System Shock – PC Review
System Shock, created by Looking Glass Studios, is widely regarded as genre defining. It’s excellent story telling, atmosphere, and gameplay is a huge boon to the cyberpunk genre and other FPS action/adventure games. It feels very BioShock-esque, which makes sense, seeing as Looking Glass Studios worked with Irrational (of BioShock fame) to release System Shock 2. Seems to me that Irrational picked up some tricks from their time with Looking Glass Studios.
In the year 2072, you play as a skilled hacker who hacks into a space station owned by the Trioptimum Corporation who makes high tech interfaces for human use, among other things. Instead of being punished for his crimes, one man, Edward Diego states he can clear the hacker’s name, if he agrees to hack into SHODAN, the space station’s AI, and give Diego control. The hacker will also be awarded with a military-grade interface. The hacker agrees, does his job, and then gets the interface surgically installed, which requires a 6 month recovery coma. After 6 months, the hacker wakes up to find everyone gone, dead, or worse, and the place overrun with cyborgs and mutants, with SHODAN controlling the entire station with plans on wiping out the Earth in an attempt to become some sort of godlike figure. It’s up to the hacker, with some slight help from Earth communications to figure out how to stop SHODAN.
The story bits are told through audio logs you can find scattered around the ship and messages from characters such as SHODAN. The story is fairly bare-bones, but it’s SHODAN’s schemes and personality that really shine throughout the narrative. Every time you think you’ve thwarted SHODAN, she’s got another trick up her (cybernetic) sleeve. Her chilling inhuman voice is magnified by the surroundings and general loneliness of space. The atmosphere is fantastic and creepy as the space station drifts aimlessly, SHODAN threatening to squash you like the insect you are. Enemies echo through the hallways as you pass by, creating a real tension of “what’s around this corner…?” SHODAN is a fantastic antagonist, and you’ll often be wondering “what’s it gonna do next?”
Before I delve into the controls and gameplay in general, I want to point something out: I played the “Enhanced Version”, and I highly suggest you do too. With the regular version, you forgo the higher resolution graphics and text, but most importantly, the original version does not support mouselook.
The game plays kind of like an exploration-shooter, almost like DOOM but with an inventory system and more complex puzzles. You’ll explore the station as the map auto fills in for you, and you can stop anywhere you’d like to leave a note for yourself, which is highly recommended, or you’ll be wondering where you saw that keypad or Power Station. You’re objectives are highly varied and keep the game from feeling stale. You’ll need to find key cards, hack open doors, repair things among many others, but they’re so exciting I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you. Some doors may need to be hacked or the wiring redone, which is like a small puzzle in itself, which again, breaks up the gameplay well, keeping it fresh. As you explore the 9+ levels of the space station, you can find security cameras or nodes that you can destroy to unlock hidden areas, and keep the enemy forces less numerous. Just be aware that destroying entire security nodes is bound to get SHODAN’s attention… Also, expect a lot of backtracking, though it’s actually pretty fun to revisit areas after you thought you finished it.
You have two main things to worry about when exploring: your health and your energy. If your health depletes, you’re dead, and if your energy depletes, you can no longer use the cybernetic implants you’ve acquired, which is a major detriment to your survival. Cybernetic implants are 10 different features you can activate at any time that are really really cool, and unlike anything I’ve seen in other games. They all use your energy slowly while active and range from immensely useful, like the shield that absorbs a percentage of all incoming damage, to situationally useful, like the head lantern and night vision, to the just damn cool, like one that lets you see behind you. There are 10 different modules of these you can find and install, and they all have multiple levels, increasing their functionality. Some modules are passive and don’t use energy, like the booster, increasing your movement speed, and the targeting system which can tell you if you’re actually hitting an enemy, and if so, how much damage you’re doing.
As you explore, you’ll find new weapons, up to 16 of them, though you can only carry 7 at a time, meaning you’ll have to pick which are the most useful, especially versus different enemy types. For example, the Dart Gun is useful against mutants, but barely effective against cyborgs and other bots. Ammo is pretty plentiful, but there are also a few energy weapons, which take ammunition straight from your energy reserves. As an added bonus you energy weapons, you can tweak how much damage and as such how much energy they use and how much heat they accrue. You can also overload them for extra damage, but can overheat them, making them unusable until they cool down. Each weapon other than energy weapons has 2 ammo types, and you can also match the ammo type to the susceptible enemy.
In addition to weapons, you can find various grenades (again, match the grenade to the enmy type!), 1st Aid Kits for health, batteries for energy, and various patches. Patches are brief bonuses that you can use whenever you’d like. Some regen a small amount of health, which is useful, as 1st Aid Kits are fairly scarce, while others give you a boost to melee damage, improve your eyesight, slow time, or offer you hints to hacking puzzles. Be careful though, as patches sometimes have side effects, though the buff always outweighs the side effects.
Also, you’re a hacker, so you’ll need to head into cyberspace via cyberspace terminals from time to time to get data and unlock doors. You’ll have to fight off SHODAN’s security programs as you float through cyberspace using weaponry unique to cyberspace. Cyberspace is kind of like a 3D wireframe maze that you float through in an attempt to collect things before logging out. If you take too much damage in cyberspace, you’ll get booted and take some damage in the real world too. It’s a neat little touch, and reminds me a bit of Rez for the Dreamcast.
There is one fairly annoying downside to System Shock, though: The HUD, at least, at first, while you’re still learning what everything does. There are 3 screens along the bottom that can be changed at will to a number of things, but until you figure out which buttons or hotkeys do what, you may be fumbling around for a while. The main window has 4 different options, while the side windows have 5 (though they are the same). You can switch between a bunch of windows, but the weapon info screen is the most important, as you can only reload by taking your cursor off of the screen and clicking the appropriate ammo type. Worse still, if you have a few bullets left in your clip, you must first unload your weapon, then reload. At first, this seems like a neat immersive touch, but quickly gets annoying, especially in difficult firefights late in the game. With the cluttered and somewhat clunky HUD, it can be tough to navigate to whatever you’re looking for, again, until you get used to it.
Finally, the game can be tough at some points, but there’s an interesting feature. If you die, that’s it, game over. Your body gets reconstructed at a machine to serve SHODAN. However, you can disable these machines on most floors of the station, and they instead serve you reconstruct and heal you. This means it can actually be a tactically advantageous situation to die instead of wasting healing items, provided you’ve unlocked the regeneration station on the floor. It’s unique, but may take a bit of getting used to for the average gamer who is used to never dying.
The Bottom Line
- Great atmosphere and characters, especially SHODAN.
- Fun, satisfying gameplay.
- Plenty to explore, with a ton of varied objectives.
- The clunky HUD.
- Sometimes unfair difficulty.
Final Score: 9.5/10
I really really enjoyed System Shock and it’s atmosphere, characters, story, and gameplay. System Shock is chock-full of fun little features that just go the extra mile, for me. If you can get past the clunky HUD and sometimes frustrating difficulty, there’s an amazing game underneath it.