Mass Effect 3 had an ending that could be described as ‘controversial at best.’ Mass Effect: Andromeda did fine commercially but was definitely not the shot in the arm that the franchise needed. And so, when looking at what could be done with this beloved franchise, EA opted to remaster it. It worked. Mass Effect: Legendary Edition was a huge success.
The main differences between the originals and Legendary Edition are graphics, and some improvements to gameplay. Notably, Mass Effect 1 had improved controls for the Mako, the tank that originally drove like a helium balloon on wheels. Additionally, all of the DLC (minus Pinnacle Station for ME1, which was completely corrupted in the interim between ME1 and ME:LE) was automatically included in each of the games. Loading time was also largely eliminated. The controversial endings were extended and improved upon, and the multiplayer from ME3 was cut out.
Mass Effect is a science fiction series about Commander Shepard trying to save the galaxy from the Reapers, massive technological monstrosities that come and destroy space-faring civilizations every fifty thousand years.
Humans are new to galactic politics. In 2148 we discovered Prothean artifacts on Mars that jumped our technology ahead drastically, and the first game takes place in 2183. There are Mass Effect Relays that let spaceships travel nearly instantaneously between two different parts of the galaxy.
In the meantime there was a war between the turians and humanity, as humanity, not knowing better, tried to open a closed Mass effect Relay.
There’s the Citadel, a massive superstructure that houses millions of aliens. It’s also the head of galactic politics and has the Council, with representatives of the three most politically powerful alien races—the Turians, a proud military race, the Salarians, who are short-lived and tend towards science, and the Asari, an all-female race who live for around a thousand years and have powerful biotics (control over gravity, mostly).
Mass Effect 1 starts with Commander Shepard being considered as the first human candidate for the Spectres, the Special Tactics and Reconnaissance agents. Spectres are given full authority to pursue their goals however they wish. His first mission, to uncover a Prothean artifact on a planet named Eden Prime, goes sideways. First, he’s exposed to the artifact, which plants alien images in his mind. Then, another Spectre named Saren shows up to take the artifact beforehand.
No one knows why Saren is doing this, and Shepard has to prove to the Council that Saren has indeed gone rogue. Then he gets his team together and they hunt out clues through the galaxy.
The first Mass Effect feels most like classic Bioware, in that the set-up is: Introductory mission, quest hub, missions able to be done in any order, and then the grand finale. The gameplay itself is still quite awkward, even in the Legendary Edition. However, the story is extremely strong. While Therum (a mine) isn’t thrilling, Feros (a human colony with a creepy secret) Noveria (science labs that have gone silent) and Virmire (Saren’s base of operations) are all excellent, and Ilos is my favorite sequence in the whole series.
The second Mass Effect is the weakest in its main story, but its characters are the best the series has ever been. Shepard is flying the Normandy when its destroyed by the new villains, the Collectors. Shepard dies, and is rebuilt by Cerberus, a human supremacist group. They want him to lead a team to destroy the Collectors.
The main plot, like ME1, has four real quests before the end. Unlike ME1, they are in a specific order. Instead, you can do ‘Dossier’ and ‘Loyalty’ missions between them in whatever order you choose.
Much of the game is devoted to getting your squad, and then earning their loyalty. These missions are almost all excellent. Gaining your squad includes plots like a prison break, curing a disease, and searching a planet with a sun so hot it kills. Of the loyalty missions, there’s a heist, there’s a pit fight with a thresher maw, and there’s a completely combat-free thriller where you offer yourself up as bait to a psychic serial killer. Only one of the loyalty quests is subpar, and luckily it’s short.
The ending of the game consists of a suicide mission to the Collector home world, in which, if the wrong decisions are made, numerous squadmates can die. In various scenarios, you need people with tech expertise, or biotics, or leadership skills, or simple firepower. If enough of them die, then so does Shepard. Despite Mass Effect 2’s popularity—it’s the highest rated of the series—no other game has tried this kind of experience again, not even its own sequel.
Mass Effect 3 opens with a Reaper attack on Earth. Shepard escapes to try and rally support of the rest of the galaxy to Earth, and soon arrives at Mars, where more Prothean knowledge has been uncovered. There are designs for an ancient weapon that may stop the reapers, and now it’s Shepard’s job to get the various alien races to join forces to slow them down while scientists work on building this new weapon.
Mass Effect 3 is the most linear of the trilogy. While there are plenty of side quests, the main quests are all in order. First, you help the turians, but the turians need the krogans before they’ll help Earth, so you need to help the krogan. Then, you need to help deal with the Quarian/Geth war. Then, the asari. Often, you’ll have to fight Cerberus. Given that twice you get top-secret, in-person briefings on sensitive materials only for Cerberus to immediately know where to attack, my headcanon is that they chipped a transmitter into Shepard when they brought him back from the dead.
