CSG Retrospective – System Shock
I am a big fan of the Bioshock series. In fact, I consider the first game to be an all time favorite. A big reason why I adore Bioshock so much is that it is narrative driven and atmospheric. System Shock and its sequel, two titles that were succeeded by Bioshock, helped pioneer the narrative driven first person shooter. System Shock and its sequel fell into relative obscurity after the release of the Bioshock games so I decided to devote this article to the series and make readers of this article aware of the impact that these titles have had on other games in the industry like Dead Space and Deus Ex. I only feel this is appropriate because the first System Shock is getting a complete remastering which is slated to release early next year for PC, Xbox One, and hopefully PS4. The kickstarter for the remastering is now 100% complete but feel free to check out this link for more information about it and to support the project even more. On top of that, a System Shock 3 has been teased to be in the works, meaning that System Shock is going to be getting a lot more publicity in the near future.
The original System Shock was released in 1994 for the MS-DOS computer and Microsoft Windows under the development of the now defunct Looking Glass Studios. Set in a cyberpunk version of the year 2072, you play as a nameless hacker who is apprehended by a megacorporation called Trioptimum after attempting to access confidential files concerning its research space station, Citadel. The head honcho of the station is a corrupt Trioptimum executive who promises to give the hacker a cybernetic enhancement and amnesty if he hacks into the station’s artificial intelligence SHODAN (Sentient Hyper-Optimized Data Access Network). The hacker does his job successfully and is placed into a healing coma after the grafting operation for his enhancement is complete; when he awakes six months later something has run afoul on Citadel Station, the mutilated corpses of staff members litter the floor, deformed mutants and cyborgs roam Citadel’s halls, and blood spatters on the wall spell out eerie messages like “DIE” and “RUN”.
From this point forward the game begins with no elaborate cutscene or dialog box, just you waking up from the healing coma and exploring the ruins of Citadel Station trying to survive and stop SHODAN who has now assumed total control of the station. Most of the game’s plot is told through audio logs spread throughout the station similar to Bioshock and its atmosphere and environment is very claustrophobic, making all the terror on the station seem omnipresent and inescapable. As with any survival horror game, resources are scarce and ammunition is limited so exploration and inventory management is critical to staying alive in System Shock. In addition, System Shock’s gameplay is incredibly complex and you can approach situations in multiple different ways like in Bioshock. For instance, you can take on opponents head on at the cost of health and ammunition or you can use the stealthy approach and shoot enemies from cover to minimize ammo and health loss. There are also a lot of weapon variations like laser rifles, assault rifles, pistols and ammo variations that only work on specific enemies, standard bullets are effective on organic enemies like mutants and teflon or armor-piercing rounds work well on robotic enemies. Even grenades have variation as well with standard frags for organic enemies and EMP grenades for robots.
It is tactical choices like these coupled with a dark, terrifying atmosphere and a fascinating plot that makes System Shock an instant classic for me. My absolute favorite part of the game is SHODAN who steals the show for me as being one of the most intimidating villains ever, not only is she in total control of the station, she also taunts you constantly and cuts off any outside support for the hacker. Perhaps SHODAN’s most terrifying feature is her utter disregard for human life, she constantly calls you an “insect” or a “filthy bag of meat” and runs gruesome tests on staff members; worst of all, she thinks she is God and the cyborg abominations you fight are her self-proclaimed Adams and Eves.
Despite all my praise of System Shock, it does have some minor flaws. For example, its upbeat synth music can be distracting at times, diminishing the game’s mood and the controls are incredibly difficult to figure out when playing for the first time and the HUD is pretty cluttered. However, these are minor flaws and each on can be fixed because the music can be turned off and the controls and HUD can be figured out the more and more you mess around with them.
Images for System Shock Remastered:
Five years after the release of System Shock, System Shock 2 was released for Microsoft Windows. This time around development was handled by Irrational Games and the lead creative director of the project was Ken Levine, the man who would later be the mastermind behind Bioshock. System Shock 2 is a title that I would say surpasses the first title by a slim margin. I give the sequel higher accolades than its predecessor because it accomplishes everything that System Shock did and amplifies it on a much larger scale.
I cannot really explain much about System Shock 2’s story without entering spoiler territory, all I can say is that the game is set 42 years after the first System Shock and you play as an unnamed soldier on board a ship called the Von Braun during its maiden voyage to test Faster than Light travel. The ship was constructed by a relicensed Trioptimum corporation and the ship is accompanied by another ship called the Rickenbacker for protection. Your character is put into stasis on the Von Braun and awakens to horror as a mysterious entity simply called The Many has invaded the ship and killed almost every crew member, the soldier is then guided by a survivor named Janice Polito who attempts to get him to safety. This premise may seem similar to the first game’s but System Shock 2 capitalizes on its narrative with a deeper sense of loneliness and isolation and once you discover the game’s big secret those senses weigh even heavier on you.
In terms of gameplay, System Shock 2 is more user friendly and throws in plenty of intricacies into its gameplay to keep you engaged; for example, you can harvest body parts of enemies and research them with chemical compounds to obtain combat bonuses (does the Bioshock research camera come to mind). The game also plays more like an RPG unlike the first game, instead of leveling up and gaining experience points you obtain cyber modules that are used to upgrade different things like your general statistics, combat skills, and technical skills. Inventory management is also much faster and a lot of the items and weapons can be hotkeyed for convenience. Once again, multiplicity of approach is at the forefront of System Shock 2 with various ammo and weapon types as well as different situations that require certain skills. Use your hacking skills to open boxes with extra supplies, use your strength and endurance to mow down foes, use your speed to outrun them, or use your psionic abilities to kill enemies with your mind to conserve ammunition.
I only scratched the surface on what these games have to offer because there is no way I can do them both justice in just a couple of paragraphs. That is why it is up to you dear reader and gamer to take the reigns for yourself and try out these games, both of them are now available on GOG.com (links provided below) and neither of them require complicated PC specs to play. I assure you, playing through these games will definitely give you an innovative alternative to the standard first person shooter and they will whet your appetite for System Shock Remastered and the upcoming System Shock 3.
Check out these two classic games on GOG.com for a pretty low price.
System Shock: Enhanced Edition: https://www.gog.com/game/system_shock_enhanced_edition
System Shock 2: https://www.gog.com/game/system_shock_2