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Mass Effect 1 Legendary Edition Review and Retrospective

After years of clamoring for it and EA repeatedly denying that it'd ever be a thing, the Mass Effect remasters were finally here two months ago. It took me a month to finish the first game and then another month to get around to writing this. Just the kind of speedy service you can expect when talking about a remaster of a 14 year old game.

Introducing your protagonists, Bobby Shepard, Tommy Shepherd, and Kimmy Sheepherder

The original ME1 takes a lot of different criticism from a lot of different people, but one thing even its biggest fans (like me!) can agree on is that it looks bad even for a game from 2007. It's a mess of blurry textures, stiff animation, and blatantly 2D background assets that BioWare tried to hide with an aggressive film grain filter. The remaster isn't going to fool anyone into thinking this is a brand new 2021 game, at least not unless they thought Andromeda was representative of 2016, but it can at least stand next to ME2 and 3 now without causing confused players to try and clean off their screen.

See that bridge? You can't go to it, but at least it's 3D now

This image of the Citadel Presidium captures just about all the main improvements at the same time. In original ME1, the curvature in the background would've been a low-res texture that wouldn't stand up to any scrutiny and there'd be film grain all over the screen to try and hide it. Now the grain effect is barely noticeable and you can even make out individual leaves on that tree. You can also see that Shepard's shoulder camo isn't blurry at all and a somewhat nicer water texture in the bottom right.

Still, the biggest graphical improvement is actually loading times. If you've played ME1 on modern hardware, you'll probably have noticed that even though the elevator load times are dramatically shorter, textures still pop in at low resolution all the time and have to load up to full res. I never had that issue even once in a 100% playthrough this time, although it's possible that players using older hardware and especially HDDs might still see it occasionally.

Lastly, you might have noticed I haven't said anything about the stiff animation. That's because it's still there. Alas.

The difference on uncharted worlds is really quite amazing

Of course, this isn't just a graphical remaster. They've also updated the combat to be closer to ME2 and 3 while still being recognizable as the first game. I was worried that would mean the end of the inventory system and restricted stats, but it turns out that all they've really done is make guns more accurate and get rid of the drunken reticle swing. I was very much an apologist for the original system, but even I can't pretend that this isn't a huge improvement. Shooting feels much better now that you can reliably hit what you're aiming at, and achievements have been redesigned to be obtainable on a single playthrough and push you towards fully exploring the variety of your squadmates and abilities.

The final big change is actually very much for the worse. The Mako's bouncy controls were always one of the big complaints about the game, but on PC at least it followed a perfectly reasonable scheme where WASD controlled movement and the mouse just aimed the camera. Now WASD is relative to the camera heading, so pressing W while looking backward will cause you to drive in reverse. This is an awful change that makes fighting while driving in any direction other than away from the camera much harder and makes recovering from a bouncy fall more confusing than it already was. I have no idea why they thought this was an improvement.

Resigned: They're going to forget about me in the other games, aren't they?

Which brings us to the pheromonal elephant in the room: does ME1 hold up, and should you play it?

Yes. I had some doubts in the first hour when I was still getting used to the strange mix of limited facial animation and more modern graphics, but once your brain has accepted that's just how this world is going to be, almost everything else is brilliant. ME1 still does a better job of building a new universe than practically (and maybe even actually) any other game, and now you can experience it without feel like a Fallout 3 character who refused to put any points into guns.

I'm sure some of the reason it still feels so good is that there really hasn't been any competition. If you want another space-based party RPG, your options are this and, um, KotoR, I guess? Even if you expand it to similar games in other settings, that really only gets you Dragon Age and maybe Divinity: Original Sin. But while this games are all classics in their own rights, there's a sense of scale in this series that even they can't match. I'll never forget the shenanigans of DoS II's role playing system, but it doesn't scratch the same itch as resolving conflicts that impact an entire galaxy. I've seen ME1's final battle cutscene a half dozen times now and it still feels triumphant. They should've sold this with a peripheral to let you high five your screen.

That said, if you've seen all you ever want to of this game, LE isn't going to change your mind. The Bring Down the Sky DLC is the only thing that might be new to you, and while that's a perfectly fine diversion for an hour, it's hardly the best content in the game and is basically a longer version of a side mission from ME2. It doesn't expand the characterization of any neglected NPCs or add variety to any of the prefab structures whose layouts are probably burned into all our minds forever. It doesn't even make the inventory any easier to manage. This isn't a new game. It's 2007 Mass Effect but prettier, sharp-shootier, and drunk drivier.

Maybe we'll get a more ambitious remaster in another 14 years, but for now this is absolutely the best way to experience what was already a classic game. As for me,

I should go (play the other two games).

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