System Shock 2

System Shock 2
4.5
Game Name: System Shock 2
Platforms: Windows 95/98
Publisher(s): Electronic Arts
Developer(s): Looking Glass Studios/Irrational Games
Genre(s): First Person RPG
Release Date: Aug, 1999

I was a huge fan of System Shock 2 when it was released. It had a sci-fi horror vibe that I’m a sucker for if it works correctly, it had good ol’ SHODAN, and it was a fairly creative go at handling survival horror in a first person format. But it’s been a while since I’ve played it, and as I recently powered through BioShock (look for my critical review in 2018), I started to get frustrated by some of its design elements. The more I thought about them, the more I recognized them from System Shock 2, and the more I wanted to play SS2 for the third and last time to see if maybe the game wasn’t quite as rosy I remembered it. So I loved the game in 1999. Can I justify that today, or do I still even feel the same way? Let’s find out.

The sequel begins some thirty years after the events on Citadel Station. The TriOptimum corporation has just received its last wrist-slap from the government for almost allowing their rogue artificial intelligence to glass Earth. TriOp’s triumphant return as a major corporate player comes with the maiden voyage of their science ship the Von Braun – the first faster-than-light spacecraft. There’s still some clear mistrust between the government and TriOp though, so the trip is only allowed to happen with a Navy escort from the UNN Rickenbacker, commanded by decorated sailor William Diego.

Everything. Everything could go wrong.

Now let’s stop a minute and guess how well this is going to turn out. First, the issue of FTL flight in science fiction. It either happens all the time, everyone’s cool with it, and nothing ever goes wrong (Star Wars), or it’s the first time it’s ever been attempted, it’s a total unknown, and it inevitably  results in pants-shitting disaster (Event Horizon). On top of that, you’ve got a ship full of armed Marines with the son of the corrupt traitor from the first game in charge. What could possibly go wrong?

You play as a member of the Von Braun‘s crew, waking from stasis with an illegal cybernetic implant and months of amnesia. But the game actually begins as you establish your career in a pretty clever three-year prologue. The game loads with you stepping off the subway of a futuristic city, and heading to the local Navy recruitment center to set about breakin’ hearts and swabbin’ decks. The look of the city subtly establishes the technology of the period, and optional holographic booths teach you the interface and key game mechanics. It’s an interesting, “living” approach to the ubiquitous training level, and before you even start the game proper, you’ll have had hands-on training with weapons, hacking, and the various machines that will keep you alive in the game.

After your holo-training, you’ll decide on a career in one of three branches of the military: Marines (weapons), Navy (hacking\repair), or the OSS (magic, technologically explained and called “psionics”). From there, you’ll spend the next three years picking tours that boost your stats in specific areas. You don’t actually play the year out, and having you do so, even in a brief minigame, would be excessive anyway. Instead, you just get a notice of what stat will get boosted by that mission, decide which of the three different boosts you want, pick the door and walk trough. It’s still a neat way of handling the old “decide your character’s past and experience” RPG standard, and better in context than a simple menu would have been. Your fourth year will always take you to the Von Braun‘s launch, and the beginning of the game proper.

The interface is cleaner and much simpler than the first System Shock.

You’ll steer your chosen character through a haunting, linear adventure spanning the ship’s six decks. As in the original, mutants and robots have overrun the place, leaving only a scant handful of survivors. You’ll piece together the events leading to the current situation through audio logs scattered around, and attempt to fight back by following emailed instructions from a barricaded senior scientist guide.

These simple objectives will always become overly convoluted. Murphy’s Law is certainly in full effect throughout the ship, and if equipment can be broken or access cards can be misplaced, you better believe that they will be. Backtracking, alternate paths, and finding those missing keys (invariably in the most dangerous areas) will be the order of the day. The ship’s narrow enough and linear enough that natural exploration doesn’t really occur, so be prepared to grip your pistol and head into some obvious traps and dead ends.

There’s also a heavy RPG element in place. All of your stats and potential actions – hacking, guns, even strength, health, and movement speed, are governed by “cyber-modules.” You’ll find modules in groups of 2-3 inside the world, or earn 10-14 for completing key objectives. It’s fair to say they are scarce, and you’ll always be left wanting more abilities than you can afford. Making every module count is critical, and unfortunately, some unclear text descriptions mean you’ll inevitably make some rookie mistakes on your first play. For example, what’s the difference between repair and maintenance? What is cyber-affinity, and why can’t I hack once I have it? Is endurance going to be more important, or is agility? Since it costs more to train a new skill than to upgrade it through the first few tiers, it’s actually worth restarting the game if you realize right away you’ve picked a skill you’re not going to immediately use.

