I typically tend to write about big issues in gaming, long-running trends or themes about gaming as a whole but from time to time it's interesting to take a step back from modern gaming and examine some forgotten gems of classic videogaming.
System Shock 2 is one such game.
As a retrospective piece I won't go into too much detail about the history surrounding the game or it's creation (most of which can be found online anyway), but rather I'll talk about what made System Shock 2 an enjoyable game – and indeed still makes it enjoyable to play today, aswell as what it didn't do so well.
Probably one of the most fundamental aspects of bringing a game to life and making it feel real is having a good storyline, one that sits well with the gameplay mechanics, doesn't feel too forced or contrived but at the same time doesn't feel too apart from the enjoyment of the game, something System Shock 2's storyline does pretty well.
Simply put: A global corporation is looking to advance it's own agenda, and so, in agreement with the military sends a joint scientific/military expedition into the deepest reaches of space with newly developed faster-than-light technology, only for something to go horribly wrong when it gets there. You play the part of a soldier put into cryogenic sleep at some point after the initial incident and must fight your way through the creatures that have taken over the ship and try to save what's left of the crew, and the ship, and find some way home to Earth.
Ofcourse, it's not as simple as that.
There's a lot more going on, to do with the initial incident that starts it all off, the organisms that take over the ship, the hostility of the ship's AI to its own crew and the over-arching malevolence that hang over everything that happens in the game, all the way upto the final showdown.
Feeding into this is the atmosphere the game creates, from the sense of loneliness you get from never really meeting another person properly and only hearing people stories after the fact, to the way enemies or even ghostly apparitions will seem to just 'pop-up' at times, to the whole feel of the ship being that something 'isn't right' – from the robots that blurt pleasantries out at you as they attempt to kamikaze detonate themselves right next to you to the nonsensical announcements by the ship's AI to the status of the amenities or events happening on the ship in the near future.
Sound design aswell plays into this, I have to say System Shock 2 has some of the best sound design I've experienced in a horror game bar the early Silent Hill games or the Siren series, it's hard to define exactly what makes it so creepy but the combination of long silences, little music and the noises adversaries make really add to the atmosphere of the game. Your character spends most of the game silently listening to the audio diaries of dead crew-members recounting their experiences on the ship, which is itself unnerving. There's also the sounds your enemies make – the way the most common enemies, the hybrids, won't shout abuse or grunt, but will instead (in distorted or broken English) ask you to kill them or tell you to run before they see you – it's the sense of conflict between what you hear and what they're doing that makes it so disturbing, because you don't expect somebody trying to kill you to warn you or to tell you to run.
These are probably two of the most obvious aspects about what made the game so enjoyable, but also integral was its ability to fuse role-playing game mechanics of the day with those of a first-person shooter.
Typically in first person shooters of the era you'd walk around, pick up some guns (of increasing size usually), shoot some bad guys (also of increasing size), pull some switches (these usually stayed the same size, but could change appearance) and then you'd end a level. Around this would sit the story – either through text or cutscenes, but essentially the mechanics were this simple.
Typically in role-playing games you'd spend a lot of time walking around, talking to other characters, battling monsters, then levelling up and using fixed classes to assign those skill points to work your way up a particular skill tree. The systems at play weren't as advanced as they are today, and you didn't have the kind of 'skill overlap' that a lot of modern RPGs have moved towards in recent years (Skyrim, for example). Instead you'd usually pick a class and work your way up it, often with some choice about which powers/skills to have and what order to get them in.
In System Shock 2 both these mechanics were merged together, resulting in the structured narrative of a FPS (and a fair amount of the button pushing aswell) with the choice and class levelling system of an RPG – so the warrior, mage and healer, classes typical of a fantasy RPG were replaced with the Marine, the OSA operative and the engineer. It meant an FPS with much more depth but also an RPG with a much faster pace and more action than people were used to.
Also worth mentioning is the random mechanic at work behind the gameplay, typically in FPSs there are a certain number of enemies in a level and therefore so much ammo in a level, enough, maybe more than enough, for you to kill them all. In System Shock 2 levels were typically designed with a set number of enemies already in place, with set patrol patterns, but if these were killed new enemies would spawn (or more accurately be respawned) to replace them. So instead of a system with fixed ammo counters, and levels that could be cleared, the player would continually have to watch for new enemies popping up (usually behind them).
Ammo and items were handled in much the same way, typically each level had a certain amount of items stashed in predetermined spots but with the possibility that a downed enemy would be carrying something. What heightened the tension even more was the fact that whatever you did pick up from an enemy usually wasn't that much (usually a small amount of cash or a simple item.) so you spent a lot of the game desperately trying to scrounge up supplies from stashes around the ship to protect yourself and progress.
If you've played RE4 or Dead Space – or more obviously, Bioshock, then this kind of system is probably pretty familiar to you, each of these runs on something similar, though minus the random enemy element in the case of the first two. This system was especially important because of the amount of backtracking required in System Shock 2, the ship was split up into reasonably realistic (for a sci-fi game anyway) areas of a spaceship, most of which you had to make repeated return journeys to to get everything you needed.
