Let’s put one thing right on the table. I have always had a love-hate relationship with Mass Effect 1. I love its story, its characters, and its choices. Narratively, it’s a great kickoff to the trilogy that sets a great early tone and makes a lot of things you do matter both now and later. What I have never liked is playing most of the game outside the progression of that main story… Its driving segments and planet exploration, its combat, the constant spew of inventory, and the side quests that distract me, yet are necessary to get the most out of the A to B core narrative. Out of all the games in Mass Effect Legendary Edition, Mass Effect 1 was set to get the biggest facelift, and so I was most interested in it. It did. BioWare polished the holy heck out of it and made a lot of unbearable things tolerable for 2021… but the things that always drained the fun out are still there. They just drain less than before.
The Normandy Crew & Shepard too… redux
Maybe the biggest thing anyone will notice right out of the gate if they spent any amount of time with Mass Effect 1 originally is just how pretty it looks. A major priority for BioWare was creating new textures, polishing up old ones where applicable, and bringing the most they could out of the visuals of the game. When you arrive on Eden Prime and see the Saren’s flagship for the first time… Well, the BioWare crew took that to a level of intensity I didn’t think possible. Meanwhile, the Citadel looks freaking gorgeous in just about every space from the wide open gardens and fountains of the Presidium even down to the slightly more slummy Wards.
It’s not just the big details either, but the small ones as well. The textures on space suits are very cool, whether it’s the mix of smooth and rough weave on human space suits or the ridges and straps of metallic armors like those on the Turians and Krogans. Same goes for the intricate facial features and textures of beings like the Salarians and Asari. I remember as I was riding up the elevator, just looking at the scales on the back of Garrus’s neck under his head spines and thinking, “was he always that rough?” But it brings the whole world to life and makes it feel all the more real. I think the lost cause here was the human models on faces. Humans still have that creepy zombie-eyed doll look. Some look like you’re about to kill them or they’re hyped up on espresso mixed with energy drinks all of the time. Not all of them look bad, but the ones that do are outright creepy when compared to everything else that looks more alive and natural.
Not all environments are improved either. Noveria was always kind of an dull space of empty cube rooms and reused area designs and no amount of polish in Legedary Edition changes that. The same can be said of some planets. While there were some that really popped like one in which meteor showers are perpetually raining down, there’s a lot of smooth ground between very rounded hills that just doesn’t look great, new texture or not. Things like the Mako and Thresher Maws look more sleek and well-designed than ever (seriously, the Thresher Maw looks far more terrifying and well-crafted than I remember), but a lot of the planets are just kind of boringly dull with some stray assets plopped here and there. Even so, I can’t fault it too much. There’s a lot BioWare spruced up to sleek modern levels and only so much they can do without completely remaking certain things, so all in all, it’s all more impressive than not.
A great story continually dragged by gameplay chores
When it comes to the actual gameplay of Mass Effect 1 in the Legendary Edition, it’s kind of a double-edged sword of improvements. Things like the level-up system were simplified. You get skill points pretty fast and it feels like I was never at a loss for the skills and abilities I needed. They also updated the UI and worked in the mechanics of Mass Effect 2 for the actual gunplay and biotics (you can map a power button, the camera feels a bit more dynamic than it originally did, and the shots feel weighty). Even the Mako got some updates that make planetary exploration in the tank not as horribly boring and humdrum as it was before, though it still is boring and humdum, but you can find out more on that in my Cortex post dedicated specifically to the Mako.
More importantly, despite the slight gameplay changes, many of the core elements of Mass Effect 1 remain intact, for better or worse. You’ll be saddled with space missions alongside some core missions from various beings you meet as a Spectre, or by talking to your crew. The core missions and those with actual narrative to them are fine, but there’s still a lot of Mass Effect 1 that just feels like chores alongside actual good stuff like the hunt for Saren and aiding your crew in their personal endeavors. But of course, you have to do some of that boring stuff because it gives you precious resources and alignment points towards Renegade (the sort of evil option) and Paragon (the sort of good option) for important choices.
So it comes down to the fact that while I enjoy some of the gameplay improvements, such as the ability to skip long elevator rides at my leisure and have a boost button on the Mako, it still feels like there’s a good chunk of Mass Effect 1’s elements that are still weighed down by archaic design once guided by limitations. When Mako missions and the need for alignment points are a constant companion, it’s hard to overlook where how much the unimproved things hold back the improved things.
Still an important part of the whole dish
Mass Effect 1 is what it is. I think if you liked it before, you’ll probably mostly enjoy it here. I only ever wanted to play Mass Effect 1 for its story and, to that end, it still served its purpose well. I like seeing how Liara, Garrus, Tali and Wrex became acquainted with Shepard and I like having the actual involvement in the choices of Mass Effect 1 to feel their full effects and weight in the later games. It’s obvious BioWare wasn’t going to be able to improve everything, but if you consider this part of the trilogy a chore, you’ll be happy to know they made it more bearable in a lot of ways so that you can get back to the things that make this game worthwhile quicker. It’s still a good starting chapter in the story of Shepard and the Reapers and, even here in the Legendary Edition, it makes me appreciate the impeccable next chapters all the more.
These impressions are based on a PS4 digital copy provided by the publisher and played on a PS5. Mass Effect Legendary Edition is available now on PlayStation and Xbox consoles and PC via Steam and EA Origin.