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Can Mass Effect really be remastered?

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Oct 22, 2020, 12:30 PM EDT

The Mass Effect Legendary Edition is a thing that exists. Try to contain your surprise. 

Thanks to retail listings and reports from game journalists, we know it does, even if Mass Effect's makers BioWare and EA are taking their time confirming its existence. Originally slated for this month before the debuts of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, the remasters of the trilogy have been pushed to 2021 for two reasons: the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has affected the entire gaming industry, and the original Mass Effect itself. The first game apparently requires a straight-up rework in order to make it fit with its successors in terms of both visuals and gameplay to ensure that prospective newbies don’t bounce off its sequels. But exactly what a “rework” means is harder to pin down.  

BioWare’s first Mass Effect is a different game than its sequels. You could change you and your companions’ equipment from the inventory screen, go to several planets in various star systems and roam them in your jeep, the divisive Mako. Weapons didn’t have ammo; they would overheat if you used them for too long. It emphasized the “RPG” parts in action-RPG. Conversely, 2010’s Mass Effect 2 took a hard left into action, with a focus on cover-based shooting, squad commands, and combat roles. Equipment could only be changed prior to a mission start. Rather than hop in the Mako to explore planets, you would just scan for minerals onboard your ship. (DLC for Mass Effect 2 would later add in a hover tank that offered some, but not much, Mako-esque exploration.) Although functionally a better game, the shift in ME2 and 2012’s Mass Effect 3 rankled purists of the original. 

Mass Effect was released alongside Bioshock and the original Assassin’s Creed in 2007, one of the best years for gaming. At a time where cinematic, narrative-driven games were just beginning to take shape, Mass Effect helped lead the charge. Commander Shepard was essentially a space cop, tangling with clone armies of lizard men and evil civilization-ending robots. It was a space opera that let you affect the story, bolstered by strong characters, a killer atmosphere, and a fantastic ending song. Initially an Xbox 360 exclusive, it was one of the high marks for Microsoft’s system in a fall season that also boasted Halo 3 and The Orange Box

Supported by a great commercial, the original Mass Effect went on to become a hit and spawn an entire franchise that at one point, included plans for a now-scrapped feature film. Beloved as it is, time hasn’t been entirely kind to the game. It feels stronger as a concept than in execution; even beyond its gameplay and technical problems, its structure and pacing aren't great. Most exploring of planets boiled down to driving through empty environments, looking for a single enemy base, and maybe a space cow while listening to your squad chat with each other. 

In hindsight, it’s not surprising Mass Effect 2 functioned as a soft reboot for the burgeoning series. BioWare’s whole pattern post-2005 has been to release the first title with a concept that’s generally good, then make it better with successive games. We’ve seen this with the ever-changing identity of its fantasy RPG Dragon Age, and the same is currently happening with its looter-shooter Anthem. For Mass Effect, this happened a second time with Andromeda. Despite its mixed reception, the 2017 game is the only one in the series that’s equally an action game and an RPG, with vastly improved combat and role-playing elements that encourage flexibility in a way the earlier games had not. 

Earlier this year following the release of Final Fantasy 7 Remake, there was a discussion made about how to classify games that straddle the line between remaster and remake. An argument was made that remasters play exactly the same, while remakes will change everything to some degree or another. It sounds easy, but Mass Effect’s situation is complicated: It’s being changed like a remake, but also enhanced like a remaster. BioWare could simply tweak the combat while everything else stays the same, or it could also cut the non-plot-related planets in their entirety so only their mission-important areas can be visited. How much of the original game needs to stay itself while also lining up with its successors? It’s doubtful that we’ll get much in the way of new story content, so our questions will be reserved for the first game’s gameplay. 

Fans of the first game are already bristling at what changes await with the Legendary Edition. But updating it was always going to be the big question around bringing this trilogy to current consoles. Like the giant Reaper robots that Shepard faced down, changing the original Mass Effect was inevitable.