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Mass Effects graphics enhancement guide


Game system: DC Heroes Role-Playing Game

Context

Mass Effect (ME1) is a landmark video game. But it dates back from 2007. That was a long time ago.

However.

If you have a gaming PC, it is possible to dramatically improve stuff. It’s free, and it’s essentially a remaster.

Hardware

This guide assumes :

  1. A Windows 10 gaming computer.
  2. With a recent or semi-recent Nvidia gaming GPU.
  3. An Internet connection for which downloading a few gigs isn’t a major issue.

I’m sure you can do something equivalent with Wine, with an AMD GPU, etc.. But I can’t cover this in a detailed, tested manner.


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Effort level

Some good news. This guide isn’t a 500+ files Bethesda-style modathon.

More good news. The ME1 modding tools have been streamlined over the years, to accommodate the sheer percentage of people who don’t RTFM.

However, this guide involves a fair few tools and concepts. It’s not “push button, game falls out”.

Writeups.org

Writeups.org isn’t normally a video gaming site. We have a mass of Mass Effect articles, but they are RPG character profiles.

However, taking high-quality screenshots of the characters often means a lot of technical tinkering. I’m thus doing Mass Effect tinkering as I prepare to revise our 2012-ish profiles. So why not publish my notes.


The basic set-up

  1. Get the game on Steam, on Origin, or from a reputable key reseller. On sale, it can cost as little as $2. Avoid using a retail version of ME1.
  2. if you already own Mass Effect, back up your game saves before doing any sort of reinstall.
  3. As with all video games, install it on your fastest drive. Such as a SSD. The total size for a fully modded ME1 is about 30 gigs.
  4. Launch the game once. This way the game can create its various files, get its old DirectX, etc..
  5. As long as the game is up, set your display resolution in the options.
    At first glance the list of resolutions seems to stop circa 1280xsomething. The trick is to click on the double downward arrows, slightly below and slightly to the right of the menu, to scroll down to 1920×1080 or more.
    Yes, it’s a terrible UI choice. Yes, there are uncountable hordes who did their entire Mass Effect playthrough at pointlessly low resolutions. Yes, it’s a tragedy.
  6. Get your free DLC, called Bring down the sky . The simplest way is to drop the installer into your Mass Effect folder, execute it, then archive the installer somewhere else. The game must have been launched at least once for this installer to work.
  7. (There’s another DLC called Pinnacle Station , but it’s just a combat scenario. It’d consider it dispensable. If you really want it the Origin version of ME1 comes with it).
  8. If you’re using Origin, you should enter the game’s properties and turn off automatic updates. This will avoid weird overwrites caused by evil spirits.
  9. A common choice is to disable the Steam overlay/the Origin overlay. Unless you actually use those things, I guess. If you don’t, all they do is get in the way.

So now we have the basic, vanilla Mass Effect. Hooray.


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Non-graphics change

Because of reasons, the changes have to be made in two (2) distinct steps :

  1. Most changes.
  2. Changes to the textures.

If you want a broad view of what exists, you can check the all-time popular mods on the Nexus . Just remembers that at this stage we don’t want graphics stuff such as C3Anderson’s MEIUTM, CreeperLava’s ALOT, Ottemis’ textures, etc.. These’ll come later.

ME3Tweaks Mod Manager

A simple tool to handle the first step is the ME3Tweaks mod manager (download link) . Despite the name, it can handle the entire Mass Effect trilogy – ME1, ME2, ME3.

When you install it, the first action it’ll have you take is a backup of your vanilla ME1 files. This is especially useful if redownloading about 8 gigs is a problem for you. Plus, when modding games, backups are always good.

For each mod you want to install, you’ll have to :

  1. Read the “DESCRIPTION” tab to understand what it does. We’re not using a tonne of mods, so that remains reasonable.
  2. Go to the “FILES” tab and click “MANUAL DOWNLOAD”. Unless you’re a Nexus subscriber, you then confirm you want the “SLOW DOWNLOAD” on the nag page.
  3. Stock your ME1 mods in one folder to stay organised.
  4. Drag and drop the archive onto ME3Tweaks to populate your mods list. You can then deploy each mod from the list with the “APPLY MOD” button at the bottom of ME3Tweak.
  5. Note that launching the game from ME3Tweaks will likely produce a Steam error. You need to launch from Steam, since Steam is DRM.

