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Friday, March 13, 2015

System Shock 2: A Classic Masterpiece















System Shock 2. The grandfather and holy grail of FPS-RPGs. It was so monumental back in 1999 that it shaped many elements of game design that have become standard practice over the last 16 years. Games like Deus Ex, Aliens vs Predator, Vampire Bloodlines, Doom 3, BioShock, Dead Space, and Fallout 3/NV, all owe their existence at least partly to the innovations established with System Shock 2. Even games like STALKER, Borderlands, and Portal have drawn influences from the almighty System Shock 2.

Despite its immense critical acclaim, winning numerous "Game of the Year" awards and frequently finding its way into modern "Best Games of All Time" lists, System Shock 2 wasn't much of a commercial success at the time. Falling between the cracks of Half-Life in 1998 and Deus Ex in 2000, its legacy was that of an obscure cult phenomenon that few people actually played -- but those who did loved it vehemently -- until BioShock came out in 2007 and renewed everyone's interest in its spiritual predecessor. Even then, finding a working copy was a little difficult, so the game remained largely unplayed and inaccessible until GOG and Steam released digital copies in 2013. Now you have no excuse not to play one of the greatest video games ever made.

The real question, however, as it always is with these "old" games, is whether or not System Shock 2 is actually worth playing in this day and age. After all, lots of old games just haven't aged very well, and why would it even be necessary to play System Shock 2 when there's already BioShock, a more-modern adaptation of virtually the same game design? The answer is simple: because System Shock 2 is a better game, and it still plays remarkably well, even after 16 years of aging. I'll get into more direct comparisons in another article; for now, I just want to talk about System Shock 2 as an independent game and how it's stood the test of time.

You take the role of a military recruit after completing his first few years of training and service. Stationed aboard the Von Braun, an experimental faster-than-light spaceship on its maiden voyage, you awaken from a deep sleep in a cryo-tube as parts of the ship start falling apart. With no memory of the events leading up to the sudden catastrophe, you set out to discover what's happening, guided by the voice of Dr Janice Polito, soon discovering that the entire crew has died or been turned into monstrous alien hybrids. As you work towards your goal of meeting up with Polito and getting off the Von Braun alive, you have to find a way to survive against the mutated former crew members, the ship's AI-controlled security systems, the gone-awry lab experiments, and the space aliens that are all trying to murder you, all while uncovering pieces of the ship's backstory that seem to suggest the Von Braun is slowly becoming something more than just a spaceship.


The bulk of the story is told through audio logs left behind by crew members, which describe the events before, during, and after the alien infestation that slowly works its way through the ship after the Von Braun responds to a distress signal from a distant planet and brings strange alien eggs aboard. Audio logs are one of my biggest pet peeves in video games because they always feel so out of place and detached from the environment, so I was really surprised in System Shock 2 -- one of the earliest examples of audio logs in video games, and the one that arguably popularized the concept -- to find that the audio logs actually work in this game. It just seems to make sense that important crew members aboard an experimental military and research vessel would be logging these kinds of observations, and the places you find them also make sense.

The voice acting isn't terribly great or dramatic within the audio logs, but that only goes to make them feel more natural and appropriate, since I don't imagine scientists and naval officers spend much time moonlighting as voice actors. They inject a strong dose of humanity into an otherwise dead and lifeless vessel, allowing you to make connections with the deceased corpses you find strewn about the Von Braun, and even the alien hybrids and cyborg midwives that wander about trying to murder you. Their monstrous, horrifying cries of "kill me," "I'm sorry," and "what happened to me" as you fight them remind you that they were once human, which strikes the iron a little closer to the heart and adds to the game's implicit horror.

Besides audio logs, you also witness ghostly apparitions of the ship's former crew members, usually going about their daily lives or reacting to the horrors that are suddenly befalling them. This imagery helps give you an idea of what the Von Braun was like before the disaster and offers a nice visual component to the story elements you learn from the audio logs while still retaining the game's near dead and lifeless isolation of you being the only survivor, since you only ever see a handful of other survivors for a few fleeting seconds before they meet their untimely demise. In addition, you can click on almost anything to bring up a text description, and bring up detailed research reports on alien organisms and other such foreign entities, to learn more about the lore and backstory as you please.

