My first experience with the shock series was the titular
Bioshock, a game that captured my imagination and whose aesthetic I still love. It had some eerie moments, an almost unmatched opening sequence, and fun/horrific gameplay elements. Maybe I will go into more detail at some point, but needless to say I loved the
game a lot and found it incredibly well crafted. I won’t discuss Bioshock 2
here, as I feel that it’s more of an offshoot than anything and due to its
status as that it doesn’t fall into the category I feel like discussing here.
Bioshock Infinite….I’ve written some thoughts here. I may write some more on it, going into more detail on why I dislike it at a closer angle than that, but I've gone on too much about it and focusing on something that I dislike too much isn't healthy. Needless to say, I disliked it with great intensity. We’ll leave it at that, as I’ve written enough on the matter to write a book on that damn game.
So this is a series I have a lot of experience with, and it was with this experience I went into the predecessor of it all, System Shock 2. I will also probably grab the 1st one, once its remaster is done and put out as I have heard good things, but for now I lay judgement on this game. Does it live up to its progeny and even surpass them, as some have argued?
Well, yes and no. Let’s get into it, shall we? Oh, and be aware there are some light spoilers, but given the promotional material and freaking cover of the game I don’t think it’ll be a huge deal.
The year is 2114, and humanity is in the full swing of the
cyberpunk aesthetic that the 90s are well known for. You volunteer for military
service, with this part of the game is where you establish your character
traits, going to different fields of service yielding different perks and
giving your character different specializations before boarding the Von Braun. It’s
not a terrible set-up, but given how you don’t have context for the usefulness
of skills in the game proper it yields the possibility of screwing you over to
a degree before the game begins-more on that sort of thing later. You can go
into many weapons fields, including a psi amp that gives you psychic powers at
the expense of psi, which is injected via syringes.
You awaken after being cryo-frozen for who knows how long to find the ship in disarray, falling apart and with a women contacting you on your radio machine to tell you where to go and how to get through the ships former crew. You’ll soon find yourself up against humans who have been overtaken by parasitic worms, controlled by a sinister entity known as the many-a collective hive mind intent on returning to earth and bringing humanity into the fold. It’s a very creepy villain, with spot on voice design, visual design and writing. Here’s a taste-though it does spoil a cut scene so watch at your own risk-which I find a good example of its creepiness.
The Many has convinced humans to do its bidding, meaning the
AI running the ship-and by extension the robotic turrets, robots and cameras-is
also trying to best you, while spitting out adulations of the many. The enemies
are really unnerving, and parasitic worms are a particular bugbear of mine
which makes their various disgusting forms particularly unpleasant. The Many
constantly taunts you as you go through the game, presenting new and more
disturbing foes as the game goes on. The designs and the things enemies say add
to their creepiness and hearing them coming for you can be nerve-wracking if
you run low on materials.
The game basically follows your journey through the Rickenbacker and the Von-Braun as you and your mysterious radio pal try to get through the ship and figure out to deal with The Many, going through different ship locations and dealing with different machinations.
Eventually you must also deal with SHODAN, the malevolent AI
from the first game who created The Many who’s back and up to evil AI stuff.
It’s a pretty interesting and well done story, with good atmosphere and design. Audio logs build the story of what happened to the crew, and paint the fall of the ship quite well. Items have extensive descriptions that further build the lore of the world, and the cyberpunk explains the HUD and its function quite nicely.
And while the ending is stupid-a running theme in the shock
games, it would seem-overall the game is great and I personally think it’s a
story worth experiencing. Even if the ending can be pretty well described by
saying what year the game released-that being the 90’s.
Visuals and Gameplay
System shock 2 is a survival horror FPS with RPG elements, wherein
you must upgrade different abilities to attempt to survive using cyber modules to
upgrade your characters cybernetics. Word of advice: do not skimp on hacking or
focus exclusively on melee unless you want to screw yourself for certain parts
of the game. The game is a bit odd to handle at first, but once you understand
how it works you’ll be able to get used to it pretty quick-though if I recall
you will want to fiddle with the controls as for some reason the mouse controls
and movement are weird before fiddling. Visually its reminiscent of Deus Ex, and mods
can make it look it even better but it looks good enough to not bother you once
you adjust to it.
The game has limited resources, and certain items require
research before they can be used so you need to get to chemical stockrooms to
try and cobble together what you need. The game throws quite a few enemies at
you, with some re-spawning after a time to keep you on your toes. Should you
die, if you’ve activated it you can re-spawn at the cost of currency by using a
re-spawn station. You can also hack into turrets and cameras, as well as having
to repair your weapons as they degrade.
Resources are scarce, and as the game things get more
desperate, which helps increase tension….but then our good ol friend absurd
difficulty spike rears his ugly head as the game goes on. The game is ever
tightening the amount of resources, and then it starts hiding the respawn
chambers absurdly far in the levels. Later levels don’t even have the chambers,
making me question why the chambers are even in the game at all since you’ll
master using the save and reload functions by the time the credits roll. The
game will also throw you into difficult situations, like a far range hyper
accurate turret that can snipe you in a couple of hits, spawning multiple hard
to hit enemies, or spawning really difficult enemies in high number while
barely giving you anything. This does contribute to the survival aspect, but I
feel as if it could have been handled better. Still it’s not a killer, and once
you settle into the increased difficulty curve you can progress.
The music in the game is pretty solid when it’s around, never interfering and simply adding to the games atmosphere. The voice acting and design of how certain odder character speak is top notch, adding several levels to the experience whenever they appear. Voice acting on the logs can be a bit dodgier, but overall the sound design-especially on The Many and SHODAN-is really nice. The sound effects are also solid, and overall the ambient noise is fine.
“Now hang on” I can imagine you saying, if you’ve played
Bioshock before but not this. “Hackable
cameras? Turrets? Near magic powers granted by syringe stuff? Respawn chambers?
A mysterious voice leading you along as you explore a ruined place turned
against you? This sounds a lot like Bioshock…”
And you would be right on that. In fact, aside from aesthetic this game shares a ton of similarities with Bioshock, like hackable talking vendors and regeneration chambers. It kind of made me lose just a bit of respect for Bioshock, seeing how many ideas from that are directly lifted from System Shock 2. Bioshock is also much shallower, with no inventory management or RPG elements other than getting upgrades for abilities and weapons. I still really like Bioshock, and a lot of the things it did, but I look at it and SS2 and see a lot of laziness in terms of story and design for a game I held in highest regard. It’s disappointing, but not a killer for either game.
Ultimately System shock 2 is a damn good game that has held up pretty well since its release in 1999. It has some problems, but it’s still a dang fine game despite my gripes and I am glad I played through it. Even if it hurts some of the luster of Bioshock, it’s still a fine game and that it inspired the enjoyable Bioshock 1 and 2 is nothing to complain about. At the end of the day, graphics wise and in some ways aesthetics wise Bioshock is a bit better, but overall I would say that System Shock 2 is the best of all the shock games. Even if it’s not perfect, it’s the deepest of all the ones I have played, and there’s a lot of good stuff going on with it. We can only hope that the guys remaking SS1 give this one a fresh coat of paint. I’d recommend giving it a looksie if you enjoyed any shock game, and hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Thanks for reading!