Last week saw PC gamers g0t a surprise treat: the re-release of System Shock 2 on GOG. Normally a decade old game being added to on an online store isn’t big news, but System Shock 2 is a rather special game. Despite selling only about 60,000 physical copies, it’s reputation has grown over the years and demand for a downloadable release has built – something, which, until now couldn’t be accommodated as the collapse of one of the original developers left the rights in a legal tangle.
System Shock 2 holds a special place in the hearts of PC gamers who enjoy a meaty, open ended first-person simulation. Particularly notable for it’s evocative, creepy audio, SS2 helped set a high bar for scary games. Set aboard a huge ruined spaceship, the protagonist must fight for survival against an annelid hivemind organism that’s been assimilating the crew into it’s “biomass”, while battling rogue AIs Xerxes and Shodan. Many of the game’s creators went on to design the blockbuster Bioshock and the impact of System Shock 2 can be seen in dozens of modern titles. Echoes of the concept can be felt in everything from the persistent world simulation of Skyrim to the taunting female AI in Portal – along with all those games where the cast have started keeping audio diaries for reasons left largely unexplained.
But given that it’s so feted, there are some aspects of System Shock 2 that just plain suck. And I’m not talking about aspects that have aged badly – for a game that will soon be celebrating its fifteenth birthday, System Shock 2 has stood the test of time remarkably well, and with a little patching, feels fresh and entertaining even today. No, these are facets of the game that were bad at the time, are bad now, and in a less ambitious title might have soured the whole deal.
In theory, System Shock 2 should be terrible. This is why.
The game starts very, very slowly. Rather than an optional tutorial and a character creation screen, SS2 goes down the “immersive” route and sends you to a recruitment centre to complete a tutorial, then choose between joining the Navy (technical skills), the Marines (weapon skills) or the OSS (psychic powers). On it’s own, the recruitment centre is a nice way of presenting a tutorial, but it’s not the only barrier between the player and the game proper – next it’s on to a space station level to choose a career (starting abilities) over three separate years. The purpose of these abilities is not particularly well communicated, so a novice player is likely to wander around confused and then pick at random. Next there is an ugly pre-rendered video, and the game starts properly. The first level begins with a ladder blocked by a large chunk of debris that doesn’t look climbable, but is actually the only way to progress. Enemies aren’t introduced for a long period, and when they are, there’s no real ceremony or build up – they’re just there. The organic, unscripted nature of SS2 is one of it’s greatest strengths, but it’s too easy to write off the game as clunky, confusing, or just dull in the first thirty minutes.
2) Balancing Issues
As a quasi-RPG, SS2 has an expansive and very flexible skill set. You can mould your character in dozens of different directions and specialities. Unfortunately, there are some big mistakes in the way this system is handled.
For example; you can’t fire a gun, even the basic pistol, unless you put at least some cybernetic modules (points) into the standard weapon skill. It is almost impossible to play a game without investing in this skill tree, as you will need a ranged attack. The only possible ranged alternative is a psychic attack – this drains energy from the pool that powers your other abilities, and energy is in very short supply. It’s another point when I can imagine a first-time player quitting in frustrated bemusement; “My Navy guy can’t even fire a pistol? What?”
Worse, your cybernetic modules can be spent on all upgrades. That sounds flexible and powerful, but there’s a good reason why most RPGs keep stat upgrades ring-fenced from skill or talent unlocks. You will often be saving up for an exciting boondoggle like exotic weapon skills or psychic powers but ultimately be forced to spend those points upgrading some cheap and functional but dull core stats. For example; try playing the game without ever upgrading your endurance, and you’ll be in for a near-impossible ride. It’s like being given a sweet-shop to explore only to discover you have to eat your broccoli first. It’s also very hard to play as a “pure” psychic. SS2 often forces you down weapon and tech routes to the extent your fun powers become tertiary – there are very few energy hypos early in the game, each tier of psychic skill requires you to spend points to unlock. That’s right – spend a lot of money on an upgrade that only lets you buy other upgrades, yielding no immediate benefit.