The story that happens in real time isn't as interesting as the ship's backstory, because it feels mostly like a series of reactive objectives to all the problems that arise as you try to meet with Polito and escape from the Von Braun. "Meet me on Deck 4, except the power's out, so you'll need to go to Engineering to restart it, except the security doors are sealed, so you'll need to get the code from Medical, except the person who had the code isn't there anymore, so you'll need to go to the crew quarters. Once you're in Engineering you'll have to fix a radioactive leak to get to the engine core, and then you'll need to override a computer, which needs a circuit board from elsewhere on the ship. Then you'll need to restart the engines, and then you'll be able to take the elevator up to Deck 4. Except it'll get stuck on Deck 3 and you'll have to go through a complicated process to dislodge it."


That's just a small taste of what happens over the first several hours. Without the audio logs, which slowly paint the picture of what happened by portraying the callous villains who enabled the infestation and the demise of the heroes who tried to stop it, these objectives would feel like tedious busywork. And yet, they create a sense of urgency in the story, with all the disasters that the ship suffers as you try to move through it, and as you actively clean up some of the mess caused before you came out of the cryo-tube. It's the classic case of a situation that keeps going from bad to worse, making it feel like the stakes are actually rising over the course of the game, with definite consequences for failure. These are objectives that pertain to your very survival; they're necessary if you want to get off the ship alive, which gives you plenty of incentive to pursue the game's main missions.

What people remember most about the story is the dramatic twist that comes past the halfway point, when it's revealed that SHODAN -- the artificial intelligence responsible for the destruction of Citadel Station in the first game, the villain of System Shock 1 who was trying to enslave and destroy all of humanity -- has gotten into the Von Braun's AI system. I'm trying to avoid spoilers, because even though this game is 16 years old, I think it's still worth playing if you haven't already, and this moment, when SHODAN's presence is revealed, is one of the singular most-memorable moments in all of gaming. You kind of have to expect that she'll show up at some point, since her face is on the game's cover and an intro cinematic reminds you of what she did in the first game, but even knowing that she was going to get involved in the story, I was still shocked and surprised at the way the twist presented itself. I knew at that moment that "shit just got real," and there was a genuine feeling of dread and terror in me as I witnessed it.

I can only imagine how much of an impact the reveal would have had if I'd actually played System Shock 1. Having never played the first game, I had no real context for judging precisely how serious things just got -- no personal, prior experience with SHODAN to fully understand the weight of what was happening. All I had to go by was a 30-second cutscene at the beginning of the game, which was certainly sufficient to impress upon me at least a basic understanding. The fact that the twist reveal was still so effective, despite never playing its predecessor, is a testament to how well the scene and all of its build-up is designed. 


What follows is a conflict between SHODAN and The Many, the alien hive mind that's possessed the crew members and is slowly enveloping the Von Braun in a fleshy tumor, with you caught in-between their struggle desperately hoping for a third, human alternative to the conflict. It's kind of a unique concept for a game to have two antagonists that actively work against the player, and against each other, because it creates conflict within conflict and allows for more nuance in the story and tension. Both SHODAN and The Many talk to you throughout the game, imploring you join each of their causes and making you question the other's intentions, which makes it seem like you'll be tasked with picking a side at some point, although you're inevitably forced to destroy them both. That lingering thought, however, that there is a side to be chosen makes you feel a little more involved and invested in what's happening. 

System Shock 2 is as much a survival-horror game as it is an FPS or an RPG, but whereas the FPS and RPG elements kind of come and go, the game's survival-horror atmosphere persists throughout the entire experience. Like any survival-horror game worth its salt, SS2 combines dark, moody lighting with dense ambient sound effects, and it's here -- in the visual and audio design -- that SS2 impresses most of all, considering its age, because it still looks and sounds great. This is very important, because it's difficult to feel scared and vulnerable in a survival-horror game if it doesn't immerse you in its setting.

