Mass Effect Still Matters Because No One Does it Better

The trilogy is imperfect, but no one's aspired to it since.

Mass Effect is the closest a video game has ever come to feeling like home to me. It’s a universe where I existed as Commander Shepard, a hardened Renegade acting as a leader in humanity’s early years in the galaxy. Across three games, I fostered relationships with friends I viewed as a found family chipping away at my stoic demeanor, made decisions that would impact them in meaningful ways, all while we fought through a galaxy at war with a force beyond its comprehension. 

For me, Mass Effect is a love story. It’s a trilogy-long romance of Shepard and Kaidan Alenko watching the universe come to grips with its mortality as the Reapers descended upon it with genocidal intent. Realizing their time to say what they want to say to each other could end in an instant, both men finally come together in Mass Effect 3 and fight an unstoppable force, all for the chance to hold each other one more time. I’ll always see this series through this lens, and that same motivation drove me through as I replayed all three of Bioware’s science fiction RPGs in the Mass Effect: Legendary Edition remasters.

Mass Effect: Legendary Edition review
Mass Effect 3

But that’s what Mass Effect is to me. To you? It’s probably something very different. Your Mass Effect might be a story of a Commander Shepard that looks nothing like mine, who gave her life so her Turian love Garrus Vakarian could survive the war knowing they’d meet each other at whatever bar was awaiting them in the afterlife. Or it could be about a version of Shepard so hard-boiled they were willing to sabotage a cure for an entire species’ sterility if it meant helping them stop the Reapers.

The Mass Effect trilogy is still special after all these years because it takes people on the same journey but leaves enough gaps to fill that no one experiences or remembers it the same way. It’s easier to describe what Mass Effect is than explain why the whole thing matters to you personally because every interaction and decision is colored by who Shepard was in your eyes, what motivations drove their decisions, and who was by their side. By the time I finished Mass Effect 3, the universe had been fundamentally changed by my presence, all in the name of a character who I decided was willing to do whatever it took to save the man he loved and, if possible, see him again after the fight was over.

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Mass Effect: Legendary Edition review
Mass Effect 2

But it’s also deeply imperfect. Despite the appeal of creating a character that carries across a trilogy, not every decision makes a substantial impact. And sometimes, it falls victim to design limitations, whether the series’ binary Paragon/Renegade morality system or streamlining consequences to make entire levels work regardless of what the player’s done, that mean some choices, while not wiped away in the text, do have to somehow resolve in the same manner. It also has to account for whether or not characters make it to the end and adjust accordingly. 

Nearly a decade later, Mass Effect can often feel like a product of its time. For every moment the series insists unity and cooperation is the way forward, there’s another of deeply-ingrained militarismIf played as such, Shepard can be a super cop beholden to no one, and can use that power to move toward human supremacy, often treated as a value on one side of a binary morality system. And while the series is largely considered inclusive, its deeply heteronormative view of its world meant queer men are either erased or excluded from Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2.

Short of making sweeping changes, which Bioware was clear it didn’t want to do with the Legendary Edition, no remaster can mask the ugliness of a series that exemplifies a time where these issues often went unexamined. But the Legendary Edition helps make the moments where Mass Effect still shines as something remarkably ahead of its time even greater, even when it’s stepping on the rakes Bioware knowingly laid down for it over a decade ago.

Mass Effect: Legendary Edition review
Mass Effect

The original Mass Effect has seen the most change here. Its visual update puts it on par with its sequels, even if animations and cinematography haven’t seen much, if any, update. But the remastering process has made the game look at best on par with its sequels, and at worst, good enough that the jump between Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 doesn’t feel as drastic as it did before. Character models and environments have all been touched up, giving the whole trilogy a more unified look.

That unification is Legendary Edition’s greatest asset. While there’s plenty of visual updates and gameplay tweaks, the biggest perk of Legendary Edition is combining the entire trilogy in one package. Playing through all three games, plus their DLC, made the experience feel more unified than ever. Both practically, as they’re all in the same launcher, but also, when these games are played in close proximity to each other, throughlines feel stronger. It’s one thing to know characters like Liara T’Soni and Tali’Zorah vas Normandy grow across the trilogy, or that conversations with Urdnot Wrex in the first Mass Effect are leading into conflicts Shepard will have their hand in during Mass Effect 3, having all of this together in one space underlines how cohesive the entire thing feels. It’s not without exceptions, as Bioware dropped threads or had to make concessions, but I’m still surprised at how intertwined things feel when most games wouldn’t aspire to the same connectivity. While clumsy in its integration, the DLC’s inclusion also helps bridge the gap between each game. 

Mass Effect: Legendary Edition review
Mass Effect

It would be easy for me to dive into each individual game’s failings here, but I leave the Legendary Edition feeling as if dividing each game and examining them separately doesn’t get at the heart of what makes all three of them important. Individually, each game is weighed down by its own issues, whether that be the first’s (preserved) clunkiness, the second’s contrived plot, and the third’s inconsistent pay-off. But collectively, each helps build a crucial piece of an experience that, while often messy, is still unlike almost anything else.

I’ve spent over a decade of my life with Mass Effect occupying a specific space in my heart. Through giving me the tools to express myself in its world, it was a game that gave me a chance to understand who I was in mine. And that’s because it was a story I was writing in tandem with Bioware about a commander who fell in love with his biotic lieutenant, then fought a rogue Spectre, an army of Collectors, and a fleet of Reapers to save him. But again, that’s my story. I can tell you what Mass Effect is, but why it matters to me probably won’t be why it matters to you.

That singular way it allows you to paint that picture yourself is why Mass Effect still matters today. It influenced a decade of RPGs that would take pieces from it, but nothing like it has really come since. Its failings are probably as much a testament to why as its successes. Creating a trilogy where your character, their choices, and their relationships all carry through is still a remarkable feat, even if Bioware couldn’t or wouldn’t make good on its promise every time. 

Mass Effect: Legendary Edition review
Mass Effect 3

In a way, it’s a shame we still need Mass Effect so many years later. The trilogy did something no one’s replicated, and that means no one’s taken its ideas and improved upon them. Not even Bioware. There’s always a canon made or a character dropped, but nothing quite reaches the highs of something like Mordin Solus’ entire arc culminating in a Gilbert and Sullivan cover or the lows of a beloved friend dying at the hands of a guy with a sword.

Perhaps with Legendary Edition, the Mass Effect trilogy has a second chance to inspire something new. And if we’re lucky, it might be something even better.

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Kenneth Shepard

Kenneth is a Staff Writer at Fanbyte. He still periodically cries about the Mass Effect trilogy years after it concluded.

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