Most of the changes in Mass Effect Legendary Edition were about improving the first game. Significant stuff like the graphical overhaul and redesigned combat, and a huge list of smaller tweaks too. Now you can skip elevator rides in the Citadel, so if another news bulletin is blaring instead of some priceless Garrus/Tali banter you can spacebar right past it. The Mako has a boost button, which lets you zoom over those boring planets like Shepard's souped it up for illegal street racing. The inventory limit is doubled, you can shoot any gun effectively no matter your class, and all the weapons have noticeable differences based on their manufacturer. This Mass Effect is absolutely a better game than the version we got on PC in 2008.
Which is why it was surprising to fire up the Legendary version of Mass Effect 2, which had a much more light-touch remaster, and experience a kind of full-body relief. It was like when you don't realize you're thirsty, then drink a glass of water and suddenly feel it revitalize every part of your body like a PSA for the benefits of hydration.
For starters, ME2's combat is fluid and responsive. You can vault over obstacles to charge enemies while they reload rather than having to awkwardly detach yourself from cover and go round, and playing as a vanguard I zipped across every battlefield like a pinball—a bundle of biotic energy slamming into clueless mercs, following up with a shotgun blast to their goofy staggered faces. Meanwhile, in ME1 sometimes you have to press the button to go into cover twice just to get it to respond, and once you're in you may as well stay there.
The rest of my squad fights better in ME2 as well, their powers arcing to hit enemies rather than flying past a random geth who happens to sidestep. I can give squadmates orders in pause-mode instead of having to do it in real-time, and even when I don't boss them around, they're smart enough to take out enemies rather than standing on the spot blasting away at a wall, or getting locked out of Peak 15 because the door closed too fast, or catching on one of the Mako's wheels and trotting in place.
And while I'm on the subject of the Mako, it still sucks to get back into that thing and find it's somehow got bogged. You spin the wheels and tap the jump rockets fruitlessly until either you give up and return to the Normandy or the game suddenly teleports you to a random spot nearby.
It's not just combat and controls that are better in ME2. Dialogue scenes feel dynamic, with characters more likely to walk and talk and the mobile camera constantly reframing them. Moral choices are more tempting, with renegade options like headbutting a krogan or destroying the heretic geth that are either fun or perfectly sensible decisions, rather than opportunities for Shepard to transform abruptly into a xenophobe or violent goon.
Where the first game really hit its stride during the final run of missions, that potent rush from Virmire through Ilos and the climb up the Citadel, even mid-sized recruitment or loyalty missions in ME2 are memorable. Some are action-packed setpieces, others are quiet character studies, some have entire bespoke systems like the infiltration mechanics when you go undercover at a party to help Kasumi steal back her dead boyfriend's digitized memories.
And while the trilogy's plot doesn't advance much in ME2, the setting and characters are so enriched it's a worthwhile trade. You meet aliens who go beyond exemplifying the stereotype of their species and feel like individuals, whether a krogan scientist or a salarian who sings showtunes. Returning friends like Garrus and Liara gain new dimensions, and freed from the structure of the Alliance military, Shepard becomes a believable character too. It's ME2 that establishes Shepard's a bad dancer and a gung-ho driver, and while ME1 tells you Shepard is a natural leader, ME2 demonstrates it. You begin the game working for a Cerberus cell, and by the end flip their allegiance so they abandon the Illusive Man's scheming ass entirely to follow you instead.
It's not perfect, of course. The sheer amount of returning characters, especially if you did all the first game's sidequests that make them reappear, means the galaxy ends up feeling small—you're constantly bumping into people you know even on planets you've never been to. Though they're more talkative than they were in the first game, most of your crew do run out of things to say well before ME2's end. And sometimes in the middle of a firefight your squadmates climb on top of cover instead of hiding, or even float above it.
But my list of complaints about the sequel is much smaller. I'd expected this remaster would smooth out more of the differences between these games, that I'd import my Shepard from each one to the next and carry on with only minor deceleration. Instead, it was a speedbump that ended up highlighting the changes between them, cementing how much I prefer ME2.