The game runs on the Dark Engine, which powered Looking Glass's popular Thief series. If you recall, the central gameplay mechanism of Thief involved hiding in shadows, with the "light gem" in the bottom-center of the screen indicating how concealed you were in the darkness. While SS2 doesn't use the light gem stealth mechanism, it does put the engine's sophisticated lighting system to good use, bathing the entire Von Braun in a foreboding dim light that conceals corners, alcoves, and sometimes entire rooms in complete darkness where you never know what might be lurking. Light sources illuminate small pockets of the vast, empty ship with a soft glow, which sometimes feels like safe havens among the melancholy darkness, while casting dark shadows and creating visually striking contrasts within the environment.

You can certainly tell that SS2 is an old game, but apart from some really horrid, blocky character models, everything else looks fine. When running the game in 1920x1080 resolution, the textures appear crisp, and you almost don't even realize you're playing a game from 1999. The interior of the Von Braun is composed of a lot of flat surfaces, angular edges, and blocky shapes typical of this era of lower-polygon games that couldn't handle contoured shapes and soft edges very well, but it kind of fits the look of an experimental military spaceship. Even the ugly character models kind of work at instilling an implicit horror, since they give you enough of a representation about what you're seeing, while forcing your brain to fill in the rest of the detail, which internalizes what you're dealing with a little.

Extensive graphics mods are available to make the game look even better.

The ship is also brought to life through its dense sound design that treats you to multiple layers of ambient noise everywhere you go. As you walk around the Von Braun, you're constantly treated to common background noises of the ship, like the dull rumble of the engines, the air pumping through the filtration system, the faint buzzing of lights and electronics. The Dark Engine is also capable of directional sound, which is crucial for determining where enemies are (and where they're going) when you hear a human-alien hybrid walking down a hall, or when you hear the "whoosh" of a door opening somewhere in your vicinity. This is the kind of immersive sound design we take for granted these days, but it wasn't as common (or this good, generally) in the 90s. The sound effects are so convincing that I had to pause the game at one point to verify that the distant clanking noises I was hearing were part of the game, and not someone across the street doing metal work.

The game takes place almost entirely on the Von Braun, a military spaceship comprised mainly of maze-like, claustrophobic corridors. The level design certainly does a good job of making you feel trapped with nowhere to run, but what's more impressive is the maps feels like a series of hubs, connected by the central elevator system, and which therefore makes you feel almost like you're in a semi-open Metroidvania-style world rather than a linear corridor crawler. When looking at the map layout, you notice that everything is designed to fit within the confines of the ship's hull, and indeed, as you explore the Von Braun, it feels like everything exists for a purpose as it would it in a real spaceship. Even things like tutorial messages are presented on computer monitors that you have to click to read, feeling much like technical manuals that would naturally be on the ship.

You're always able to backtrack to areas you'd previously explored (in fact, it's often necessary, as part of the main missions or as optional tasks spring up), and although a lot of the ship's sectors remain locked down until you advance the main mission, there are almost always opportunities to explore areas other than what's necessary for the current mission. The game always makes you feel like you're in control of what you're doing, and like it's up to you to get things done, rather than the game constantly nudging and stringing you along a pre-determined path. It's a game that lets you choose what you do and how you do it by offering you a variety of tools and letting you come up with the solutions on your own.


What made the System Shock series so revolutionary for its time was the way it blended first-person shooting gameplay with RPG-style stats, skills, and leveling systems. At the start of the game, you enlist with one of three different branches of the military, which determines your initial specialization: marines start with bonuses to weapons and general combat, naval officers start with bonuses to hacking and technical skills, and OSI agents start with bonuses to psionic abilities (the game's version of magic). Over the course of the game, you earn "cyber modules" by completing main missions and exploring optional side areas, which are spent at upgrade stations that you have to seek out in the environment to improve your cybernetic abilities. Although you pick a sort of "class" at the start of the game, you're not limited to that class's designated playstyle, since the game uses an open class system that lets you be whatever combination of stats and skills you want.

