?”
You may already know of Anthem, BioWare’s (and, perhaps more notably, EA’s) attempt to enter the Games as a Service field that is booming a la Destiny 2, Fortnite, APEX Legends, Elder Scrolls Online—i.e., any game where people will continue to play it with other people on the internet and pay real money for a long time. The important thing to know: Anthem was built simultaneously as Mass Effect: Andromeda by the OG BioWare studio, BioWare Edmonton.
Games reporter Jason Schreier wrote a scathing investigative report in 2019 on Anthem’s development at BioWare; the TLDR is that it seems BioWare should’ve focused its energy on creating one game, perhaps one with elements of Anthem, built into the already strong Mass Effect franchise. Instead, BioWare released two just-OK space shooter RPG games that under-performed and were pretty ridiculed throughout their life cycle. (BioWare announced the official shutdown of Anthem in February 2021.) For the purpose of the Mass Effect franchise, the disconnect between Anthem and Mass Effect: Andromeda is where a lot of fans felt concern and loss over the studio they thought they knew and loved.
Mass Effect: Legendary Edition: The Hero’s Homecoming
In the age of Netflix reboots and remaster-remakes (Final Fantasy VII, Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1+2, Dark Souls just to name a few), the Mass Effect fan base has been vocal about the desire for a remaster of the original trilogy for years. And with the flunks of Andromeda and Anthem, fans noted that it would make sense for the studio, too, if they could manage to transfer the graphic assets to a new engine; a known quantity like a remaster would surely be a slam dunk financially.
In the dark age of 2020, we finally got our wish on N7 Day. Mass Effect: Legendary Edition will not only have the original three games bundled together, but it will also include all the DLC, which is huge. BioWare produced truly excellent standalone and add-on DLC content that included whole planets’ worth of quests and new characters. Even if nothing in the game changes but the graphics (and me not having to tote around three Xbox 360 discs for the rest of my life), it’ll be great. Fans of the series are hyped.
What You Need to Know About Mass Effect Before Playing Legendary Edition
For those of you new to the franchise (or who may have only played Mass Effect 2, which I get tbh), here are some things about the actual content of the games themselves:
The World Lore
The first Mass Effect does a phenomenal job setting up the world and taking its time to introduce you to all the other characters and factors, so I won’t belabor you with too many details (and furthermore, I don’t think you need to go out of your way to read anything else).
A couple hundred years into the future, light speed space travel is possible and has brought the humans of Earth into contact with troves of cool aliens. The UN of the space future is called The Council, and they are the great deciders of galactic law and justice. The Council sits at the NYC equivalent in a planet-station called the Citadel. Humans are the new kid (species) on the block (the universe), and the protagonist that you play, Commander Shepard, is humanity’s up and coming star.
The protagonist of the trilogy is named after Alan Shepard, the first American man to travel into space. The character is affectionally “Shep” within and outside of the game, and was integral during the game’s development. The BioWare marketing team encouraged studio heads to create an iconic lead to compete with popular games of the era (see: Master Chief of Halo fame). Only the male version was really featured in the game’s marketing. So, when players discovered the excellence of the female Shepard option, voiced with incredible finesse by Jennifer Hale, there was a massive outpouring of love from players across the gender identity spectrum. FemShep, as she is known in the fandom, is a badass. She is strong, smart, thoughtful, funny, flirtatious, and takes no bullshit.
One male gamer I talked to shared how his surprise love for FemShep changed how he viewed equality and representation in games; he now exclusively picks female variants of protagonists. Kotaku once profiled why women love companion Garrus so much, who can be romanced by a FemShep. For me, FemShep is an icon, and I freaked out when she finally got the attention she deserved with this year’s launch trailer. On the other side, the fandom has deemed the male version “BroShep.” People who pick BroShep lovingly make fun of some of his clunkier face modeling and unilateral mood response of, “Huh, I’m a tough guy, hehe” vibe to any conversation. They also may have a soft spot for a character that can only be romanced by a male Shepard. You can customize the appearance (and basic character background) of your Shepard.
No matter what BioWare changes for Mass Effect: Legendary Edition, the bones of the games will be the same. It is a third-person action shooter and RPG. Players will upgrade gear and customize the skillsets of Commander Shepard; you can choose from different archetypes, including one with sniper skills or biotics, the Mass Effect world’s equivalent of human evolved magic-y superpowers. There’s a lot of shooting evil, non-humanoid aliens.
Core to the BioWare experience are well-written characters with lots and lots of talking. You can develop relationships (platonic and romantic) that build and evolve over the arc of the entire series. When Commander Shepard talks to an NPC, you’ll often choose between two kinds of answers: Paragon, i.e., a good person response, or Renegade, basically an asshole, which can be fun too.
Mass Effect: Legendary Edition Release Date and Platforms
Mass Effect: Legendary Edition releases on May 14, 2021 for PC, Xbox One, and PS4, for $60. It will be forward-compatible with Xbox Series X and PS5.
Curious about changes and upgrades for Mass Effect: Legendary Edition? Check out out spoiler-free preview, “5 Great Things About the Originals and 5 Hopes for Legendary Edition.”
Lead art and final art image credit: Game Informer cover issues.