Probably the best way to describe what works well with System Shock 2 when it does work well is to compare it to a continuous game of cat and mouse, with you always at odds with the game, and seemingly winning some moments then potentially losing disastrously at others. Though a lot of what happens in the game is pre-determined there's enough random elements to keep you on your toes, sometimes you'll feel you've bested the game and are managing to survive well, only in the next moment to have to use up almost all your ammo and find yourself struggling to survive again.
In a sense, this is what the game does so well, it makes you a survivor, it tells you a story while stopping every couple of minutes to scare the hell out of you or remind you that you're only human and can still die easily.
So onto the bad, huh?
Probably one of the least appreciable aspects of System Shock 2 to the modern discerning gamer would be the graphics, they've aged horribly. In some respects it doesn't really matter – System Shock 2's strength lies in the atmosphere it creates, from the sounds around you, the way enemies can appear at random behind you, to the quality of dialogue and voice-acting in the audio logs you pick up, as such even today System Shock 2 is still a remarkably enjoyable game, but most people will still look at it and think 'ugly'.
To be fair, they'd be right, time hasn't done any favours to the visuals of System Shock 2, and in retrospect a lot of things visually could do with a touch-up. Notably so is the lack of individuality or identity to any of the crew members of adversaries you meet – much of the game's horror derives from the fact you're killing former humans, many of whom were forced to become monsters, and there are even several notable examples in the audio-logs of crew members who've changed or been altered. Yet you never see any of these, atleast not recognisably so, which seems like a fault.
The same's true of the few still living people you meet, and the corpses you stumble upon, as a kid playing the game and seeing corpses hung from the ceiling with expressions of sheer agony and horror cut across their faces was horrifying, even to this day the nihilism that underlies much of how the crew died is striking, the sense of hopelessness you get from seeing a man collapsed in a corner dead with a gun at his side, or a crew woman lying amongst a cluster of bullet-ridden container crates with a blood pooling around her is really powerful.
Still, the fact that you spend much of the game learning about how a small number of crewmen and women desperately spent their last few days alive trying to evade the force overcoming their ship, leads me to wonder how much more impact the audio recordings would have had if you'd went from listening to somebody talking to normally to finding them hung from the rafters or with their brains blown out in a holosuite. I can't help but feel some sort of individual identity to these corpses and to the few living characters – or even the hybrids, would have added more to the sense that these were real crew members, especially since each audio log carried a small picture of the crew member who recorded the report - imagine what effect it'd have to listen to a man recounting numerous mundane logs, only to later find them swinging from the ceiling.
Ofcourse, this is very much the benefit of hindsight (and superior hardware for that matter), in today's games we're used to having character who look like people and not blurry, blocky masses. For it's time System Shock 2 did have decent enough graphics, even if by today's standards they wouldn't do so well.
Another big negative is that, although the story itself is pretty solid and the elements well-balanced through the course of the game some aspects come across as a little derivative, I guess it's probably safe to talk about this without spoiler tags (you don't need them for 14 year old games, right?) but I'm mainly talking about the enemies, and maybe this ties into what I've talked about above but some of the enemies, especially later in the game, aren't that well-designed or imaginative.
The parasitic lifeform which overcomes the ship in it's hybrid stage is quite interesting, but the later stages doesn't look so great. The premise being that these parasitic organism are born from eggs – in what seems like a pretty clear homage to the facehuggers from aliens, and then attach themselves to a human host through their nervous system. Not only this, but at a certain point the hosts/remaining crew of the ship become little more than potential biomass for the parasites and so are recycled into towering monsters of flesh and while this is interesting - and very scary on more than just visible level (as a monster literally made up of people should be) - in the game it doesn't come across so well. Like with the hybrids and the crew members, the rumbler (as the creature's called) doesn't really have much definition or presence, and though you can see human faces across it's mass (very unsettling when you realise) everything's too blurry and blocky to have the kind of impact it should have.
The annelids also seem pretty unimaginative, they're little more than worms (as the name might suggest). I imagine if System Shock 2 was made today really interesting things could be done with the Annelid design to make them look like more than just worms, but that's pretty much what they look like, space worms. Or space spiders, in the case of some of them. I guess in the case of all of these it's more about how much developers were held back by the technical limitations of the day than anything else, but still if I had to point to anything that strikes me as off about the game it's the way you can go from fighting genuinely creepy hybrids or crazy robots to fighting blurry flesh monstrosities or space worms and space spiders.
Perhaps that's just me though.
All things said System Shock 2 still strikes me as a really powerful piece of science-fiction gaming, and indeed a powerful piece science-fiction storytelling, and did some pretty revolutionary things for a 1998 game, at a time when games themselves weren't that well developed as a medium.
I doubt System Shock 2 is everybody's cup of tea, but those of us interested in getting their horror fix whilst getting a sci-fi one at the same time whilst also being treated to solid gameplay mechanics, atmosphere and a powerful story, System Shock 2 is still something to be experienced, just, you know, try not to think about the space spiders too much.