Like any good RPG, there are a limited number of cyber modules to acquire in the game, with upgrade costs that scale the higher you go with each stat or skill. With the game's tough difficulty and heavy emphasis on survival, choosing how to spend cyber modules is based on what you, personally, feel is a better investment. If you're tired of having to pass on loot because you're constantly out of inventory space, then increasing your strength to unlock more inventory spaces might be a good investment. Perhaps you're dying easily, which means you should improve your endurance so you can take more damage, or improve your agility so you can dodge or run away easier, or improve you weapon skills so you can kill enemies faster. Maybe you want to improve your hacking so you can bypass the ship's security and defense systems more easily, or maybe you have weapons on the verge of falling apart that you want to repair and maintain.

Even then, if you have 30 cyber modules to spend, is it better to invest in a single, higher-level stat/skill, or to spread those cyber modules among three lower-level stats/skills that require fewer modules per level, or to wait a little longer to stockpile even more so you can put the final point into maxing your primary stat/skill? Some skills are more innately useful than others, while others will be more or less useful depending on your desired playstyle and your immediate needs; it's up to you to figure out how best to spend these modules and live with the consequences, because there are no re-specs whatsoever. In addition to simply adding a layer of tough, strategic decision-making to the gameplay, it also allows for increased replayability because it's impossible to use every skill and ability in one playthrough. I, for instance, never even touched the entire psionics skill tree in my first playthrough, and used "standard" weapons exclusively. In another playthrough I might decide to use the mage-like psionic powers in conjunction with energy weapons for a totally different playstyle.

Making good decisions is important in SS2, because this is the type of game that doesn't hold your hand -- a lot of people have tried to play SS2 and quit because it was "too hard" and "unforgiving," but that's how survival-horror games should be. Unlike a lot of modern games, System Shock 2 doesn't care about making sure you make it through to see its ending, because it would rather make you work to get there own your own. If you make a lot of bad decisions, don't explore the environments fully, or just don't play very well, it's entirely possible to reach a point midway through the game when it becomes virtually impossible to advance. At which point, your only options are to reload an earlier save (maybe even start all over) or else suffer and struggle under the weight of your mistakes. With total failure a constant looming possibility, advancing in SS2 feels genuinely rewarding.

You can even play the full game cooperatively with up to 4 players.

System Shock 2 places a heavy emphasis on survival. Ammo is incredibly scarce, particularly early on, so you have to figure out the most efficient way to get by enemies without using your precious bullets. Using melee weapons will save on ammo, but that puts you at greater risk of taking damage, which is problematic because healing items are also in limited supply. Even using your firearms when the situation calls for it is a double-edged sword, because doing so will reduce their condition, requiring that you spend limited maintenance tools to keep them functioning, or else carry backup weapons around, which occupy extra inventory space, thus limiting what else you can carry. If you're low on ammo and can't afford to buy more from the vending machines, you're out of luck; if you're low on health and can't afford to buy more hypos, you're out of luck; if you get infected with radiation or toxins and don't have the stims to cure yourself, then you'll be forced to endure a slow, inevitable death while you frantically search for a cure.

Tension is the name of the game, and nothing keeps you more on your toes than the constant threat of respawning enemies. Any time you get a moment's safety to catch your breath, you can almost guarantee another enemy will come stalking around the corner. Nowhere is safe on the Von Braun, and you're always vulnerable no matter what you're doing because the game doesn't pause unless you go out to the main menu. Respawning enemies keeps the game feeling random and unpredictable, because you never know what will spawn where, which keeps you looking over your shoulder everywhere you go. It also presents a constant drain on your supplies and the condition of your weapons, further encouraging you to play with efficiency in mind, because there are consequences for basically everything you do, or in some cases, don't do.

Despite how all of this sounds, the game really isn't that hard. Anyone who says SS2 is "too hard" just isn't used to games of this era that require you to put in the effort figuring out and doing things on your own. There's no GPS-style "quest arrow" showing you exactly where to go all the time; when Polito tells you to go to Biopsy in the Medical wing, you have to consult your map, look around, follow signs on the walls, and use a little logic and common sense to get where you need to go. When Polito tells you to get a piece of computer hardware from storage labeled "45m/dEx," you see a dozen or more different computer boards lining the shelves, and you have to find the right one. When researching an alien organ to learn more about its origins, you have to consult your logs and figure out which storeroom has the chemicals you need, and collect them individually off the shelves.