Example workspace

A simple example in one picture :

Mass Effect modding work space example

I have a folder where I store the tools and resources — Gaming (E:) → Mass Effect stuff. It’s on a large but old and slow hard drive.

I have a folder where I store the game — 960 Evo (H:) → etc. etc.. It’s on a smaller but far faster drive.

On the side — my desktop — you can see Flawless Widescreen, which we’ll discuss later.

Suggested mods that go with ME3Tweaks

  • Mass Effect Recalibrated . An array of small fixes.
  • Faster Elevators . The elevator sequences were an amusing way to hide loading times on older consoles. But we don’t need that on PC.
  • A lot of videos . AI-based upscale of the videos so they look less terrible. Download these as a torrent unless you know nothing about torrents.

Suggested mods that are installed in other ways

No intro movies . This one skips the corporate logos crap when launching the game. Drag and drop into CookedPC\movies as explained in the description.

Mass Effect overwritten . Fixes a bunch of niggling inconsistencies in the texts. Drop the uncompressed DLC_XMEOw folder in Mass Effect\DLC. Then make an edit to the autoload, as explained in the posts for the mod .

If you have an ultrawide display, jump ahead to the discussion of such near the end of this article. Then come back here on you have installed the software and mod.

Vignette remover

Personally, I remove the stupid vignette effect… because, let me tell you, vignette effects are stupid… no, really, vignettes suck… have I mentioned that I dislike vignettes…. because oh boy, vignettes, am I right ?

If you have no idea what vignettes are, the Vignette Remover mod  explains it all.

Still, you *probably* don’t care. The ME1 vignette is primarily an issue when doing very specific kinds of screenshots, called tiledshots. Otherwise, most people don’t even notice they exist.

Other mods

There are various cheat/tweaks/saves mods. I’ve skipped those since this article is long enough as is.

I don’t play with a controller so I’ve also skipped those. For lack of concrete experience.

Same gender romance  is quite popular. It’s at its most useful for an Ashley/female Shepard romance. But it’s also useful if you want a Kaidan/male Shepard romance to start earlier than in the trilogy’s default flow.

Cut Content unlocker  is just extra guns and armour. And a good chunk are also restored by ME1 Recalibrated.

I haven’t tested Expanded Character Creator  since my Shep’s appearance is already set. Look at the mod’s Images tab to see what it can do. It does what used to require Gibbed software knowledge.

There are also pre-made Shepardses. If you’re utterly terrible with the character creator.

Once upon a time, making the Mass Effect .exe large-address aware was critical. But the MEUITM installer (below) handles that now.

Do a check now

So that’s all of five mods, plus perhaps stuff you decided to add.

Launch the game (from Steam or Origin) and verify that everything’s going well. We’ll also do a backup soon.


Graphics changes – the big two

We’re going to use just two resources. These are MEUITM and ALOT. As you may have noticed, these are the two most popular ME1 mods.

Again, make sure you’re done with the other mods before you roll out these two.

Get the big files

We’re going to do the both of them in a single installer. It’s safer and simpler.

First, download the bigger files. Said big files can also be downloaded as torrents. If you can, get them as torrents.

  • From the MEUITM page , the main file (anniversary edition).
  • From the ALOT page  the main file.
  • From the ALOT page, the optional Improved Static Lighting resource.

A momentous choice

MEUITM has a few texture options, which are explained in the mod page, in the mod page videos and in the downloaded files.

FWIW, my own MEUITM choices are :

  1. Eyes HD (original look).
  2. FemShep HD – CDAMJC Cut. Skin is more realistic.
  3. Tali’s Face – Original look a.k.a. hidden face. I have a lot of respect for mod author CDAMJC, but on this specific and terribly important point he’s tots wrong 😺.
  4. N7 armor – Carbon Fiber.
  5. Asari faces – Smooth. Because the main Asari in the game is a young lass.
  6. Wrex – Battle hardened.
  7. Garrus armor – C-Sec.
  8. Soft shadows – yes siree bob.

But while everything downloads you have time to decide what options you’ll install.

One installation

Launch the ALOT installer. Drag and drop the archives you downloaded onto the ALOT installer. The ALOT installer will also suggest you get smaller files – download and add them.

(Remember, we already did the A Lot of Videos mod.)

