Mass Effect 1 should get the Final Fantasy VII Remake treatment
Mass Effect 1 deserves the FFVII Remake treatment. The demand for engaging single player content is at an all-time high, evidenced by the feeding frenzy around Cyberpunk 2077 and Bloodlines 2. And Bioware is a studio in crisis and its team needs a Hail Mary play to save itself from EA’s hungering maw of studio destruction. Also, the Mass Effect series’ core theme of diversity, cooperation, and unity are even more relevant today than they were in 2007. There’s never been a better time for a Mass Effect remake.
Spoilers ahead for a game that’s old enough to be attending junior high and its various sequels.
Better visuals and streamlined mechanics
Mass Effect 1 is rightfully regarded as a classic in the ARPG genre, but if you play it today, you can really feel its age. While fan mods do a surprisingly good job of updating the game’s 13-year old visuals, it still looks pretty primitive. Reworked visuals would go a long way toward making ME1 more appealing to contemporary audiences. But that’s not all it needs.
When it was released in 2007, the rules for successful, engaging third person shooters were just being established; Gears of War had only been released the year before. An overall modernization of that game’s mechanics would be great. Ditch the weapon overheating system and the sprint stamina mechanic. I’d love to see the simplified teamwork mechanics from ME3 and ME2 as well as evasive rolls and omni tool holographic blades.
Environments could use modernization as well. Many ME1 environments felt like just a series of long corridors. Ditch those long elevator rides designed to disguise loading times. A modernized Citadel would be epic, and a modernized Virmire and Noveria would be awesome.
Every single Mass Effect game tried to present itself as a vehicle for open world exploration and every single one blew it. Andromeda came the closest but failed in a myriad of other ways. And one of the reasons why it failed was because the scale and scope kept expanding, far beyond Bioware’s capacity to fulfill those expectations.
At its best, Mass Effect is an action shooter RPG that uses instanced environments to tell moving stories about bravery, courage, and friendship. At its worst, it was a primitive and crappy resource gathering simulator with “EXPLORATION!!” branded onto it.
Don’t rethink this. Don’t reimagine it. Just get rid of it. There was never a reason for this part of the game to exist, aside from a bloated production bible telling devs that they needed to build it. Get rid of the Mako sequences while you’re at it. The only thing I want to do less than planet scanning is driving the Mako.
But I understand that it isn’t really an ARPG without side quests. As a Spectre, Shepard is still part of the Alliance Navy and accountable to the Citadel Council. S/he could pick up sidequests from either of these factions, building reputation, obtaining loot, and doing all the fun stuff we’ve come to expect from modern RPGs. Rather than a single binary choice between preserving human lives and saving the Council, you can build up that relationship over several games.
A modern morality system
Mass Effect 1 has some of the most compelling choices in the entire series, from “Kaidan or Ashley” to whether or not to kill the last Rachni queen. But the binary Renegade / Paragon system feels antiquated in a gaming culture that includes fare like Disco Elysium and Divinity: Original Sin 2. Modern RPG players expect and deserve more.
Also, we ended up being stuck with this system for three whole games, and if you didn’t fully commit to either side, the consequences were profoundly negative, particularly in Mass Effect 2. The writers went to a great deal of trouble to portray the ME universe as morally ambiguous, but the mechanics demand slavish adherence to one of two simple modes of moral thinking. It was ludonarratively dissonant and in hindsight, a mistake. A remake gives Bioware a chance to correct that mistake, and create a more nuanced, reactive universe that’s less about adhering to a code and more about trying to make the decision that feels right.
Lastly, most players didn’t seem to engage with the Renegade choices at all. According to Forbes, a whopping 92 percent of players went with Paragon decisions. I still think you should have the option to play a darker Shep, but also wow.
A solid story
One of the most notable changes to Final Fantasy VII Remake is that its story is simultaneously expanded and shortened. It only covers the Midgar section of the game but lasts about 40 hours. That’s shorter than the original game, but far longer than the original Midgar section. I think Mass Effect 1 would benefit greatly from this narrative treatment. Structurally, and in terms of pure narrative satisfaction, Mass Effect 1 is the best of the trilogy. Its story beats are some of the series’ most interesting and would stand up well to lengthening.