If you want to play a game that doesn't require any brain power to finish, then SS2 is not for you. I played the game on normal difficulty and thought the amount of challenge was appropriate for what "normal" should mean, as opposed to most modern games where "normal" has actually come to mean "easy." Although, with my abuse of the save system, I probably should've been playing on hard mode.


Where the game shows its age is its combat, which features a type of simplistic clunkiness emblematic of this era of gaming. Hit detection, for instance, is a little screwy, particularly with melee weapons, where your attack animation does an entire horizontal sweep across the screen, but only registers damage at a single point in the center of the crosshairs; if the cross hairs were off-target by two pixels, the entire attack misses, even though, realistically, it would have hit. The timing delay between clicking to swing a melee weapon and the attack animation going through is also a little hard to get used to, with that classic system of having to press to initiate the attack, then step forward at the right time to land the attack, then back to dodge while preparing another attack. There's something to be said about mastering the rhythmic pattern necessary to do well in this game, but it doesn't feel very natural or engaging.

Likewise, ranged combat has some questionable hit boxes where your crosshair will be clearly lined up on the edge of an enemy's body but won't register as a hit. The game's use of RPG-style stats and skills also determines your efficacy in combat with things like damage and recoil, which forces your crosshairs to suddenly jerk out into random positions off-target every time you fire a weapon, which feels equally unnatural. Movement feels kind of floaty, too, as if you're skating on ice. By the end of the game, with my agility at maximum, I found myself gliding into the air for a brief moment whenever I ran up ramp; you don't always feel like you're properly rooted to the ground, and you often find yourself stuck and bumping into invisible collision meshes that seem to extend beyond an object's rendered space.

There are a lot of fun enemies to fight, however, with a lot of different weapon types. Enemies range from human-alien hybrids (both ranged and melee), psionic lab monkeys that shoot fireballs and cryokinetic blasts, toxic alien spiders, alien worms, a giant muscular alien "rumbler," brain-like "psi-reavers" that shoot psychic energy at you, cyborg midwives that shoot lasers, cyborg assassins that throw ninja stars, kamikaze protocol droids that wave a friendly "hello" before blowing up in your face, and the ship's security turrets and patrol mechs, among others. Each one has some kind of unique attack pattern that requires a different strategy to defeat, with different enemies being both weak and resistant to different types of weapons and ammunition. On the weapons front, you can choose between two or three different types of ammo for each weapon, and each weapon usually has multiple functions as well, like single-fire or three-round burst on the pistol, or single-firing a shotgun or doing a triple-blast that does only twice the damage. 

The game's emphasis on RPG-style stats, skills, and abilities, is designed to enable "emergent gameplay," the gaming buzzword describing the phenomenon of players being given a wide arsenal of tools and left to discover their own uses and combinations for things, often in ways the developer never anticipated. This is a game that carefully straddles the line between action, stealth, magic, hacking, and survival, allowing you to figure out your own solutions and paths to victory, with all kinds of different variations and possibilities, therefore making you feel like you have some kind of consequential agency within the environment. By that, I mean you're not just doing the same thing as every other person who plays the game -- you're given the power to determine for yourself how to play the game, which I find makes the experience far more personal and engaging, since what you experience playing the game will be unique and different from what someone else experiences.


Unfortunately, I don't think all the game's different paths and possibilities are as balanced as they should be. Hacking, for instance, was a rather appealing option at the start of the game, since I thought it would be fun (and more tense) to sneak around the Von Braun manipulating the computer systems and dodging detection, but after a few hours I discovered it was far simpler and easier just to shoot security cameras, eliminating them permanently, rather than than hunting down a security panel and battling the random-number-generation hacking mini-game just to disable them for a limited time, just to have to do it all over again the next time I passed through that area. Hacking turrets, likewise, wasn't nearly as useful as I thought it would be, since they almost always come in pairs, and the moment you hack one, it will immediately attack the other, leading the other to retaliate as the two essentially destroy each other. Really, the hacking was only useful for opening optional crates for extra resources that I didn't probably didn't need, because I was playing the game well enough as is, and to open a few doors for which I normally would have had to hunt down a password. 

