When BioWare decided to look at the original Mass Effect trilogy to see if it could be rereleased for modern gaming machines, it decided early on that remaking it completely wouldn’t work.
It was deemed that, like a classic movie or vinyl recording, something would be lost if the series was remade from scratch and/or tweaked too much. So, the team plumped for tidyting and refining the experience rather than reimagining it. And, while that may initially come as a shock to those salivating over the announcement at the end of last year, it makes a lot of sense – as we found out during a recent tech demo event.
Mass Effect: Legendary Edition is shaping up to be a fitting love letter to the RPG trilogy. It pays lip service to the originals, slaps on more than a decent coat of paint, but without changing anything that made the three games so revered in the first place.
Some long-standing issues have been addressed, graphics improved and enhanced, and all DLC added, but these are Mass Effect 1 – 3 in spirit and soul. We heartily approve.
To begin with
One of the first things you’ll encounter in the Legendary Edition is the hub – a launcher from which you can start any of the games.
When you finish one of the games, you’ll return to the hub and can start the next. Like with the original releases (mostly), story and character progress will be remembered and used in the next chapter, but the games don’t just flow from one another automatically. You have to start each as the last ends. They are all part of the same installation, however, so you don’t have to worry about multiple files – and all DLC (of which there is plenty) is already incorporated into each outing.
Character creation has been unified between games, with the enhanced aesthetic options brought from ME3 down through the other games. The original Mass Effect creator was rather basic in comparison with the last, so that has been rectified with more hairstyles, skin types and makeup than before. In addition, the iconic female Shephard look has been consolidated across each game.
Gameplay has been tweaked too, especially in ME1. Those who remember the original will also recall that its combat system is rather different to the later games – it’s more an RPG than the others. That remains, although some refinements have been made.
Aim assist has been improved, for example, while the combat HUD and health bars have been brought more in line with Mass Effect 2 and 3. Weapons balance has been evened-out, and the Mako vehicle has been worked on to make it run more smoothly.
PC gamers also get a bonus in the form of controller support – something missing first time around.
But, perhaps the most significant thing to change is frame rate. As well as a native 4K resolution (with support for 21:9 on PC) and HDR, each of the games now run at 60fps. This affects gameplay significantly, with responsiveness in general play likely to be noticeable.
Those with SSD storage or a next-gen console may well notice that loading times have been improved – a bugbear of the original game. The notorious elevator rides in the Citadel – which masked the loading of the next area – have been cut down in length dramatically. We saw the same ride finish in 10 to 15 seconds on the latest PC build, in comparison to the original which took more than 50 seconds. We seem to remember it could take even longer on Xbox 360. Shortening that dramatically is something we’ve wanted for years.
The biggest changes to the trilogy are visual. Although the decision was made to refine rather than remake the graphics – and keep development inside Unreal Engine 3 rather than switch it up to UE4 – the art team have gone to town on the existing assets.
They started by up-ressing the original textures wherever possible. Basically, all textures were extracted at and reintroduced at a much higher resolution. This results in much more detail in character models and backgrounds.
The team didn’t stop there though, as they then manually improved almost every scene and asset. Volumetric lighting was ehanced, along with dynamic shadows. Depth-of-field was also altered, adding bokeh effects to make it look more cinematic.
Other effects were introduced, including real-time reflections, ambient oculusion (in Mass Effect 3 specifically) and surface scattering to make skin textures look more realistic. Essentially, while keeping to the original look and feel of the series, every aspect was touched up or treated with aspects only available thanks to more powerful hardware.
One area that remained largely untouched was animation. That’s because, although the games do feature some shonky animations here and there, altering them in one scene tended to muck up another. It’s better to have the occasional weird facial or character movement than all-new bugs, that’s for sure.
We haven’t seen the full trilogy release yet, just a few demos rolling over a video stream, but although we were initially surprised that BioWare decided against remaking them completely, we respect that decision.
It would have been interesting to see a shiny, new Shepherd running on the Frostbite Engine, but it could have taken away from what we so fondly remember.
Instead, we’ll get the Mass Effect trilogy with a fair few of its infamous warts covered up and frozen off. And that should be enough for us.