ME1 creates a memorable world full of believable politics, fascinating lore, beloved characters, and an amazing story. However, the game bombs you with exposition in the first few hours, which can be hard to digest, particularly for players used to more elegant world building. Mass Effect has a deep and rich world, but it’s hard to swallow it in one bite.
When Shepard becomes a Spectre, it’s clear that the devs wanted you to feel like it was a big deal, but you haven’t been playing long enough for it to feel like a triumph. Heck, I was still trying to figure out exactly how Turians were different from Salarians by that point in the game, other than the facial shape.
ME1 deals with the Council’s anti-human bigotry but it never quite sticks the landing. It would be great to slow down and expand the opening few hours of the game, so we could learn more about Shep’s backstory and humanity’s place in the galaxy.
I would love to see the game start in media res, during the mission that helps make Shepard a Spectre candidate. You make a series of choices in-game; all of them lead to victory, but the price of your victory and how you’re remembered is defined by how you act under pressure. In the original game, this was a simple three-way choice in character generation. But it could be so much more, and we would have a better sense of Shepard and their place in the world.
This is followed by time on the Citadel, building good will (or animosity) with the Council. The Mass Effect series always dealt with anti-human prejudice, but never quite stuck the landing on that theme. Giving Shep a chance to experience it for a while, as he earned respect from the Council would be an excellent addition. During this time, you’d also meet all your favorite crew members - Kaidan, Ashley, Liara, Wrex, Tali, and Garrus. It would also be great to see Cerberus pop up in a major way throughout the first game. They were random sidequest terrorist antagonists for most of ME1, but then are deeply central to both ME2 and ME3. It’d be great to see them, their complications, and their violence throughout all three games.
You would eventually meet Saren, who could become your mentor, rival, friend, or enemy, depending on your choices. The Eden Prime mission would be the midpoint of the game, ending in Saren’s betrayal and Shepard receiving a vision from the Prothean beacon. Saren’s betrayal would sting a great deal more if you had a chance to build up that relationship. Each subsequent game could deal with a major decision and its fallout - the defeat of Matriarch Benezia, the destruction of Saren’s Krogan army, what to do with the Thorian and its victims, the Rachni, etc.
A more reactive world, and a mulligan on that ending
Last but not least, remaking the Mass Effect trilogy would give the writers a mulligan on ME3’s disappointing ending, as well as allowing them to structure the trilogy’s narrative better. They could decide early on a more sensical motivation behind the Reaper invasion, and plant those seeds at the beginning of the trilogy. There were wildly divergent ideas about why the Reapers were doing what they were doing, and that confusion was clear during the final moments of ME3.
Also, the writers would have a rough idea of where the entire trilogy was going from the start and would be able to find a way to make decisions matter more. The ME series endured legitimate critique regarding how it emphasizes player choice in gameplay, but rarely delivers interesting narrative consequences for those big decisions. For example, the Rachni decision never really comes up again in a meaningful way - there’s a Rachni queen to deal with in ME3 no matter what you do.
This comes up in small ways as well. I romanced Jack in ME2 and went with the Paragon option in her loyalty mission. In ME3, it made perfect sense that she would transform the pain of her trauma toward teaching and protecting young biotics so they would never endure the same suffering she had. I loved how that went.
Imagine my disappointment when Jack did the exact thing in my Renegade playthrough. I called her a killer! I had her murder a helpless dude in cold blood! I showed her zero kindness! I sided with Miranda every chance I got! How the heck does it follow that Jack still becomes Professor X in ME3? Best case scenario, she should be a telekinetic enforcer for Aria T’Loak or something. Stuff like this made you feel like your decisions didn’t really matter.
An ethically-made game
There has been a great deal of recent coverage on Bioware’s labor practices, and very little of it has been good. I want a remade, modern Mass Effect as much as any hardcore fan. But not at the cost of the mental and physical health of hundreds of Bioware employees. Crunch culture is harmful, and as we’ve seen with both Mass Effect: Andromeda and Anthem, it doesn’t lead to good games. Bioware’s upper management needs to be very clear about their design, objectives, and timeline and EA should give them time to iterate, develop, and assemble the best game possible.