The installer will also encourage you to make a backup of the game first. Do it, unless you have limited space. This way you have a backup of the vanilla-with-DLC game, and a backup of the modded version.

Notice how the ALOT installer stores his own copies of the mods. So you don’t have to keep the files you downloaded once they are “in” the ALOT installer.

Note the green “configure” text in the MEUITM section, which some people miss. That’s what you click on to pick the options.

Installing and checking all those textures and lights and shadows and whatnots will take a while. There are several gigs of those, after all. Go do push ups, maybe ?

Do a check now

Launch the game (from Steam or Origin) and verify that everything’s going well. Just to be sure.

Yes, the “splash” picture at launch is now different. It’s the MEUITM one.

Also, do notes that these mods change the textures, not the *meshes*. The objects and character models still are somewhat low-poly by 2020 standards. But the details, the lighting, the shadows, the texture depth, etc. all were overhauled.


Video

The opening cinematic, with our custom Shepard, in 2160p.

I pushed the image quality at the clear expanse of framerate, to test textures/lighting/shadows.


Nvidia settings

There are two kinds – the control panel and the driver injection.

The control panel

  1. Right click on your Windows desktop, in any empty space. Launch the Nvidia control panel.
  2. In “Change resolution” (left column) make sure that the PC resolution and refresh rate are right. You never know.
  3. In “Change resolutions”, tick “use Nvidia colour settings” and make sure that the output dynamic range is set to full.

A “full output dynamic range” means a greater range of colours on the screen. This usually means a more vivid image.

The driver injection

This is done using the Nvidia Profile Inspector tool (download page) .

If you want to watch YouTube videos about it, here you go .

Here we’re going for an aggressive setup. Since the game is 13+ years old and we’re assuming a recent GPU. Launch the profile inspector, type “mass” in the “Profiles:” menu (upper left) and select Mass Effect.

We’re only changing three things. A resources-intensive anti-aliasing, Nvidia ambient occlusion, and more aggressive aniso filtering. Like this :

Nvidia Inspector settings for Mass Effect 1

Anti-aliasing

There are multiple possibilities to do anti-aliasing in our stack :

  1. The in-game Mass Effect menus.
  2. The Nvidia drivers.
  3. The ReShade injectors (see below).

Here we’re doing the Nvidia drivers thing. This means that you can turn off anti-aliasing in Mass Effect, and do not need SMAA injection in ReShade.

In the same vein you can set the aniso to “Point” in the Mass Effect menus, since the Nvidia drivers are handling that. And you don’t need a ReShade-based ambient occlusion shader.

I have seen old (like, early 2010s) reports of Mass Effect running into issues with Nvidia drivers anti-aliasing. I’d never experienced this and this has presumably been fixed since. But if you do get the issue, SMAA via ReShade is a good alternative.

Do a check

Play a bit and see how the game runs. The intro video, I *think*, always gets a bit choppy due to streaming textures. So see how the game behaves in-world.

If the FPS isn’t that great, you may need to lower the antialising to 2x Multisampling / 2x Supersampling (the two multipliers must always match).


The .ini files and the game saves

A lot of software uses .ini files. This is where you write preferences that the program reads when it initiates (when it starts). Hence the name.

It’s not code per se, but it’s very specific technical parameters.

There’s a long tradition of messing with these ill-documented parameters to change and improve video games. In many cases, results are readily noticeable.

ME1 stores its .ini files as user documents. So the location is C:\Users\(user name goes there)\Documents\Bioware\Mass Effect\Configs — assuming that Windows lives on the C: drive.

The two main ones are BIOEngine.ini and BIOInput.ini.

Monkeying with ME1 inis

MEIUTM/ALOT already comes with many BIOEngine.ini edits. These handle a lot of fiddly but visible changes.

To go further, the handiest resource is ArJed’s mod on the Nexus . Pick the MEUITM-compatible version. It is extensively documented – read the ReadMe.

Note that many of the proposed changes are resources-hungry. For instance, the game’ll keep drawing full polys for distant objects. The readme explains what are the most resources-hungry ones, so you can tone them down if the game is running too slow.

(Doing *everything* — textures, driver forcing, full-on .ini changes, etc. — will likely result in observable slowdown unless you’re on a 2080 or somesuch. Again, if you change the .ini to even more aggressive settings than MEUITM and ALOT, do read the manual.)

Backup ! Backup !

