'Mass Effect Legendary Edition' Unifies the Series' Fractured Release Order

Finally, the gang is all here at the same time, for everyone who buys the game.
May 14, 2021, 2:39pm
Mordin
'Mass Effect Legendary Edition' screenshots courtesy of EA

The Mass Effect Legendary Edition is a success simply for existing. It certainly has some successes and failures compared to playing the originals: the first game of the trilogy has had several of its quirks slightly smoothed over, but it's still a game from 2007 and isn't pretending otherwise. The graphical updates are strong and competent all-around, but sometimes those faces and the shadows seem like they've been improved so much that they've achieved some kind of uncanny valley. And I did have a couple crashes when I moved ahead to Mass Effect 2

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But the fact that this exists, and that it's not a disaster, is a needle hole successfully threaded, even if certain parts (like a lack of updated multiplayer) may disappoint me and others. You see, there has never been a single Mass Effect trilogy. One of the most-discussed game series of the past two decades somehow existed despite a fractured canon—there has never been a single core Mass Effect experience. And I'm not talking about about making different choices in the game, I mean how you install and play the game.

For example: Mass Effect 1 was initially released on the Xbox 360 only. It was ported to PC a year later with interface changes, in particular making the Mako easier to control. (I only ever played on PC, and the Legendary Edition's Mako feels the same as it ever did, for what that's worth.) The PC also had mods that you could use to upgrade the graphics—I never played in anything but the highest definition available.

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On the other hand, the PC version barely had support for the expansions— I only found "Bring Down The Sky", the story that introduces the Batarians directly, basically via an ftp file deep, deep, DEEP on EA's website, and only after several previous playthroughs. This isn't a huge deal, although it can make the Batarians' sudden importance from the get-go of Mass Effect 2 something of a surprise. 

Meanwhile Mass Effect 2's best story, "Lair of the Shadow Broker", was an expansion released over six months after the initial game. Shadow Broker's level design was a massive step forward for the series, and its combination with the buddy comedy/romantic tension of the writing between Shepard and Liara demonstrated the strengths of forcing players to stick with particular companions every now and then. It's the crackerjack peak of the Dirty Dozen vibe ME2 was going for, and frankly, If you didn't play "Shadow Broker," you played a worse game. (And if you did play it but with it and the game in release order, they were disjointed experiences instead of a coherent whole.)

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After Mass Effect 2 came out, the PlayStation 3 finally got a Mass Effect, but only the second one. So if you wanted to import your choices, you had to use a comic specifically designed for this version of the game that gave the key choices as quickly as possible—Mass Effect 1 in a 10-minute bite. This comic is available in the Legendary Edition's version of ME2 if you happen to decide to just start there—for me, it was the first time actually seeing this. Since Mass Effect 1 was the most difficult of the trilogy for people to actually engage with, the comic could theoretically be helpful, but it was only ever available to particular groups of players. 

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And then there's Mass Effect 3, a game whose initial forays into Games-as-a-Service defined it maybe a bit too much. First, EA wanted the multiplayer to tie into players' success in the ending. But that was hated, so the restrictions were relaxed, a lot, with patches a few weeks in. (The entire Legendary Edition, lacking ME3's multiplayer at all, has totally rebalanced the "Galactic Readiness" scale). Then, the ending itself was hated, so it got its own patch—and then multiple expansions to fix some of the core issues. 

Those expansions included some of the best level design and character work in the entire series—but came out months or even a full year after the game's release, and a firestorm of controversy that may have driven people away forever. Can you appreciate "Citadel," the expansion that gives you and the best friends you've made over three games and six years of play a party to say goodbye with, if you haven't sat through the original ending that ignored all the relationships you'd built over time? But on the other hand, can you appreciate the game of Mass Effect 3 for its strengths as an ending if you didn't have "Citadel" to mitigate the worst side effects of exactly how it did its ending? 

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This is a somewhat conceptual problem—what is the nature of art in the era of the internet? We're in a time when "Ima fix 'Wolves'" is both an example of an artist increasingly divorced from reality and a simple fact that yeah, that new version with Sia is way better than the original. But it's also a simple consumer issue: for almost a full decade, the Mass Effect trilogy, one of the most important and influential game series of its era, couldn't be purchased, installed, and played as a single coherent entity. The "Mass Effect Complete" release….wasn't….actually....complete. It didn't include the expansions! 

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So for a decade I had to tell people to either use to fucking "Bioware Points" if they want "Shadow Broker" or "Citadel" like they're buying fucking horse armor in 2007, or to just pirate the damn thing. (Some "DLC Bundles" appeared in late 2018, over five years after the project ended in 2013, to make it somewhat easier.)

So in that sense, Mass Effect Legendary Edition is a success simply for existing and not fucking it up. Congratulations to Electronic Arts (who spent years avoiding any kind of rerelease), you putted one of the biggest gimmes in the industry into the hole. Finally. Years after it was obviously essential, and obviously viable for the sake of making yourself money.

I'll have more to say about the Mass Effect trilogy soon—a lot more—but the fact that we only got the games a few days before release means much of that will have to until next week. But for now, you should know that these games seem to do exactly what it says on the tin, and that in the end, that's enough.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer and consultant specialising in video games and speculative fiction. She has two cats, an action movie podcast, and a twitter account. Yes, she is Online.