“I typically measure the difficulty of a task by the number of aneurysms it gives me”, says Mgamerz, head of the ME3Tweaks modding group. “This project definitely has given me the most out of all my projects I've done before.”
That project is restoring of Pinnacle Station, an add-on for the original Mass Effect left out of Mass Effect Legendary Edition. The source code had been corrupted, and as game director Mac Walters explained, restoring it would have significantly delayed the Legendary Edition. “It would basically take us another full six months just to do this with most of the team we've got,” Walters told Game Informer. “I wish we could do it. Honestly, just because this is meant to be everything that the team ever created, brought together again—all the singleplayer content. And so, leaving it all on the cutting-room floor, it was heartbreaking.”
The ME3Tweaks modding crew, Mgamerz, SirCxyrtyx, Kinkojiro, and HenBagle, set out to fix that omission. It was possible thanks to Legendary Explorer, a mod-making tool they maintain, which lets modders extract and repack assets from Mass Effect Legendary Edition, and edit everything from in-game text to pathfinding. It's a successor to ME3Explorer, a similar toolset that began as a 'creation kit' for modders who wanted to change Mass Effect 3's ending. “While this specific project is a few months old,” says SirCxyrtyx, the longest-serving member of the modding toolset's development group, “it's in some ways the culmination of almost a decade of work on making the Mass Effect trilogy moddable.”
The Legendary Explorer gave them an advantage over BioWare. “I'm fairly certain their tools are unable to work on the compiled files like ours have to,” Mgamerz says, “since their tools are designed to be used with the source assets. I imagine that the loss of the source audio though was what ultimately doomed any chance of this DLC being recreated. Well, that and it's typically at the bottom of players' list of favorite DLCs.”
It's true that Pinnacle Station isn't the most-loved Mass Effect add-on. It added a training facility where Shepard could compete in simulated battles, a short mission to find out if someone else was tampering with the simulator, and an apartment to be your home away from home. Where the best of the later expansions like Lair of the Shadow Broker and Citadel exceeded the games they grew from, Pinnacle Station was just an extension of what Mass Effect already offered.
That doesn't mean nobody liked it, of course. “I'm actually quite a big fan of the DLC”, says HenBagle, whose first Mass Effect mod was a Pinnacle Station tweak, and more recently worked on the ME1 Community Patch. “The station and the apartment are super cool areas, and the game modes are clever as well.”
The mod has a few improvements over the original Pinnacle Station. “It's definitely feeling better than the original version when I've had to run comparisons between the two for testing”, says Mgamerz. “While this is a 'port', we’ve put in considerable effort to improve the quality of life of the combat. For example, adding music to the level has had a pretty profound effect on making it feel more engaging. The original audio experience felt terrible, you essentially shot silent meatbags while Ahern yells at you.”
Some of the modes and maps have had their difficulty retuned in response to feedback from testers, since combat is fairly different in the Legendary Edition—and often easier. As Mgamerz says, “this is Mass Effect 1 AI we're fighting. It’s about as smart as a can of beans. Things only in Legendary Edition, like being able to run much more often, have a significant effect on the difficulty.”
As well as updating Pinnacle Station, the modders updated the tools they were using to work with it. HenBagle says, “we re-wrote a section of our Asset Database tool to make it easier for us to find replacement materials and textures. We love making improvements such as these, because they can boost the productivity of everyone who mods Mass Effect, not just the ME3Tweaks team.”
“I built a 'donor' system”, Mgamerz says, “given an object path in the original game, this system looks for the same named object in the Legendary version of the game, which if found, is then used in the converted file instead. This means we just pull LE versions of assets like meshes, sounds, etc, because porting everything would likely be impossible. The DLC is probably about 95% assets from the main game.”
“Most of the assets are repurposed from elsewhere in LE1,” SirCxyrtyx adds, “but all the objects that define the level (the lights, the locations of all the meshes, etc) and the gameplay (UE3's Kismet visual scripting) had to be converted.” The original and remastered versions of Mass Effect run on different versions of Unreal Engine 3, which meant all of those objects were saved in different formats. For the sake of compatibility with all the games in the series, Legendary Explorer can edit files from seven different versions of UE3, automatically resolving format differences. “That's the result of many years of reverse-engineering effort, and it allowed us to focus our efforts on the comparatively small number of object types that were significantly different between the games.”
So even though a lot of Pinnacle Station was built with existing Mass Effect assets, that didn't make it an easy task. “The single item that sticks out for me is Terrains,” says Kinkojiro, creator of the Expanded Galaxy mod. “These are the assets that give ME1 its undulating mountains that the Mako famously struggles with. In Pinnacle Station they are much smaller, for example the ground of the Volcano level, but we had no alternative to replace them. Terrains are not really used in the later games, nor later editions of Unreal Engine and no ME modder had looked at them before. They are very large and complicated assets. We had to completely reverse engineer how they worked and then figure out how BioWare had changed them for LE. They caused most of the biggest headaches, not just because of the psychedelic effects they create when not working.”
“We found a lot of problems with the original DLC,” Mgamerz says, “so we've been fixing the ones users are most likely to encounter.” They includes an area with invisible walls you could get trapped in, geth eye-lights floating above their heads, turians in the combat simulator not having holographic faceplates, an incorrect texture for an NPC's armor, and texture pop-in that's been minimized by streaming them ahead of time. “While this is a port, I also consider it a mod,” Mgamerz says, “so I want to make sure users get more than just 'Pinnacle Station ported to LE'. We've put in considerable extra effort to make sure this DLC is built more like an official release.”
The finished mod is available to download from NexusMods.