A Classic Reborn?
HIGH Shodan is an outright creepy antagonist.
LOW The lack of guidance isn’t inviting to new players.
WTF There’s a gorilla-tiger hybrid!
System Shock is a remake of the 1994 first-person sci-fi classic of the same name. I had never played the original, but I was familiar with some of its spiritual successors, such as Bioshock. What I discovered when visiting this source material was that it’s a wonderfully moody experience, but one that also was confusing to navigate.
In System Shock, we play as an unnamed hacker meant to disable the ethical controls on a space station’s AI (named SHODAN) in exchange for an operation on said station. Predictably, this is a bad idea, as six months after recovering from the surgery, the hacker finds themselves face-to-face with the results. SHODAN has released a bioengineered virus which has either killed or mutated the station’s crew, and also turned the station’s robots against humans.
The experience is a lonely one, as the only interaction with other characters is via sparse comm chatter, and most of it is SHODAN antagonizing the player. Otherwise, the only company to be had comes from the legion of mutants, cyborgs, and robots hunting one down at SHODAN’s behest.
In combat, there are a variety of weapons to challenge the ever-increasing opposition, such as a wrench, an assault rifle, and even a rail gun. Most have alternate ammunition that can be switched in with the press of a button, dealing more damage to either biological or robotic targets as appropriate. However, System Shock imposes strict inventory limits on the player, so it becomes important to manage limited space — I had to be strategic with what I could carry. Thankfully, if players need to drop ammo or other items that aren’t useful at the moment, there’s a storage bin that can be summoned, or they can simply be dropped on the floor — they’ll still be there later.
System Shock has other gameplay elements besides combat to contend with, such as puzzle-solving, and hacking.
One task that players must usually complete on each floor is to hack a computer via a first-person, free-form shooter offering a full 360 degrees of movement. These hacking sessions challenged me to keep an eye on every possible direction while advancing forward and destroying connections that would open doors or bypass security in the physical space.
There are also puzzles to solve on each floor, such as rearranging pieces on a grid to make them form a pipeline between two nodes, or using wires to provide just enough power to a junction box.
Fortunately, the developers have included menus that can set the difficulty of all of these systems right at the beginning, which can help new players from getting overwhelmed by specific aspects. Similarly, veterans can custom-tailor their desired experience to be as difficult as they’d like it. I enjoyed being able to tinker with these settings, particularly with hacking, as it can be disorienting when moving around in all directions.
However, despite being able to set combat difficulty, the enemies in System Shock were still punishingly hard to deal with, even on the easiest combat difficulty.
Ammunition is plentiful, but as mentioned above, enemies require specific types of ammo to be brought down faster, and they simply became bullet sponges as the game went on. As such, I always found myself at a disadvantage, since health items were few and far between, and resurrection stations (which act as respawn points) were even more sparse. A poorly-timed death can result in both massive backtracking and an unskippable game over cutscene.
Another thing that disappointed me was how few quality-of-life measures were implemented in this title from nearly thirty years go.
For example, much of the text is difficult to read at times — particularly in menus — due to its small size.
Each level of the station is also a labyrinth, and it’s tough to reliably find one’s way through the twists and turns. Trying to find a specific location is even tougher. As such, the map should be better at helping the player understand where they are, but virtually nothing is labeled.
Another serious issue is that no objectives are available, even in the menu. With no obvious goals to pursue and only a few clues from audio logs, I found myself aimlessly wandering until I stumbled upon an elevator to the next level or into one of SHODAN’s many traps.
Controller support felt like a secondary concern. There are many minor issues with it, such as such as incorrectly-labeled button prompts — a button press meant to go back one screen pushed me out of the menu entirely, while it worked perfectly with the mouse.
System Shock is haunting and lonely, has an expertly-crafted oppressive atmosphere, intense combat, and a strong sense of immersion. Unfortunately, the obtuse nature of the campaign makes it to navigate and generally understand what to do. Returning vets may appreciate the upgrade, but I suspect that new players like myself will feel excluded and put off by the steep difficulty.
— Justin Grandfield
Disclosures: This game is developed Nightdive Studios and produced by Prime Matter. It is currently available on PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on PC. Approximately 24 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: This game is rated M by the ESRB rating with the descriptors Animated Blood and Gore and Animated Violence. There is no description of the subject matter on the ESRB website, but this game contains numerous dead bodies, human viscera, body horror, and other disturbing imagery, as well as some discussions of suicide by some characters that will not be suitable for young audiences.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: The game offers subtitles, and can be toggled off or on in the options menu. The subtitles cannot be altered and/or resized. Subtitles are toggled on by default. In-game menus and text can be difficult to read at times. No closed captioning is available for audio cues in the environment. This game is not fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: Yes, this game’s controls are remappable for the mouse and keyboard controls, as well as the controller bindings.