Free choice

Finishing the fight: One modder's quest to fix 'Mass Effect 3'

The Milky Way was so meh.


For many players, 2012 was the year the Mass Effect trilogy would come to an end.

The controversial final act landed on 7th-gen systems with a thunderous applause, followed by a surge of frustrated fans at its derided endings. That was, except, for the man who would later restore much of that final mission years later. He was just then starting on the series, having picked up Mass Effect 2 during a Steam sale.

While he was late to the Mass Effect saga, the modder known as Orikon remains one of the last paragons still finishing the work started by BioWare over a decade prior. Just a teen gamer at the time, Mass Effect proved a revelation to Orikon: “When you're young, worlds like Mass Effect make much more of an impact and impression on you. I naturally fell in love with it. The characters, worldbuilding, story, gameplay, etc. [made] me a huge fan.”

Once he arrived at the fateful finale of Mass Effect 3, Priority: Earth, Orikon felt the same disappointment many had. While searching for answers about Mass Effect 3’s troubled dev-cycle, he discovered the Mass Effect modding scene.

Modding the Mass Effect games isn’t the same as working with Half-Life or Minecraft. There’s no dedicated toolset offered by the developers, only a finished, compiled game. Not since Dragon Age: Origins has there been an official modding toolset offered for a BioWare game. However, Mass Effect’s fanbase were not deterred, developing their own evolving, reverse-engineered suite that continues to be expanded on to this day. For many like Orikon, the efforts of code-savvy fans opened the door to finally fixing what many felt had been left unfinished.

Despite his lack of a technical background, Orikon’s journey into the modding scene began in 2017 as a translator and QA tester for the Expanded Galaxy Mod (EGM).

EGM remains one of the largest modifications ever made for a BioWare game, incorporating everything from additional reactive story elements to new playable missions. Where fans had been left feeling Mass Effect 3 fell short, EGM picked up the slack. Under EGM’s lead modder Kinkojiro, Orikon contributed not only with localization but also aided with elements such as War Assets and recordings of Thessia’s fall. Yet expanding the journey wasn’t enough for Orikon.

Expanding the journey wasn’t enough for Orikon.

“Eventually I suggested that we could include changes to Priority: Earth as part of the mod. The idea was declined, but I was determined to make at least some changes to the mission, as minor as they might be. And so it started,” he explains.

Orikon’ work began in earnest in Fall of 2017. What he found was more than scraps on the cutting room floor. “More like a cutting room ocean,” as he puts it. “For instance, during Priority: Earth, you were originally supposed to be able to assign War Assets to various operations around the planet. On paper, that sounds great, right?” In a way, Priority: Earth at one point sounds much more like Mass Effect 2’s famous Suicide Mission finale. Unfortunately, cracks began to show while he dug through the files.

Liara T'Soni? High key terrifying.

“In reality — the structure, narrative, and dialogue of the mission simply doesn’t support this, unless you want to create feature bloat and design clutter. The Suicide Mission as a whole was designed around assigning characters to tasks, and there is little room for anything else. Now imagine that it's not single characters, but entire fleets or groups of soldiers.“ When taking it all into consideration, the regrettable need to cut the deeper aspects makes sense for a studio already fighting to get a game out the door.

While trying to restore the mission to its fullest potential, Orikon eventually settled on following BioWare’s lead and abandoning the strategy aspect. “Portraying meaningful consequences of that, while keeping the mission's existing narrative intact and making sure it doesn't result in feature creep? Nigh impossible.”

After three years of reading through the game’s code, finding leftover developer notes, Orikon honed his instinct for matching BioWare’s final vision. Finding a balance between what to restore, add, or abandon became the central focus of Orikon’s work. Whenever he had to decide on creating or restoring a piece of content, Orikon relied on three core questions:

  1. "Was this content actually meant to be in the game?"
  2. "Are there examples of how this type of content was implemented by the developers earlier in the game?"
  3. "If not, are there any indications of how the content is supposed to play out?"

“However, I wasn't always like that.” He recounts how he originally aimed for more subjective changes, coming around to authenticity in the last years of the Priority: Earth Overhaul mod. “Once you understand what the developers had in mind, you can easily filter out the undesirable content.” He cites that earlier versions of the mod attempted to allude to the presence of the insectoid Rachni forces on Earth, only to trim the event as it cut off a more substantial surprise relating to them later.

Despite the community’s best efforts, some features remain out of reach for Orikon and his fellow modders. “We're very limited in terms of visual level design. We can add particles, fires, and characters, but actually changing how the level looks is beyond our capacity.” A reliance on pre-baked light sources and no access to BioWare’s modified version of Unreal Engine 3 makes fixing this virtually impossible.

“Any building or object we place in a level will look wildly out of place. It’s a huge shame, because I know many modders — myself included — who would love to spice up certain lackluster areas in these games.” While it’s hypothetically possible to modify levels on a gameplay level, doing so is a “massive task” at best, which is why only a handful of mods have attempted this.

Most notably, this has prevented modders from restoring the original boss fight with the Reaper players encounter on Rannoch. Originally, the random sequence where you manned a turret would have involved fighting off barrages of missiles, rather than futilely shooting at the Reaper.

However, none of this has hindered either Orikon or the community at large from releasing an onslaught of mods alongside Mass Effect: Legendary Edition’s release. Orikon even released his five mods as a cohesive, single bundle, going to great effort to ensure that they are compatible with other mods released for the game.

Though they work in their free time with reverse-engineered tools, modders like Orikon have helped shape Mass Effect 3 into the game many fans hoped for. Mods like the Priority: Earth Overhaul include new professional voice work and unique gameplay features, such as old allies joining you on-foot if they survived your playthroughs of Mass Effect 1 and 2.

Other modders have gone so far as to incorporate nods to Mass Effect Andromeda, creating ties between the trilogy and its spin-off. Literally thousands of bugs have been addressed by these tireless fans, and we’re not even getting into the impressive technical achievements of the multiplayer modders, who went so far as to nearly achieve proper online functionality with the campaign missions. Every avenue to extend the life of Mass Effect 3 has been explored.

Which, sadly, is why Orikon’s own journey modding Mass Effect now comes to a close. It’s something he’s been mulling for some time: “I've asked myself that same question many times. There were many, many times when I wanted to quit. I've invested so much time, effort and energy into modding the Trilogy, that it's hard to just leave it. At least not until you've achieved everything you wanted. But even then there's going to be small ideas occasionally popping in your mind, tempting you to get back and do just one more thing.”

Among those “small ideas'' rests a project to restore similar cut content and add elements in Mass Effect 2. It’d be a fitting arc, returning to the game that made him fall in love with the franchise. Unfortunately, the title’s popularity in the mod scene is dwarfed massively by its successor, even more so by the game Orikon has set his sights on next: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

The war for Earth rages on.

Though Tamriel may be calling him, Orikon’s work and the efforts of his peers will not go unnoticed. Going further than even the Legendary Edition, these fans have done what many thought impossible. For those that remain, the Legendary Edition presents new challenges and opportunities, such as the recent restoration of Pinnacle Station, a feat even BioWare claimed wasn’t possible. One can only imagine what they’ll think of next.

As for Orikon, there’s one last mission to see through with his recently announced Special Edition for Priority: Earth Overhaul. With a release window of late January / early February, Orikon has provided one last changelog with insights into his finishing touches for his most famous mod. Even in 2022, the war for Earth rages on, fought by a valiant community who love Mass Effect so much they’ve kept it fresh for long after the original developers moved on. It’s an inspiring display of passion for the franchise, and it’s all free to add to your game if you own a copy on PC.