One of the key things in Bioware games is the idea that the player has numerous opportunities to make choices. Some of these are moral choices, called paragon or renegade in the series. The more of one you make, the more options open up for you in other ways. Often this comes down to having the right, charming or intimidating answer in specific situations. Some of the choices don’t feel like they truly map onto paragon or renegade, but they still have importance down the line.
While it’s possible to take all your data from previous games in the original Mass Effect trilogy, Legendary Edition, being all on one disc, does it automatically.
There was one scene in particular that honestly shocked and delighted me. A recurring character through all three games is a Commander Shepard fan named Conrad Verner. While on an unrelated sidequest in the final game, I saw him, started his sidequest, and then a completely unrelated ME1 sidequest that I had completely forgotten about snapped into relevance.
The sheer number of options that spiral out of each of those choices is impressive, considering they need to make sure all players go through the same story. Two members of your squad in ME3 are potentially dead in the suicide mission of ME2. You simply don’t have them. If other characters died earlier on, Bioware would need people to take their role on in the plot, which means they had to make surrogate back-up characters, and those characters, not having the same history with Shepard, would need different dialogue.
Characters are where Bioware shines most. I’m not going to discuss every one of them, but a few highlights.
Three characters stay with your squad through all the games. Garrus is a C-Sec officer who left the force because he was tired of regulations stopping him from getting bad guys. He’s got a very straightforward look on life, and he clearly wishes he was also a Spectre, less encumbered by rules. Tali is a Quarian, and her homeland was destroyed by the Geth, robots that the Quarians themselves made, then attempted to destroy. She has special techniques useful against the Geth, but if you play everything out right, you can get her to join you in wanting peace between the Quarians and the Geth. Liara is an asari archaeologist who studies the protheans. She only joins your group in the Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC in ME2, but she’s there, so it counts.
The only truly great human squad member in the franchise is Jack, who had been held captive by Cerberus and experimented upon as a child to see if they could increase her biotic powers. (The answer was no, it was both immoral and ultimately useless, but that didn’t stop the developers from letting you scan the chair she was tortured in for a bonus to those powers.) Jack’s traumatized and aggressive, and treating her well and watching her lower her guard, until she’s a respected biotic teacher in ME3, is a fantastic character arc.
Wrex is a favorite from the first game. As a krogan, he can explain how the genophage, a sterility virus inflicted on the krogan, has affected every aspect of his culture. He’s extremely open about how much he loves fighting, even though he knows that mercenary work is a dead-end for the krogan. He never rejoins your group in the later games, minus the Citadel DLC, but if he lives he becomes the leader of the krogan and is always a fun, valuable character.
Mordin Solus is another fan favorite, a fast-talking salarian scientist you get at the beginning of Mass Effect 2. While Wrex tells you of the damage the genophage has done, Mordin helped tweak the genophage to overcome the krogan’s growing immunity. He’s clinical about the need for it—the krogan population explosion is dangerous to every other galactic race. And when he changes his mind in ME3, it’s not because of morality, but because the calculus has changed—they need the krogan to beat the reapers, and the krogan won’t help without a cure. Also, he has not only a Gilbert and Sullivan riff scene, he’s got a noir about his time on Omega that’s frankly incredible.
As mentioned above, the Pinnacle Station DLC on ME1 had been corrupted and isn’t a part of Legendary Edition. Mass Effect 1 instead only has Bring Down the Sky, a story about batarian pirates taking over a mining asteroid and aiming it at a nearby human planet.
Mass Effect 2 had DLC with two new characters, a thief named Kasumi Goto and a mercenary named Zaeed Maslani, and their loyalty missions. It also had the abovementioned Lair of the Shadow Broker where you rejoin Liara and investigate the Shadow Broker, a dangerous information broker. It had Overlord, about another Cerberus scientific endeavor gone awry. And it had Arrival, a DLC about the reapers about to come through the batarian relay. Shepard destroys the relay, even though it also kills a lot of innocent batarians. Given that the reapers show up at the beginning of ME3 regardless, it feels like this should have been the actual ending to ME2, and Shepard should have failed.
ME3 has four DLC. From Ashes should not have been DLC, to be blunt: It brings in Javik, a Prothean who has been in suspended animation since the last Reaper attack, and he brings a lot to the story. Omega is about taking Omega back from Cerberus. It’s a lot of combat. Leviathan was an interesting archaeological mystery. Citadel, though, is the clear winner, and quite possibly the best thing Bioware’s ever made. Starting with an assassination attempt at a sushi bar, going through a casino infiltration, a rampage through the Citadel Archives, and a boss fight on your own ship…and then after that’s over you invite all your squad to a party at your apartment. And you just spend time with them, and they banter with you and each other, and it’s a wonderful coda to the series.