13 years later, Mass Effect holds up—but hits different

Articles: Gaming
Jul 20, 2021 Written by:Whitson Gordon

I was shaking down a local criminal, looking for information on a missing person. It was a small errand in the scheme of my mission—saving the universe from an ancient race of machines—but it was necessary. Yet every step of the way, chumps like this were holding me up. After waking up from a two-year coma, my girlfriend having moved on, while I was forced to work with a terrorist organization I didn't believe in...one tends to lose patience.

“I don’t have time for this,” I muttered under my breath as I shoved him to the ground and put my foot on his neck. My temper got the better of me, but every second we wasted was a second closer to more people dying, all because a petty delinquent wouldn't let us through the door. It was in this moment that Mass Effect truly sold me on a new era of video games, and that's the reason I jumped at the chance to buy the remastered Mass Effect: Legendary Edition as soon as it dropped.


Image source: Gamesplanet

Mass Effect wasn’t the first game to allow moral choices, but it was the first in which I started leaning less-than-pure in some of those decisions. I’d never played a game that made me feel a part of the world, like I was inhabiting my character’s skin, with all the love and frustration that comes with their life. So after one and a half games of obstacles impeding my mission, I—and by extension, my character— started to get a bit testy. To this day, few games have pulled me in quite like this, and it remains my favorite video game of all time.

So when I launched the 4K remaster for the first time, I felt a twinge of anxiety. I still remembered Mass Effect as the paragon of story-driven single-player games, and I was afraid it wouldn't live up to my memories. After all, we’ve had a decade of improvements in 3D graphics, gameplay, and character writing since then. Plus, I rarely re-play games, let alone pay for them twice, so there was a lot on the line.


Image source: Gamesplanet

Thankfully, the new version maintains the feel of the original while adding modern enhancements. Despite being a fairly light overhaul, with only mild improvements to controls and gameplay, the tech in Mass Effect: Legendary Edition remains solid. Combat feels fluid and precise, particularly in the later games, and the RPG mechanics still strike a fantastic balance between ease of use and customizability, letting me fine-tune my own style of play.

But the real excitement comes from the high-res textures and added HDR. Playing at 4K is glorious, eliminating the jagged aliasing that was present in so many games of this era, and the new textures feel like an enormous upgrade, allowing me to see the fine detail in Tali’s armor or Garrus’ war-torn face. (And if your PC can’t hit 4K, even 1440p looks excellent.)

High dynamic range makes the mass relays burst with bright energy, while planets like Ilos showcase deep color. The lighting has been overhauled to be more realistic, but it’s the sci-fi and fantasy settings that truly make the most of what modern HDR displays have to offer, especially if you can hit the much-coveted 1400 nits of peak brightness.

Oh, and let’s not forget about the fast loading times offered by a new age of SSDs, allowing you to get into the action faster than ever.

I expected the tech improvements to be stellar, but what I didn’t expect was how the story would hit me 10 years later. Mass Effect's strength has always been in its writing and world-building, and thankfully, that hasn't changed. It's still one of the strongest sci-fi worlds to date, with characters that make me feel like I’m building a team of people, not a roster of 1s and 0s. There aren't many games that can make me care this much about the actors in this digital world.


Image source: Gamesplanet

But while I still feel a connection to these characters, I'm responding differently to them than I did during my first two playthroughs. I'm older, wiser, and more jaded about the real world, and all of that bleeds into this incarnation of Commander Shepard. I no longer see Garrus as the brash C-Sec operative who needs to be reined in; he’s my most trusted advisor in deciding where the line falls. I have much less patience for Ashley's attitude, and am more drawn to Liara's calm, almost naive curiosity. New characters, like Kasumi, intrigue me with stories I didn’t get to play the first time around, thanks to all the included DLC. (Be sure to play the Leviathan side mission in Mass Effect 3—trust me.)

All these elements coalesce into a game that transcends the medium. In some role-playing games, I feel like I’m pulling levers behind a flimsy curtain. In Mass Effect, I make real decisions that affect real people, with lives and hopes and dreams. Those moments between missions are still my favorite, allowing me to get to know them on a deeper level. And sure, a few of those levers are visible now. I'm far less suspicious of Miranda and Jacob, since I now know they aren't going to betray me. But even with fewer surprises, Mass Effect feels as poignant as ever.


Image source: Gamesplanet

I wish I could go back and play it again with unspoilt eyes, like I did all those years ago. I’ll never truly regain that wide-eyed awe that drew me in the first time I experienced the trilogy, but a decade later, I'm seeing these games through a new lens, and that's almost as exciting. Whether you’re on your fourth playthrough or you’re a total newcomer to the series, you won’t be disappointed.

By Whitson Gordon