Retrospective: System Shock 2
Although Bioshock Infinite took a different approach, the eeriness of the Bioshock series provided an atmospheric experience which immersed players with its strong storyline and pacing. It drew them into a world which caused them to question morality, ideology and fight for survival in a crazed dystopia. However, many gamers have not had the opportunity to play the predecessor of these games, System Shock 2, but with its recent release on Steam players can now experience more frights and jumps, this time in space.
Developer: Irrational Games / Looking Glass Studios
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Players: Single-Player, Cooperative
Genre: Action Role-Playing, Survival Horror
Release: (INT) August 11th, 1999
From the opening couple of hours, it is easy to see that Irrational Games took a lot of ideas from System Shock 2 and incorporated them into its spiritual successor Bioshock. The twisted audio logs appear, and once picked up play harrowing and twisted messages, giving an insight into the deterioration of the crew and their stories. Plasmids also appear to some extent in the form of ‘Psionics’, which allow the player to use telekinesis or become invisible, among other things. There are also different types of ammo (some of which are better at taking out certain enemy types over others) and the enemies themselves are varied and original. These can range from cyber midwives or mutated monkeys to killer robots or poisonous arachnids.
The story is again very similar to Bioshock and it spins an engrossing tale throughout. The player awakens with amnesia and is launched into a hostile and broken down environment aboard the ‘Von Braun’ star ship. Many of the inhabitants of this ship have been transformed into alien hybrids with a hive mind consciousness and the player must progress through the different decks on the ship, constantly being guided/harassed by the AI known as ‘SHODAN’. There is a lot of backtracking involved, but as the plot unfolds it does make the player feel like they have the run of the whole ship rather than trekking through it in a linear manner.
The atmosphere of the game is its main strength. Even with outdated graphics, System Shock 2 does a fantastic job of making the player feel alone in the claustrophobic ghost ship. Ammunition is scarce, and it is difficult to upgrade in the early stages of the game, leading to a tense search for useful items to merely survive. Each deck of the ship has been ravaged by fighting or worse, and the tight corridors and scattered corpses make the environment feel more like a tomb. Flickering lights and inhuman moans from the darkness will raise the hairs on the back of your neck.
Interestingly, System Shock 2 is a blend of a few different genres when it comes to gameplay. In essence it is a survival horror. There is limited ammunition for example, which forces players to choose whether to fight or to run from enemies. On the other hand it is an RPG, similar to Deus Ex, and exploration and effective inventory management is highly rewarded. There are numerous skills in game to level up, yet it is impossible to make a super character by the end of the game as ‘cyber modules’ used for upgrading are hard to come by. This forces players to build their character to excel in some areas and to avoid using weapons or items that they are not skilled with, meaning that each playthrough will naturally be a different affair based on character build.
Weapons can be repaired (or else they break) and upgraded for extra damage or ammo and you will end up favouring certain weapons over others as you cannot upgrade everything. There are different classes of weapons too, such as energy or heavy, which have appropriate skill trees attached to them. With the addition of psionics, it is possible for the player to create a class which specialises in laser energy weapons while using the ‘Energy Reflection’ ability to protect from those weapon types too.
There are some bugs lingering in the game however, such as cyber modules intermittently disappearing from your inventory. Another drawback is the lack of an objective marker on the hud, which makes navigation difficult until you are familiar with the ship decks. Most players will also want to change the majority of the key bindings, as they are outdated and a pain to use to begin with. There are however various mods available which fix minor bugs and overhaul the graphics of the game, enhancing the general experience altogether.
System Shock 2 has aged well and can still be enjoyed today, 14 years after its initial release. There are now a multitude of mods available which improve the game experience and the game itself offers a suitable challenge. Given that the game is also particularly long (Over 15 hours for those who explore every corner) it is a great investment and a piece of gaming history.