• Sat. Jul 24th, 2021

Mass Effect Legendary Edition: A detailed look at visual enhancements to the celebrated trilogy

ByASNF

Apr 14, 2021

Welcome back, everyone!

The art of Mass Effect supports and builds a universe in which rich stories and characters can be fully realized. It may sound somewhat counterintuitive, but as artists—especially on this remaster—we want players to be able to experience the trilogy again, or for the first time, without being distracted by the art.

Our goal from the onset was to improve and enhance the visuals while staying true to the original aesthetics of the trilogy that have become so iconic and genre-defining over the past decade. A remaster rather than remake allowed us to build upon the original assets in a way that resembles the polishing phase in a normal development cycle, while also being able to utilize the advantages of much more modern hardware and software.

Within this blog, we’ll give you an in-depth look at our remastering process with a specific focus on key changes and improvements made to the visuals. Here’s what’s included:

For those interested in the technical aspects of game development, it’s probably no surprise to hear that changing almost any asset or system can (and will) break something else. When a game is in its final state, it generally resembles a house of cards. The simple process of blowing the dust off, let alone implementing foundational changes like updating the version of the engine, will undoubtedly cause unexpected issues. Remastering a single game is a deceivingly complex process, so creating a proper plan for how best to mitigate risk while reopening three games to full development was foremost on our minds.

We took a three-phased approach to remastering the trilogy.


“The Lazarus Project will proceed as planned.”


Phase 1: Building the Foundation

We started Phase 1 by identifying and cataloguing every asset in the trilogy. How many particle effects, 3D models, textures, levels, GUI (Graphical User Interface) elements, sounds, cinematic movies, etc. actually exist across the trilogy, and on average what are their quality levels? Do the source assets (content creation files) still exist? What percentage of those assets should we improve, and on average, how long will each asset type take to improve? Knowing the sheer numbers of assets and their quality levels shaped our strategy for improving each “type” of asset.

The original trilogy was released entirely on a console cycle that allowed up to 1080p resolutions but was often actually running at 720p or lower. Now, the remaster is releasing on hardware that allows 4K resolutions, so the answer for how many textures we wanted to improve was easy: every single one of them. For the trilogy, this is well over thirty thousand individual textures.

First, we increased the engine limits on texture sizes, so any textures that were authored larger than could be used on-disk could now use their full resolutions. We then wrote some batch processes that worked along with an AI up-res program to increase the original uncompressed textures to four times their originally authored sizes. Our batch tools made special considerations to maintain the validity of special texture types, like normal maps or masks to ensure colors didn’t contaminate each other.

At this time, we also incorporated some more modern texture compression techniques that would allow those textures to hold onto more of their quality on disk. Meanwhile, our programmers were hard at work upgrading our version of Unreal Engine 3 to a more updated and unified version. With the game playable again, and a much higher base resolution to work from, we began to improve assets by hand.


“The process is as important as the result.”


Phase 2: Modernization Efforts

Phase 2 was the beginning of what we would consider full-scale development. The art team was now fully on board, and our content creation tools (many of which naturally changed and improved throughout the trilogy) had been stood up, unified, and made to work with more modern content creation programs. Eager to dig in, we started off where we knew the biggest improvements were needed: the original Mass Effect.

Some assets—most frequently, characters and generic props—were shared between the games, and many had already been improved in a later title or DLC. For those cases, we generally used the improved asset as our base, improved it further, and then ported it across the whole trilogy. This resulted in more consistent and higher-quality assets, but we had to carefully ensure this process didn’t flatten the sense of the passage of time and the overall narrative. 

For characters who appeared in all three games, like Liara, Garrus, Kaidan, Captain Anderson, and more, we maintained slight changes throughout the trilogy as they aged, matured, or…got hit by a rocket. Obviously, we couldn’t let uniforms branded with “SR2” sneak their way back onto the crew of the Normandy SR1, and we still liked how the Alliance Admiralty uniforms became more militarized and sleek as the trilogy progressed, so we improved each version of those outfits individually.

Our character artists worked their way through a prioritized list of hundreds of armors, creatures, characters, guns, and vehicles across the whole trilogy. They would frequently take an asset back to its original high-poly sculpt, focus on achieving a consistent texture resolution, add supporting 3D geometry where needed, and fix errors with baked normal maps or texture mapping. Central to our efforts was increasing the sense of realism in the surface response.

While the games don’t use PBR (physically based rendering), we could still work with the textures and materials to ensure plastics, fabrics, and metals reacted to light in a more convincing way. Similarly, we dedicated a significant amount of time to improving skin, hair, and eye shaders across the trilogy. Our tech animators then re-skinned (i.e. set each vertex to move properly when attached to an animated skeleton) each improved mesh and imported it back into each game as needed.

The VFX (particle effect) artists were busy extending the length and smoothness of animations for things like smoke and fire, while also adding more secondary emitters to beef up the overall look of each effect. A fire might now have secondary smoke trails and sparks, explosions fling chunks of rubble, and the muzzle flash on your weapons now subtly illuminates Shepard and their surroundings. New environmental particle effects were added throughout the trilogy to better enhance the mood and a space’s sense of life. As many of you have already noticed, we also sharpened up and added secondary elements to the trilogy’s iconic horizontal lens flares.