Bio-neural feedback (or some such rubbish) lets you see ghosts of the crew’s final activities.

Similarly, weapons are broken into categories, so it’s not enough to simply say “I want the best guns so I’ll keep putting points into this tree.” You’ll have to consider if you also want energy guns, or heavy guns for enemies you haven’t yet seen and can’t conceive of. Furthermore, you won’t see the skill requirements for weapons or hacking objects until you encounter them in the world, making it impossible to know what you earn further down a skill path. Also, you can’t pick up guns and psi abilities to even try them until you buy their skills, and won’t know they suck until you’ve wasted the modules (a surprising amount of top-tier weapons are basically worthless).

Which comes down to one of more critical flaws here – that career system isn’t as important as you might be led to believe. The existence of three branches with different specialties implies that you can play three different times and have three different games. I’ve done this, and it doesn’t happen. First, your characters start so limited in their respective fields that you’re really not specializing in anything at all. Characters simply begin with a few early skills that any other branch can pick up. There are no special powers that only one class can get access to – even Navy and Marines can learn Psi powers if they put the points into it. It’s certainly cheaper to follow your path rather than radically changing your focus (say, from weapons to psi) in the middle of the game, but that’s about it.

Furthermore, every character will, by necessity, end up as a diluted hodgepodge of the branches’ most important skills. Every character eventually has to learn hacking, research, weapons, and maintenance abilities to proceed through specific parts of the game. There was really no difference between my Navy character and my Marine by the end of both playthroughs. Psionics gave the most unique experience. Psionics can basically replace your weapons and most of your technical skills, and a decked-out psi agent has new approaches to the same problems, and new considerations (a healthy stock of psi-replenshing stims) to deal with. But you’ll need to force yourself to play this way, making an active choice to use energy bolts instead of guns, and neither option is more powerful or particularly different compared to the other.

There are also enormous costs and hidden costs associated with upgrading a skill. Best example: if you want to be proficient with the strongest weapons, you have to max out multiple trees to do so. With all your other considerations, you’ll only be able to afford two complete weapon class trees – the costs are simply too high and upgrade modules too scarce. The “other considerations” I speak of are not only upgrading your physical skills to stay alive, carry, and operate the weapons, but the fact that weapons need supplementary skills to keep them functioning: modification skills to increase a weapon’s effectiveness, maintenance to keep them from breaking, and optionally, repair to fix them when they do.

Xerxes is the ship’s AI, and his attempts at controlling the chaos usually run afoul of you. Ol’-Guess-Who doesn’t like him much either.

Oh yes, your weapons will break, and they will break a lot. Like many RPGs, weapons degrade with use, tracked here by a declining 10-point system. The issue is that the process is vastly accelerated, and you cannot buy new guns or take old ones to a “blacksmith” for repair. You have to do it all with maintenance skills, and are further limited by only being able to ply those skills with disposable tools found in the world. These must be found or bought from vending machines. Your repair skill doesn’t need tools, but will only ever bring weapons back to a 1 or 2 level quality. I suppose it’s meant to keep you on edge and scavenging – I was literally taking busted guns off enemies, unloading the one good shell, and tossing the gun – but I can also see how many could find this a frustrating contrivance.

Admittedly, it feels at times like traditional RPG elements clashing with the need to keep a horror vibe going – but to be fair, I think they accomplish what they were going for. You’re out there scavenging for ammo, picking your shots, klonking weak enemies with the wrench to save your precious bullets and gun quality. And you’re really not as undersupplied as all this makes it sound, especially by the end, and especially if you work on hacking to unlock secure crates and lower prices at vending machines. But there’s still a lot to consider compared to your average FPS, and anyone caught off-guard and expecting a less-complicated game will likely be more annoyed than engaged.

You’ll notice I haven’t really talked about SHODAN, which is certainly odd for a System Shock game. And it’s another problem I have with SS2. You’ll run through quite a stretch of the game before she even appears, and she never takes on the relentless villain role she did so well in the original. I appreciate that this game is not a rehash or retelling of SS1, but the gameplay and major storyline seem so divorced from the original that it’s like the System Shock elements got grafted in later. [Edit: Turns out they did.] Ultimately, it feels like a different game that SHODAN limply shows up in. It actually feels more like the game BioShock would become.