The psionic powers are really cool and offer some fun ways to manipulate the environment and boost your own abilities, but like any typical "mage" class, it seems to have a really steep difficulty curve that makes the early game incredibly, punishingly hard, and then the end-game becomes a joke with all of your god-like powers unlocked. Besides that, it's kind of a pain to switch between psionics, since you have to dig through menus and sub-menus in real time to select an ability -- problematic if you happen to have a stat-buff equipped when you get ambushed and need to switch to an offensive ability. However, I really like the idea that you have to unlock each individual psionic ability, and that you have to spend cyber modules unlocking each new tier of abilities before spending additional modules learning the abilities, since it requires time, effort, and progression to get stronger and develop as a "mage," which is pretty rewarding and satisfying in its own way. This same principle applies to weapons and armor, since better equipment requires higher stats and skills that you may or may not have. 

And now it's time for a clunky segue into a conclusion paragraph. I played System Shock 2 for the first time in 2015, after having already given the first BioShock a chance and having played through the entirety of BioShock Infinite, and was overwhelmingly impressed with the experience. It's like Half-Life, but with meaningful decisions and complex character progression; it's like Deus Ex but with a darker, creepier survival-horror atmosphere. This game was clearly a monument for its time, as is evidenced by how many elements it standardized, and how many games have outright copied its design. Even more impressive is how well the game holds up after 16 years, seeing as it offers more complex decision-making and more rewarding gameplay than its modern contemporaries and its own grandchildren. If you've played and enjoyed any of those games I mentioned at the top of the article, then you owe it to yourself to play System Shock 2

Next I'll be writing an article that covers BioShock in a little more detail, comparing it to System Shock 2 and explaining precisely why BioShock doesn't live up to the legacy of its esteemed predecessor. Click here to read that article. 

7 comments:

  1. Killer review

    I didn't play System Shock 2 in 1999, but I purchased the game from GOG already. I am myself aware of all the praise this game gets, but somehow frightened I might not like or enjoy it like I could have back in the 90s. Also I already played the first Bioshock and found it to be a big turd of a game and ridiculously overrated so that lowered my expectations as well.

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  2. I've been reading your blog for a while and I really like it. Nice review.

    I do think having the player be the middle ground between the two antagonists, that both antagonists are wrong in different ways, works well in the game. The player is the middle ground in the sense that the Many are purely organic and SHODAN is purely synthetic while they're a cyborg with parts of both. They're also a middle ground because while SHODAN is all about the individual and the Many all about the collective the player is, like most people, a part of society but also their own person. I thought it was an interesting dynamic that they pulled off pretty well and I didn't feel that it argued for the middle ground just because it's the middle ground but that they argued for it on its own merit.

    While System Shock 2 doesn't have a choice in who you side with I often like it when a game allows you to chose to not side with any of the factions it offers.

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  3. This has been on my wishlist for about a year now, which is about as long as I've been gaming.

    Sigh. Too bad I blew most of my money on overhyped dumbed down AAA titles. I'm not much of a gamer, but I know a bad game when I play one.

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    1. You may be luck then. SS2 is on sale for the next few days on Steam, 75% off. $2.49 USD.

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    2. Well, yeah, but it's not on sale at GOG right now. Point being, if you're strapped for cash and want to play a legit copy of the game now, that will still run flawlessly on modern computers, then Steam is the best bet.

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  4. I played this back in 1999 and mother of god it was the ultimate mind*** (I was a bit younger back then as well). It was so absolutely fantastic! I just wanted to say thank you for such a great review of such a great game! It was a milestone like UFO, Warcraft or the like. Damn. I still own the original game - do i get it for free now on steam? ;-)

    Again - thanks and enjoy!

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