Make *backups* of your modified .ini files once you’re finished. They are weird cases where the game reverts them for… reasons. And redoing everything is a pain.

Likewise, if you ever uninstall and reinstall Mass Effect, the saves in C:\Users\(user name goes there)\Documents\Bioware\Mass Effect\Save will likely get deleted. BACK THEM UP !

Furthermore, the game has a certain enthusiasm about overwriting config files. Setting bioengine and bioinput to read-only (right click on the config file to edit its properties) may be necessary if that keeps happening.


Graphics changes – Reshade

Reshade  is a set of graphics tweaking tools, mostly for games. It injects stuff that manipulates pictures (“shaders”) between the game’s engine and your monitor.

It can be used for subtle but nice tweaking. It can be used for atmosphere-setting artistic direction as part of a suite of mods. It can be used to turn games into a dog’s breakfast of overcharged colours and oversharpened textures.

Installing ReShade is NOT necessary in this setup. Or even important.

Like most tools so far, ReShade has been extensively idiot-proofed.

  1. Get the ReShade_Setup executable from the Reshade page (near the bottom).
  2. Launch it.
  3. Get the Mass Effect executable. For a Steam installation, it’s in \steamapps\common\Mass Effect\Binaries.
  4. You can just drag and drop MassEffect.exe on the ReShade windows. ReShade will recognise it, and determine it’s a DirectX 9 program. Click on the DirectX 9 box to confirm.
  5. For now, install all effects. The game will take a bit longer to launch, but this’ll allow you to use various settings.

So, \steamapps\common\Mass Effect\Binaries now has extra resources such as a d3d9.dll, a folder with ReShade shaders, and a ReShade.ini file. And when you start Mass Effect, you’ll see some text in the upper left corner saying that ReShade is on and how to open its menu.

Using MEUITM ReShade

Therefore :

  1. Launch Mass Effect.
  2. Open the ReShade menu (for the current-as-of-this-writing version it’s the Home key. Or Début on AZERTY keyboards).
  3. Create a new ReShade profile called MassEffect that has… one effect at random, it’s not important.
  4. Close Mass Effect.
  5. In the \Mass Effect\Binaries folder, there’s now a new document called MassEffect.ini. It’s the ReShade profile you just created.
  6. Get the MEUITM Reshade profile on the MEUITM mod files page .
  7. Replace the existing MassEffect.ini with the one from the MEUITM page.
  8. See whether you like it.
  9. If you do, turn the ReShade SMAA off if you’re using Nvidia anti-aliasing.

Tinkering

ReShade is quite flexible. When in Mass Effect, you can always hit “Home” and switch on and off every single effect to see how it impacts the game’s look.

If you like this stuff, the Nexus mods page for Mass Effect has a number of other ReShade presets you can explore. Some are crispers, some are bloomy, some are subdued, some are vivid…

To keep it simple, I’d suggest the methods above :

  1. Go in-game, create a dummy profile such as MassEffect1, MassEffect2…
  2. Leave the game, download a ReShade profile that seems cool, rename it to MassEffect1.ini, MassEffect2.ini or whatever matches your newest dummy profile.
  3. Replace the dummy profile’s .ini with the downloaded ReShade preset’s .ini.

If you *really* like this stuff, you can also experiment with ReShade while in-game, changing the parameters for the effect to be more to your liking.


People with a widescreen display

*If* you use a ultrawide screen, install :

Otherwise, a bunch of buttons and menus will be pushed off-screen. This is a common issue with older games and ultrawide displays.

All the instructions are on the mod’s page.

Do note that this means that you need to launch Flawless Widescreen, *then* Mass Effect.


Screenshots

I’m doing screenshots for writeups.org, which implies modifications. But I doubt most people care about these.

The general idea is to add keybinds to turn the flying camera on/off, to hide the scaleforms (that’s the user interface), and to take tiledshots. This mod  has some discussion of this.


A word

Over the course of this guide we’ve been through a lot of very well-made resources that are completely free.

Most are the product of thousands of hours from volunteers who code tools, parse data files, paint textures (and normals and whatnots), study game engines and their parameters, understand arcane stuff such as rasterized light spaces or shaders injection, etc..

So when interacting with mods and tool authors donate if you can, and don’t be a jerk.


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By Sébastien Andrivet.

Writeup completed on the 7th of April, 2020.

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