The engine doesn’t age well, but with scenes like this, it doesn’t have to.

The game runs on a modified version of the engine for Thief: The Dark Project, with most of the characteristic flaws. Humanoid enemies are low-poly embarrassments with low-res textured faces and clothes. The dead crewmen you wade through look pretty freakish to begin with due to this gaunt, angular look, but when you run across the deformed mutants or the hideous cyborg nurses, the unnatural, uncomfortable models of these “humans” actually start to work in the game’s favor. Animations are fairly awkward and melee combat is particularly gangly – you’ll swing your wrench exactly the same way Garrett swings his sword in Thief. It’s pretty slow and tough to get the feel of the timing at first, which worked for Thief when you were supposed to avoid fighting, but not in a game where limited supplies make melee combat so crucial.

Fortunately, the locations shine. Eerie colored lighting, especially the chilling purples, help keep the game techno-creepy. The different decks manage to look distinct, and enough decoration exists to make the areas seem lived-in and appropriately ransacked as you descend further into chaos. There’s some overuse of tiled textures, giving a hefty sameness to all the walls and floors of the ship, but the careful and atmospheric lighting and shadows make up for this. A lot of areas are genuinely haunting, sold all the more with some excellent sound design. Possessed crew members mumble to themselves, then charge you on sight while begging you to run. Granted, the “last bit of humanity reaching out in their voice” deal loses its effect after the twentieth time, but it’s pretty unsettling for your initial encounters.

Crisp, directional sound effects do an excellent job of rolling through the lonely steel hallways, alerting you to enemies up ahead, or setting up a “too quiet” ambiance of humming ship machinery. And the logs of the dead crew are universally well-acted, believable, and add to the mood of the situation at least as much as they convey narrative information. You’re definitely driven forward to find out what happened to certain reoccurring characters, and the backstory behind some enemies (like the nursemaids) make them even more terrifying.

The former crew isn’t looking too good.

In an attempt to be relevant, here’s my little post-BioShock blurb. I thought BioShock was a great game until it fell deep into routine. Enemies got tougher as you did, always forcing you into lengthy fights, always causing you to use the same ratio of ammo despite the fact that you were finding more of it. I basically got to the point where I was so sick of dodging security cameras and trading countless blows with mutants while looking for some piece of some goddamn objective or other that I was absolutely ready for the game to be over. Since so many of BioShock’s mechanics (RPG stats, security systems, hacking, logs, radio instructions, branching objectives) come from System Shock 2, I was expecting the same thing to occur when I played SS2 again.

Surprisingly, it doesn’t. With enough upgrades you can kill mutants in one or two shots. Exploration or hacking security crates can give you enough supplies to be quite prepared for what’s ahead. Bluntly, System Shock isn’t afraid to let you get good at it. If you can make it through the first few levels, you will come out a badass. Eventually reaching the point where you can drop enemies effortlessly, and you don’t have to scavenge for every available bullet, makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something. By comparison, scaling enemies that require third-generations of the same fucking plasmids just to keep pace meant that BioShock was pretty much the same game at the end that it was at the beginning. For me, being able to make character progress in SS2 made me much more willing to play through to the end, backtracking and all, even though I already knew the ending. So yes, upon playing both back-to-back, I do find myself liking SS2 better.

I doubt it’s a combination for everyone, but if any of these descriptions sound intriguing, you’re going to have a swell time in a kind of experimental game that doesn’t usually get made. As a can’t-miss sequel to System Shock though, that’s harder to swallow, and why it seems that BioShock was really the game Irrational was out to make all along. Put it this way – I’d be surprised if much of the events here get referenced in a System Shock 3. There’s really not enough of an official continuance (especially that God-awful ending) to make it required reading for Shock fans, but it’s still a fun game for all interested, and an original sci-fi/horror adventure.

 

The Good

Great, moody setting. Generally successful RPG system. Competent survival horror/FPS/RPG genre blending that remains fairly unique even today. Tremendous use of audio logs that expertly drives you to learn the fate of reoccurring characters.

The Bad

Changing objectives force a lot of wandering and exploration. Required skills may push you away from others you’re more interested in. Gun degradation is manageable, but certainly feels forced. Not much difference between the three career choices. Tenuous connection to the original System Shock.

 

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