3) A Whole Can Of Worms
Every veteran remembers the classic enemies in SS2 – the twisted maternal body horror of the Cyborg Midwife and the weirdly imaginative psychic lab monkeys. But there are a few massive clunkers in there. Remember the headcrabs from Half-Life and how satisfying but tricksy those cranial parasites are to dispatch with your trusty crowbar? Well, System Shock 2 has a similar enemy – parasitic annelid worms that spawn from pods and crawl after the player. They’re not much of a threat – they certainly don’t look particularly intimidating, but they’re an utter irritation to deal with. You’ll likely want to save your precious weapon ammo and use a melee weapon to dispatch these critters, but the collision detection is more a matter of luck than judgement. If I’m swinging my awesome laser sword at a tiny worm at my feet, I do expect to be able slice it into worm chunks with reasonable certainty!
They’re not the only lousy enemy, however. The cyborg assassins, vulnerable enemies that run away and attack from afar, are fun to engage, but they look like a yeti in a bin-bag. It looks like substandard character design, even for 1999, but the game using the already dated Dark Engine may have been part of the problem. There’s also a distinct over reliance on the basic zombie-style enemy, and towards the end of the game, alien spiders.
4) Backtracking Overkill
One of the strengths of SS2 is how it makes revisiting previous environments fun. Re-spawning enemies feel justified in this game, and their constant presence makes almost every trip to grab research chemicals or visit an upgrade station a calculated risk. Towards the end, however, I rather suspect that Looking Glass/Irrational were trying to bulk out the game. Before the “point of no return” when the closing levels begin, the player is sent back and forth between the command, operations, engineering decks and shuttle bay until the environments begin to rather wear out their welcome.
While the game provides story reasons for your objectives, they become increasingly tenuous. In one of the last levels, as the narrative reaches a climactic point, you are tasked with finding and destroying 16 alien eggs before a door to the next level will open. The story reason is that these are special eggs that would allow the creatures to continue to breed, but one has to question whether blowing the whole ship up might not be a more sure-fire approach to xenomorph genocide than an easter egg hunt. It’s one of those tasks where you can feel the “hand of the designer” giving you some work to keep you busy before the next beat in the story.
5) The Ending
The storytelling in System Shock 2 is elegant and often imitated. Without the budget for many flashy scripted sequences or proper humanoid animation, the development team created a claustrophobic, haunting atmosphere and narrative through environmental details, audio logs from the ship’s mainly dead crew and radio communications from your allies and antagonists. But the ending undermines this smart, minimal style.
WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!
After the soldier defeats Shodan, the 3D environment skips to a pre-rendered FMV. Shodan has a glitchy, AI meltdown. She’s a classic PC game villain, and it’s a classic moment – great acting, and that wonderfully iconic Shodan portrait coming to life. It’s all going fine – but your avatar is also in the scene. And boy, does he look dumb. A crude, low polygon model with a monk’s haircut and a nose the size of Australia. And then, despite being a very effective silent protagonist throughout, despite being a vessel for the player rather than a fixed character, he speaks. He’s offered the option by a desperate Shodan to reconsider and join her instead – to which he replies “naaah!” in totally radical 90s surfer dude style. Then he shoots her portrait in slow motion, and Shodan pulls a derpy, shocked face. It’s just as stupid as it sounds.
System Shock 2 is a classic. But it’s a dangerous temptation to mythologise gaming past and conclude that everything was better back then. The truth is, the hallowed first-person simulators of Looking Glass, Irrational and Ion Storm are not 100% perfect. So if you’re an old fan deciding to buy System Shock 2, don’t go in with your rose tinted (hacker) goggles – you’ll have more fun without them. If you’re a newcomer, try to look past the slightly clunky old-school interface and the less approachable aspects. System Shock 2 is groundbreaking and there’s a reason why it’s so rare to find writing this contrarian and critical about it – it’s the very definition of a good old game.