Many GUI images also needed extra love and attention. In 4K, smooth flowing lines that once only took up a few hundred pixels on screen now expanded across thousands or tens of thousands of them. We had to completely rebuild many elements from vector images to achieve needed clarity and crispness, while other images could be run through secondary, non-automated AI processes to sharpen and clean up artifacts.

We also improved all cinematics across the trilogy. Whenever possible, we completely re-rendered the pre-rendered cutscenes in 4K. When it was not possible to re-capture, we utilized an AI upscale program on the original uncompressed videos. In both workflows, we tweaked the color correction, added or composited additional details and visual effects, and even smoothed out some edges frame-by-frame so they didn’t feel dated when compared to actual gameplay. Cinematic designers fixed dozens, if not hundreds of bugs that occured in live-action cutscenes and conversations. Don’t worry though; the “What’d you just say?” head spinning meme still exists if you know how to look for it.

During this phase, environment artists completed passes through each level of the trilogy, performing targeted fixes on any asset or location that visually detracted from the overall experience. This included adding props to exceptionally barren areas, remaking low-resolution or stretched textures, smoothing out jagged 3D assets, and modernizing shaders on surfaces with poor lighting response. At this point, we also began resolving hundreds of bugs, from minor things like floating assets, to major game-breaking collision issues—including a very frequent global issue where players could easily teleport on top of assets and become completely stuck.

Our lighting designers followed closely behind the level artists, ensuring that all of the beautified environments and characters were always shown in their best, well, light. Mass Effect’s specific lighting style features high-contrast spotlights and a heavy use of complementary colors. That style was refined heavily throughout the trilogy, so we were able to bring many of those improvements back into the first game. We focused on maintaining that high-contrast look while adding natural bounce lighting to ensure characters are lit more consistently and beautifully.

We made systemic upgrades to shadows and added or improved post-process effects such as screen space ambient occlusion, anti-aliasing, and bokeh depth of field (increasing the cinematic quality for out-of-focus cameras). We were also able to bring down engine features that existed in Mass Effect 3, such as dynamic volumetrics, to help unify the look of the first two games.

Players will have more opportunities to see their improved characters reflected in-game, as the trilogy also includes new real-time reflections.


“Cultural artistic expression reflects philosophical evolution.”


Phase 3: Rebuilding Worlds

In Phase 3, we began looking at opportunities to make broader improvements to levels and features, rather than just updating the individual assets. By this point, we’d manually improved thousands of assets, but there was still a significant quality jump between the first two games.

To guide this effort, we compared the levels we shipped to their original concept art, design intentions, and artistic inspiration. We also took dozens of screenshots of our currently up-res’d levels and sent them over to Derek Watts (the Mass Effect trilogy’s art director), who used them as a base for new concept art paint-overs. These “broad brush” adjustments were much faster to work on in professional photo editing software.

Here are some examples:

Feros has a few very visually distinct sections, including the colony and the highway that leads to the ExoGeni Corporation building, the aqueducts, and the Thorian lair. The former of these now features stronger smoke and fire effects, more buildings to fill out the skybox, and much more damage and debris to better showcase the attack by the geth. We also leaned into the visual atmosphere of the creepy, dark interiors with directional light shafts guiding players to uncover the mysteries of the Thorian (that sounds creepier than ever, thanks to its new audio mix).

Edmontonians are no strangers to brutalist architecture or the blistering cold, so we’ve always felt quite at home in Noveria. Lighting was reworked throughout the level, the storm outside was intensified, and we accentuated the differences between the hotel area and the Synthetic Insights lab to hopefully improve your ability to navigate the mission’s early sections.

Eden Prime is the first location you land on in Mass Effect. It’s described to you as a verdant paradise planet under attack by an unknown alien ship, but the sight that greeted players didn’t always align with that image. Luckily, in the Mass Effect 3: From Ashes DLC (which is, of course, included in the Legendary Edition) we’d already revisited Eden Prime, so we could incorporate  its overall atmosphere and specific buildings. We’ve moved the sun’s placement  so that the player’s path forward is now illuminated by evening light while the burnt red sky looms behind, punctuated by falling ash and tracer fire. We also improved the planet’s surface with additional fire and battle damage, more foliage, and destroyed structures littering the crater Sovereign leaves behind.

Numerous quality-of-life changes and expanded features rolled out in this phase, many of which were detailed in our previous blog, so be sure to check that out. Notable improvements include an updated HUD for the first game and UI consistency improvements across the trilogy, such as tech UI elements appearing in blue and biotic UI elements appearing in purple in the first game (they were originally swapped). The custom character creator has been unified and expanded upon greatly, and some of your favourite casual outfits from Mass Effect 3 are now available in Mass Effect 2, as well.


“I’m Commander Shepard and this is my favorite store on the Citadel.”


When we started working on the Legendary Edition, we were overcome with a sense of nostalgia and curiosity. We know there is really something special in how the art and narrative work together to create this fully realized universe. To us, there’s a sense of “soul” to these games, and we truly believe we’ve been able to strike a balance between making meaningful enhancements while retaining the same atmosphere and feel of the original releases. The launch is now only a month out, and we can’t wait to let you experience these improvements while creating new Mass Effect memories for yourselves!

 Until then,

Good luck, Commander.