System Shock 2
System Shock 2 is renowned as being one of the best cyberpunk games out there. It didn’t sell very well back when it released in 1999, but it was met with critical acclaim, and eventually the main studio behind it, Irrational Games, went on to create the spiritual successor, BioShock.
System Shock 2 takes place 42 years after the events of the first game in the series, System Shock. This time, you play as a generic soldier aboard the Von Braun, the world’s first faster than light ship. It is on it’s maiden voyage when it receives a distress signal from somewhere on Tau Ceti V. Due to a malfunction in XERXES, the computer system on the Von Braun, you are woken from your cryo sleep to discover that the place is overrun with human-mutant hybrids known as “the Many” who attempt to convert you into one of them. All the while, a fellow survivor, Dr. Janice Polito guides you to her on the 4th deck of the Von Braun. It’s up to you to discover what happened on the Von Braun, and combat the Many as well as XERXES’s malfunctioning security systems.
Like System Shock before and BioShock after, much of the story is told through audio logs that you can find throughout the ship. The story is creepy and is only enhanced by the atmosphere and excellent sound design. Enemies echo throughout the lonely corridors of the ship speaking disturbing quotes, as you wade through body parts and blood splatters… And speaking of enemies, the enemies are terrifying and pose a real threat throughout your journey, as ammo and other supplies are incredibly scarce. While this creates great tension, it becomes frustrating and annoying, especially as you won’t end up being able to use most of the weapons in the game anyway, due to the light RPG elements.
When you start up a new game, after the backstory is played for you, you pick one of three military groups, one focusing on weaponry, one on technical skills, and one on Psionics. You then get three training options (of 9 total) that help determine your beginning stats. You have your primary stats: Strength, Endurance, Psionic Ability, Agility, and Cybernetic Affinity, Technical Skills: Hacking, Repair, Maintenance, Modify, and Research, and finally, combat skills, governing the 4 weapon types: Standard, Energy, Heavy, and Exotic.
As you progress, you’ll be gifted cybernetic modules to spend on these points as you see fit. At first, it seems like there is a wide breadth of abilities you can cover, but you’ll find that some abilities are absolutely vital to beating the game. If you don’t spend points into hacking, I’ve heard that you can actually get stuck, and can’t progress beyond certain points (as a precaution, I maxed out the incredibly useful hacking skill almost as soon as I could). If you don’t put at least one point into repair and maintenance, your weapons will be practically useless, as they degrade rather quickly and jam up. Without repair, you can’t unjam them, and without maintenance, you can’t keep them performing well, meaning you’ll have to repair them every few clips. Research allows you to use exotic weapons once fully researched, as well as a number of other useful damage bonuses and items you can use. Finally, modifying your weapons makes them stronger, but you can also find devices that will do this for you.
You have a little more freedom with your other stats, but, annoyingly, some weapons require not only their specific weapon stat, but also a certain strength or agility to use, meaning you may have to spend a ton of upgrades on certain stats, gimping you in other areas, just so you can use that cool laser rapier.
As I’ve stated before, ammo is SCARCE. You will always be hoping for ammo, and using melee weapons becomes a necessity instead of a convenience or novelty. If you can conserve ammo in ANY WAY, do it. Again, this treads the line of frustrating rather than being challenging, as enemies are pretty tough as is, especially the various robots you’ll encounter. Like the first System Shock, you can find regeneration stations in case you die, but full health restoring surgical beds are much more challenging to find, making death more of an annoyance and inconvenience than anything, as you trek back to where you died to continue, usually only with half or less of your health, only to die in one hit by another robot.
The HUD is improved from the first System Shock, for sure, but there is a LOT of menu navigation. Like Resident Evil, your inventory is broken up into little boxes, and each item can take up different space. Most items take up a single square, but weapons always take up a vertical 3 squares, while armor takes up 4 squares. All the things you’ll find you’ll never be able to carry all of, forcing you to make some tough choices from time to time, though you can always come back and grab something later. The HUD contains your inventory, research, audio logs, notes, weapon, weapon ammunition type, health, Psi, stats, and probably more I’m forgetting. It’s a lot to display on a screen, and using a mouse is really the only effective way to deal with it all. You can pop up the inventory screen at any time using Tab and fiddle with things as you see fit. It’s a little clunky at first, but you get used to it pretty quickly, and is definitely an improvement over the first System Shock. Just get used to some of the basic hotkeys (reload and switch ammo type, especially) and you’ll be just fine.
Ultimately, the game is a survival-horror first-person shooter. As you explore, between beating baddies, you’ll need to find key cards or codes for doors to progress. You’ll use your weapons and multiple ammo types, in addition to Psionics. Like plasmids in BioShock, Psionics enable you to use borderline magical abilities from your brainwaves (or something). You can charge them up for more damage or effect, but over charging them will cause you take damage yourself. There are a number of useful and interesting Psionics, but personally, I completely avoided Psionics and didn’t use a single one throughout my playthrough, in the hopes that I could specialize better and therefore complete the game(which I did this time), as I’ve tried to play it many times before.
And that’s kind of the problem with System Shock 2. People really enjoy it but few actually finish it due to a number of issues that I’ve brought up before. Especially early in the game, things are really tough, as ammunition is scarce, and your stats aren’t good enough to really get the ball rolling. As you get a little farther and you start to get the “hang” of things, you may be faced with other challenges such as not upgrading certain skills and having no way to progress. System Shock 2 is very demanding on already knowing a bunch of things that there is no way a first time player would ever know. I would imagine a second playthrough would be far enjoyable to the first time, which is a bit of an issue, in my opinion. You want people walking away with a good impression of the game.
The Bottom Line
- Great atmosphere, story, and sound design.
- The variety of things you can do, like hacking, research, and modifying your weaponry.
- Gun play and gameplay in general is satisfying.
- Frustrating difficulty.
- A somewhat convoluted HUD.
- First time players are pretty much lost with stat building, and trying to build a balanced character (as opposed to a specialized character) will only lead to failure.
Final Score: 7/10
All that said, System Shock 2 is great at pulling you in with its interesting story and incredibly immersive atmosphere. The game is great too, but there are just so many problems and challenges that a first time player must face when giving it a go.